The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, May 31, 2019

Painters have Mackinac Bridge covered

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

ST. IGNACE - Don't worry, Michigan's most iconic structure is in good hands.

The Mackinac Bridge, as no one doubted, survived another brutal winter in the straits between Lakes Huron and Michigan. And with warmer weather comes the painters - this year a crew of about 12 Painters District Council 1M union members employed by Seaway Painting will be focusing on the Mighty Mac's 552-foot-tall South Tower: sandblasting the paint off down to clean metal, and then applying a zinc primer, an epoxy intermediate coat and the familiar ivory-colored urethane top coat. 

The two-year painting process on the Mackinac Bridge's South Tower started in late April, and it's expected to conclude in late 2020. It follows a similar schedule for the newly painted North Tower that was completed by Seaway Painting last year.

Livonia-based Seaway's owner Steve Vlahakis said this is his company's 20th year painting the Mighty Mac. "I love working on the Mackinac Bridge," he said. "We're keeping it local, we're a Michigan contractor working on a beautiful bridge, hiring local workers to help the local economy."

Vlahakis said Seaway's hiring of local painters is extremely important to the successful completion of the company's contracts with the Mackinac Bridge Authority. "There's so much that can affect our work on the bridge - the weather, the wind, the traffic. It's important we have local people who can work with a changing schedule. It helps save everybody time and money."

The Mackinac Bridge opened to traffic in 1957, and it has been painted and re-painted since. But Vlahakis said this is the first time the two towers have had their original paint completely sandblasted from their surfaces.

Former Mackinac Bridge Authority Executive Secretary Bob Sweeney, who retired May 17, said that until the 1970s, the bridge authority hired contractors to spot paint the bridge towers as needed. Since the late ’70s, MBA employees have handled that task.

The tower projects begin with stripping and painting on some of the interior “cells,” and installation of an enclosure for painting the outside of the tower, the bridge authority says.  Last month, Seaway rolled out to the South Tower its patented pair of motorized scaffolding platforms, invented by employee Dan Halberg. Powered by four motors, the custom, moveable scaffold platforms ride above the road surface between the two South Tower sections, and makes the paint removal and application process possible without building an incredibly complex scaffolding system around the entire tower.  

“The Mackinac Bridge is a unique structure, so it requires this custom equipment for a project of this scale,” Sweeney said. 

The MBA said the original paint is lead-based and Seaway is required to contain 100 percent of the paint as it is removed, and ship it to an appropriate landfill facility. The new paint is expected to last at least 35 years, with periodic maintenance.

The South Tower contract is for just less than $6.5 million, and Seaway is required to complete the project by Dec. 31, 2020. The contract to repaint the north tower was just less than $6.3 million.

“As with the north tower repainting, this work will require lane closures on the bridge near the tower, and some intermittent closures while Seaway stages equipment, so we ask that customers use extra caution when crossing," Sweeney said.

Construction on the Mackinac Bridge began in May 1954 and the completed structure was opened to traffic on Nov. 1, 1957. The five-mile long bridge is the fifth longest suspension bridge in the world. The Mackinac Bridge Authority's sole source of funding for painting and other maintenance is from tolls and fees collected, with all revenue used to maintain, operate and protect the bridge.

UNION PAINTERS employed by Seaway Painting set up a customized motorized scaffolding platform on the Mackinac Bridge’s North Tower on a lovely morning last spring. This year and next, the painters’ attention turns to the South Tower, which will be sandblasted and painted. This is the first time since the bridge opened in 1957 that the two towers have had their original paint completely sandblasted from their surfaces.  Photo credit MDOT Photo Unit