This paper discusses the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and the project management knowledge domains used in its creation, specifically risk management, supply chain management, conflict management, governance, and communication management. Additionally, the conclusion addresses whether or not the bridge’s construction achieved total project success.
There are twenty-one bridges that connect the borough of Manhattan to the rest of the world, but the first suspension bridge may be its most iconic: The Brooklyn Bridge (Minn, 2021). The world’s first steel wire bridge, and the world’s longest bridge for twenty years, the Brooklyn bridge has become an important staple for commuters in the New York City Metropolitan area (Arbeiter, 2018). The New York City Department of Transportation states that, as of 2016, over 120,000 vehicles, 4,000 pedestrians and 2,600 cyclists cross the bridge on a daily basis (Freudenheim, 2019). This important piece of infrastructure is also a landmark example of project management in action. John Roebling, and later his son Washington Roebling and wife Emily, engaged with several knowledge domains of project management to bring this project to completion, such as risk management, supply chain management, conflict management, governance, and communication management.
By the 1850’s, Brooklyn had the third largest population in the country, but it was still a rural area. People were flocking over for the cheap housing and close proximity to Manhattan, where the jobs were located. By 1868, fifty million commuters from Brooklyn were traveling to Manhattan for work but the only transportation available was the ferry, an unreliable system fraught with delays due to ice and other weather conditions throughout the year. A high demand for a bridge connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn, independent cities at that time, had emerged but John Roebling came to New York to propose his business case first (Cannon, 1995).
Roebling, a civil engineer from Muhlhausen, Germany, had made a name for himself with his creation of iron cables which paved the way for strong, reliable structures. He was responsible for creating 12 bridges between 1844 through 1868, which included the world’s longest suspension bridge for the time period in Ohio, Cincinnati-Covington Bridge. Having lived in New York, Roebling experienced the unreliable service of the Ferry and desired to address this problem. He leveraged his experience designing and managing the oversight of other successful bridges and successfully made a case to the state of New York and the New York Bridge Company was commissioned in December 1967 (Cannon, 1995).
This project came with an abundance of risks Roebling needed to address head on as there were several physical obstacles from the start. The bridge across the East River would need to be approximately one mile long, or two times longer than any existing bridge of the time. The bridge would also need to be exceptionally strong as the East River is a turbulent saltwater channel with changing tides that rise and fall along with the Atlantic Ocean. Additionally, the bridge needed to be high enough for cargo ships to pass underneath. Roebling wanted to create a suspension bridge to address these challenges, as they are able to span great distances without requiring intermediate points for stabilization. They also require less building material (Cannon, 1995).
To address these geographical risks, Roebling envisioned a suspension bridge with one central span held by four cables, with two towers that were seven stories high with an anchorage on each shore. He planned for five phases of construction: (1) two caissons, or massive empty boxes, sunk into the bottom of the east river, one on on each side to be filled with concrete and used as foundations; (2) erect the bridge’s two towers; (3) build two limestone and concrete anchorages, one on each shore; (4) spin cables from one anchorage across the tops of the towers to the other anchorage, and (5) use cables to support the framework of the roadway (Cannon, 1995). This plan helped address the geographical risks, but then each phase of construction would come with their own risks.
It took three years, twelve deaths and $100,000 ($2,021,961.83 today) to complete the 3,000-ton iron reinforced caissons, including the passing of John Roebling himself right before construction began. John Roebling was quickly replaced by his son, Washington Roebling, who was also a civil engineer and closely familiar with his father’s plans. There were two main risk factors during this step of construction. First, it was a difficult process to get the caissons below sea level. Workers had to shovel mud out of the empty wooden boxes encased in concrete to lower them down. Conditions were terrible: near 100-degree temperatures in almost total darkness as there was no proper ventilation and flammable lamps were too risky. Workers would come across boulders that they could not break down, but Roebling decided that traditional explosives were too risky as they may cause the wood to catch flame. To mitigate this risk, Roebling conducted research on alternative explosion methods and eventually found that rifle powder was a safe alternative, though these tests were not part of the initial budget and were quite expensive (Cannon, 1995).
The second challenge was due to workers coming out of the pressurized workspaces too quickly. Today, what we call decompression sickness was then called the bends, which was caused when nitrogen bubbles entered the bloodstream from breathing in pressurized air too quickly. The workers experienced vomiting, cramps, paralysis, blindness, and a host of other ailments. This was the primary cause of death during this phase. Roebling tried to reduce the number of cases by providing workers Sundays off and shorten their working hours, but unfortunately, medical understanding of this disease at the time was poor. Nearly one third of the caisson workers would fall ill, and Roebling himself ended up with such a severe case that his wife Emily had to take his place on site and relay messages on his behalf for the duration of the bridge’s construction (Cannon, 1995).
The next phase of construction focused on building the bridge’s towers. Each tower was approximately 140 feet long and 59 feet wide and required steam powered derricks to raise the stones up. This proved to be a challenging process as four men died due to being crushed by falling stones while five others fell off due to the wind. The biggest difficulty was the men on top of the towers had to signal to those below when and where to place the stones with the hoisting engines, but communication was difficult. It was too windy for them to shout and be heard clearly and the fog made flags difficult to see. The way this risk was addressed through an imperfect system utalizing signal bells but those often broke down as well, compounding the health hazards on the job (Cannon, 1995).
Finally, as the bridge was moving towards the third and fourth phases of construction where the anchorages were being built and the cables were spun, interest was growing in the use of the bridge, but people were still afraid. Given that at that time it was the longest suspension bridge in the world, there was a concern about the safety of the bridge and the team needed to address this risk to reduce worry for the public and relevant stakeholders. In Roebling’s absence, Frank Farrington, the 62-year-old master mechanic, decided to orchestrate a stunt where he would cross one end of the bridge to the other using their pully system of wires that was strung across the anchorages in 1876. The event was a success in terms of public approval, and a rickety footbridge was built so people could walk across the anchorages before the bridge was fully complete, but there were still stakeholders who questioned the safety of the bridge. This would later have a negative impact on the supply chain (Cannon, 1995).
During the fourth phase of construction, cables were stung from one anchorage to the other linking the shores of Brooklyn and Manhattan. A compressed bundle of 282 wires equaled one strand and there were 19 strands in a cable totaling 3,500 miles of wire in each of the bridge’s four cables. Fastening the strands to the anchor bars was the most dangerous part of the cabling as there were 75 tons of strain on each strand. Quality management was essential during this phase, and it was determined that poor quality metal was being used in the wires. The faulty metal was supplied by the Brooklyn wire maker J. Lloyd Haigh, who manufactured all 7,000,000 pounds of wire within the Bridge’s strands. Unfortunately, he had been caught bribing inspectors and supplying subpar metal to the project. Roebling was disturbed by this, though the construction did not need to stop or restart because the bridge was designed to be six times stronger than needed at the beginning and it was determined to still be safe. Going forward, Roebling insisted that Haigh supply good wire, and subpar metal was not an issue for the remainder of the project (Cannon, 1995).
To be on the safe side, after finding out about the faulty metal, during the next phase of construction Roebling pushed for additional iron to be incorporated in the roadway to further strengthen and stabilize the bridge to safely support the high volume of expected travelers. After a lengthy battle with stakeholders not wanting to fund the additional costs, primarily the Mayors of New York and Brooklyn, the United States Congress authorized Roebling to proceed with the additional iron and forced New York to cover the cost. It was the additional iron added that enabled the bridge to withstand the heavy vehicle use to this day (Cannon, 1995).
Supply Chain Management
During the fifth phase of construction, a cable support framework was to be built to support the roadway for the bridge, but this phase experienced significant delays. In 1874 the bridge was re-defined as a public work, no longer to be run solely by Roebling but instead by the board of trustees. The construction costs were to be divided evenly between Brooklyn and New York, but the city of New York had not delivered their share of the money, citing safety concerns of the bridge. This meant by 1878 the board of trustees ran out of money and had to sue the city of New York to force them to pay their debt, which the courts enforced the following year. Building continued during litigation but moved slowly because of bureaucratic delays as supply deliveries were significantly delayed because their payments were significantly delayed. During this phase, Emily Roebling worked alongside Washington to identify where the missing supplies were and devised plans for what the workers could complete with the supplies that they did have in order to keep construction from stopping completely (Cannon, 1995).
While there were many conflicts that arose during the 14-year tenure of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the most difficult one arose in 1881. Roebling had asked the trustees for an additional 1,000 tons of steel to stiffen the roadway to withstand expected vehicle and pedestrian traffic safely. This was a big ask because at that time the total cost of the project was $13.5 million, more than two times the original estimate and the board of trustees were struggling to fund the project as planned. Additionally, the board members had no loyalty to Roebling because none of them had seen him in the past eight years due to his failing health, and both the mayors of New York and Brooklyn wanted Roebling off the project. By 1882 the bridge was in its thirteenth year of construction, and the trustees wanted to win votes by having the bridge completed before their next election. Roebling decided to avoid the trustees after stating that the bridge would not be ready until the following year. Then his wife Emily, who had been on site delivering Washington’s orders for eight years now, spent the next few weeks convincing enough of the trustees both to wait on the vote, and remind them that Roebling had the loyalty of the entire workforce to the point where he even got physically sick with them. By the time the vote took place to remove Roebling from the project, it failed had 7 to 13. Roebling stayed on to manage the project, and the state legislator ordered New York and Brooklyn to comply with Roebling’s plans (Cannon, 1995).
Improvements to Project Management
Washington Roebling had some gap areas with respect to risk management early on into the construction that negatively impacted him the duration of the project. During the first phase of construction, when the team was building the Cassian on the Brooklyn Bridge, Roebling was going down weekly with his workers to assess construction. After a few weeks he got sick with decompression sickness like many of the crew workers. Instead of realizing that it wasn’t safe for him as the chief engineer and project manager to return, he returned to the work site as soon as he departed the hospital and continued to get sick several more times. He failed to see how valuable his knowledge of metal work and engineering was and would be difficult to replace, and instead put himself at continued risk. By Washington’s fourth time in the hospital, he was nearly paralyzed, blind, partially deaf and unable to physically appear on-site for nearly 8 years. There was no fallback plan if Roebling became unable to lead this project – there was no one that could step in that would be as familiar with John Roebling’s work or knowledge of suspension bridges and cable work. I would not have gone back to the site after getting sick the first time, and instead looked to find alternative ways to support and monitor the project and team (Cannon, 1995).
One additional suggestion is with respect to communication and conflict management. Washington Roebling needed to build better relationships with the stakeholders and because he did not have strong relationships with them, he had no referential power to prevent them from trying to remove him from the project by its thirteenth year of construction. In contrast, his father John Roebling was able to win over the important stakeholders in the initiation phase. These businessmen did not believe a suspension bridge over the East River would be successful, so to build his credibility, John Roebling took them on a tour of the 12 bridges and structures that he successfully completed previously, which included his suspension bridge in Ohio. Showing the stakeholders that he could deliver on his work helped John Roebling win over the stakeholders and gain approval for the Brooklyn Bridge. His son Washington was riding on the credibility of his father instead of establishing his own and this negatively impacted him as conflict arose in the late phases of construction (Cannon, 1995).
With the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge finalized on May 24, 1883, was this project an example of total project success? No, as it was seven years behind schedule with over 40 workers losing their lives during construction and the project cost nearly 2.5 times more than originally estimated (Cannon, 1995). Managing the team wasn’t successful either as nearly 100 men would quit per week during the construction phases, being quickly replaced with immigrant workers who needed employment at the time. While the Brooklyn Bridge doesn’t meet the qualification for total project success, it was completed and for twenty years was the longest suspension bridge in the world, a testament to the Roebling’s family engineering and project management skills.
About the Author:
Loren Condon is an MBA student at Montclair State University and is working towards her PMP certification. Additionally, she is an Executive Assistant at a global executive recruiting firm. She has a passion for managing projects and navigating the fuzzy front end while supporting teams to achieve total project success. See more about the author here.
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