By Sophia A. Niarchos
OYSTER BAY, N.Y. – When the last section of the Rion-Antirion bridge was put in place on May 24, it was not only the culmination of seven years of design and construction work on what will, when completed in August, be the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world, longer even than the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The project represented the accomplishments of a cooperative effort that demonstrated the best qualities of many players after more than a decade of attempts to make the bridge a reality.
Bids to overcome the challenges the project posed had been unsuccessful as far back as the 1980s. But, according to George Leventis, P.E., principal of Langan Engineering and Environmental Services, P.C. and president of its international division, which served on the two-party technical advisor team for the project (Parsons Technical Group was the other), it took a consortium’s concession project bid to gain the government’s approval. Once that approval was received, it also took creative solutions to problems presented by the great depth of the water in which the bridge stands, the high “seismicity” of the area, the poor condition of the soil beneath the seabed, and the need to make the project “bankable.”
The result was more than the magnificent structure that spans the Gulf of Corinth, connecting the Peloponnesian peninsula with central Greece and providing an uninterrupted transport link between Patras, Greece’s third largest city, and Igoumenitsa, Greece’s northeastern port and the eastern end point of the Egnatia Highway. It was a coming together of peoples and companies from around the world to accomplish what many said could not be accomplished.
“I credit Jean-Paul Teyssandier of Paris-based Vinci Infrastructures, the managing director of Gefyra, S.A., the concession company for the Rion-Antirion bridge, for bringing the various parties involved in the project together in a spirit of cooperation to achieve its goals,” Leventis said.
“A concession project is financed, designed, built, operated and maintained by a consortium,” he explained, “and in the case of Rion-Antirion, the contract that resulted from the successful bid, which was awarded in late 1995 with financing finalized the day before Christmas in 1997, allowed for a two-year design period, followed by a five-year construction window and thirty-five years of the responsibilities and benefits of operating the bridge.”
The bridge’s expected completion in late August or early September, four months ahead of schedule, is, Leventis believes, largely the result of Teyssandier’s leadership.
Leventis remembered a time not so long ago when he wouldn’t have been so generous with his praise of the concessionaire.
“In the beginning, during the design phase, he and I had strong disagreements and arguments; but as the work proceeded, those disagreements resulted in the learning of many valuable lessons that could be applied to other projects. Today, I think of him more as a personal friend than a professional colleague, something that is quite unusual for these types of projects,” he noted. “I am especially grateful for the lessons I learned on how to handle a complicated deal and on partnering. Although we at Langan certainly have experience in these areas, the level of involvement has never been as complicated as that required by the Rion-Antirion bridge project.”
The Gefyra consortium included such Greek-based companies as J & P-Avax Athena, S.A. and Aktor. But contributions to design, engineering, and financing came from firms and financial institutions in such far-away locales as Vancouver, British Columbia; Tokyo, Japan; London, England; and, of course, Paris, France.
“It took the largest contractor in the world with enormous capabilities in large projects, one of only a handful in the world that could make the project bankable, to oversee this work,” Leventis said. “With so many different companies and people involved, such an undertaking could easily create difficulties, but as a result of the leadership, everyone felt ownership and close to the project.”
As technical advisor to the project, responsible to the banks and not to the designers and builders, Langan was responsible for identifying significant and potentially dangerous aspects in the bridge design, an especially important role in the project’s early conceptual design stage. With its expertise primarily in the areas of foundation and marine work as well as environmental projects, the company could easily have found itself in a thankless position.
“We didn’t have the authority to impose solutions to problems, but when we identified a few key components that we felt were cause for concern, the contractors could have, in a worse-case scenario, ignored our suggestions,” Leventis said. “But this never happened. Instead, we found a team that often sought out our advice, considered it, and either came back with questions after further study of our recommendations, sought explanations or discussion about why they might not work in a particular situation, or accepted our proposals outright. This doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have discovered the problematic areas without our intervention, but our review allowed us to contribute by identifying the issues that needed addressing early on.”
Leventis gave Guy de Maublanc engineering credit for the two-mile span that will reduce travel time from forty-five minutes by boat to five minutes by car or truck; create an uninterrupted road transport loop connecting Patras, an endpoint on the PATHE Highway, with Athens and Thessaloniki; and facilitate communication between Greece and Italy through the harbors of Patras and Igoumenitsa, yielding commercial advantages to the region. He also praised the work of Akis Demoglou, second in command at Elliniki Technodomiki, the head of construction for the project.
Although a three-person mediation panel, with members selected by the Greek government and the concessionaire, was in place, it was only on two occasions that it was needed.
“A problem that arose as the result of changes in Greece’s labor laws and another dispute so minor that I’ve forgotten the details were the only situations that required its activation,” Leventis explained.
Leventis described the Rion-Antirion project, which is the third Langan has worked on in Greece (extension of the Athens metro and work done in preparation for the Olympic games are the others) as one that is “close to his heart.” While this might be expected from the Athens-raised son of Greek-born parents, his heritage wasn’t the main reason behind Leventis’ affection for the project: “When you get involved with a project that a lot of people say isn’t going to happen, and it happens, you become especially proud of it and of the incredible group of people involved in it.”
The symbolism of a bridge helping to connect not only regions of Greece but Greece to another country will be clearly visible with the bridge’s inauguration on August 8. The Peloponnesian city of Olympia is the site of the original Olympic Games, and on that date, a torchbearer will carry the Olympic Flame across the bridge en route to the Athens’ Olympic Stadium.
The bridge is to be named in honor of Harilaos Trikoupis, the Messolonghi-born prime minister of Greece more than 100 years ago, who had envisioned a bridge spanning the 3km-wide Corinth Gulf.