Some of General Construction’s best work is under water

Ron Morford was only 19 when he built his first house. A quarter century later, he’s still in construction-only on a much larger scale. The president and district manager of General Construction Co. oversees projects in Washington, Oregon, California, and Alaska. Annual contracts total between $150 million and $200 million, making it one of the largest construction companies in Washington. The payroll includes 130 salaried staff, plus 400 to 500 laborers and craftsmen.

According to Morford, marine and heavy civil construction accounts for the bulk of the business. He lives on Bainbridge Island, not far from district headquarters in Poulsbo.

Since it was founded in Seattle in 1911, the company’s activities have been extensive around Puget Sound, although during the last five to six years it has done fish mitigation work on Bonneville, John Day, and Ice Harbor Dams on the Columbia River, as well as on the dam on Lake Shasta, California. General Construction built the Port of Seattle’s first dock, Pier 66, in 1912, and replaced the aging pier in the early 1990s as part of the Central Waterfront Project. The effort included construction of the Cruise Ship Terminal, Odyssey Maritime Discovery Center, International Conference Center, and Downtown Seattle Marina. Other landmark projects are Shilshole and Des Moines marinas and the aircraft carrier piers at Everett and Bremerton.

The company also is a leader in the construction of floating bridges. It participated in the building of the original Hood Canal Bridge and the 520 Floating Bridges in 1959, and later built a new section for the Lacy V. Murrow Floating Bridge across Lake Washington and the drawspan section of the replacement Hood Canal Bridge.

When the Lacey V. Murrow floating bridge linking Seattle and Mercer Island sank in a November 1990 windstorm, General Construction came to the rescue. First the adjacent bridge had to be saved after its anchor cables had been severed by the sinking bridge pontoons. Early the next year, the company was the successful bidder on the replacement bridge.

“The state put a bonus in the clause, because it was an emergency project,” Morford explains. “General Construction completed the $88 million Lacy V. Murrow Bridge replacement a year ahead of schedule. Crews worked multiple shifts, six days a week.

“We had a good team with a good plan, and were able to execute it,” he says. “Our philosophy is to try to get better from the start, then build faster, improve, and make a few bucks as we go.”

Morford was project engineer on phase I and project manager on phase II of the Alsea Bay Bridge on the Oregon coast at Walport. Cost of the structure, featuring Y-shaped support piers, was $43 million. The replacement bridge was completed in 1992 after 42 months.

As part of a team consisting of Bechtel Infrastructure and Kiewit, General Construction received notice in August 2002 to proceed on a new $615 million Tacoma Narrows Bridge. It is being built 40 to 50 feet south of the existing suspension bridge. The project is expected to take five years.

The second Narrows Bridge presents many challenges-sporadic strong winds, high tides flowing one way and then the other twice daily in the waters beneath the bridge site, and “serious, big time currents” that can exceed eight knots in both directions.

“Our experience is in building the foundations . . . all the parts of the bridge under the water,” Morford explains. The other partners on the job focus more on “the parts you get to see and drive on.”

Plans call for constructing two large concrete caissons. Each will measure 90 by 130 feet in water of up to 150 feet deep. The caissons will then be sunk about 70 feet below the ground.

“That’s like building two 220-foot-tall buildings underwater,” Morford says. “Most of the projects we do are very difficult. It’s not like building tract houses.”

Despite the economic turndown, the company has “a larger backlog and more business today than we have had in our 90-year history,” he says. It is involved in two joint ventures-the $322 million Benicia-Martinez Bridge and the $1.04 billion San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, with 2005 and 2006 completion dates, respectively.

The 1982 Washington State University civil engineering graduate grew up around construction–his father, Paul Morford is a 1959 civil engineering alumnus–and joined General Construction right out of college.

He’s proud of the bridges, docks, dams, and landmark structures General Construction has worked on, “even though most of the public wouldn’t know that we built them.” Having helped the company carve a niche in heavy marine construction on the West Coast, Morford says, “The bigger, the more complex, the better we like it.”