Mackinac Bridge maintenance heading into winter

Mackinac Bridge Authority (MBA) maintenance supervisor Ned McLennan has several jackets in his office – a black canvas coat and a safety yellow jacket among them – but all of them are streaked with ivory and green paint.

It’s a distinctive badge of honor among the 50 men and women responsible for maintaining the Mighty Mac, and warm gear is even more essential as the weather swings from summer’s high temperatures toward the freezing winds of the Straits of Mackinac.

“This time of year, we’re kind of buttoning things up for the winter, getting a final piece of grating replaced and finishing up painting projects,” McLennan, a 20-year veteran at the bridge, says. “We never know how many days of good weather we’ve got left, so we’re doing quick couple-day projects, like replacing a piece of hand or bumper rail and sealing joints.”

It’s also when staff limit work that involves going over the side of the bridge to work on the steel superstructure. The usual safety plan includes the Mackinac Bridge’s safety boat, which is always in the water when crews are working beneath the bridge. When the weather turns, it’s time to pull the boat from the water and turn the maintenance focus to winter.

Mid-November also marks the switch for maintenance staff to a winter schedule, when they move winter trucks to the front of the garage, servicing them so they’re ready to go once snow flies. No salt is used on the bridge to protect it from corrosion, so keeping the plow trucks in top order is essential.

It’s no small task caring for this engineering icon through the changing seasons. What’s perhaps most remarkable of all is that nearly all of the work is done not by outside contractors, but by Mackinac Bridge employees with wide-ranging experience and varied skills.

“The vast majority of work on the bridge is done by in-house crews,” McLennan said. “We even do our own cable inspection; I’m not aware of any other suspension bridge authority in the country that does it themselves.”

The large painting projects of the green steel superstructure, completed in recent years, and the upcoming tower painting is about all the MBA staff doesn’t do. Almost everything else, including maintenance of the MBA’s facilities and buildings, they’ve got covered.

“We’ve got welders, carpenters, plumbers, masons, electricians, painters, groundskeepers, equipment technicians, and equipment operators,” McLennan said. “Any job that needs done here, there’s someone on our staff who can do it.”

In all cases, every repair that’s done exceeds the original design of the bridge.

“Everyone realizes this is a unique thing, and there’s a lot of pride in taking care of it,” McLennan said. “Everybody loves the bridge, and nobody cuts corners.”