Clark Family’s Tampa Steel Erecting Helping ‘Fix the Mix’ in Dallas

Artist rendering of the Margaret McDermott "signature" bridge along Interstate 30 over the Trinity River in Dallas. (Photos Courtesy of Tampa Steel Erecting Co.)

Bridge building is a family affair at Tampa Steel Erecting Co.

It’s also a veritable Georgia Tech reunion.

President Bob Clark graduated from the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) in 1960. The company’s vice president, his brother John, finished in 1969. Jeff Ames, vice president of operations, earned his master’s from the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE) in 1986 while he was in the U.S. Army. During his time at Georgia Tech, he met and married Bob’s daughter, Julie, who also earned her degree in ISyE.

Together, they’ve built award-winning bridges across the country, along with some other iconic structures (more on that in a minute).

Drivers in Florida, Georgia and across the Northeast have probably traversed some of Tampa Steel Erecting’s lauded work: Atlanta’s yellow 17th Street Bridge connecting Midtown to Atlantic Station; the Casco Bay Bridge in Portland, Maine; and the Storrow Drive Connector Bridge in Boston among them.

Now the Clark family is about to transform the Dallas skyline with their latest project, the Margaret McDermott Bridge across the Trinity River.

“[It is] one of the more difficult projects we’ve done,” Bob Clark said by phone from the company’s Tampa offices. “Probably the most difficult bridge project we’ve done.”

This “signature bridge” is part of an $800 million project to replace the Interstate 30 and Interstate 35 bridges over the river and upgrade the city’s massive Mixmaster, where those highways meet near downtown.

The McDermott Bridge—designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava—is actually two arched suspension bridges on either side of I-30 that will serve pedestrians and bicyclists. The dimensions are intense: 1,150 feet long and nearly 300 feet high with an arch that splits about a hundred feet from the ground so the bridge can pass between. The sections at the top of the bridge are giant, elongated octagons 16 feet wide and 8 feet high.

Engineers from American Bridge and officials from Tampa Steel Erecting stand in front of a full-scale model of a section of the bridge's arch.

All 100 people in the company’s shop are working on this project right now, Clark said. The first arch ships from Tampa to Dallas in October—a complicated process because of requirements for special permits and police escorts in some states for the huge steel pieces. Arch No. 2 goes west next June.

Before they ship, workers will put together up to seven of the steel sections at a time for a test fit in the company’s shop.

“We do a progressive assembly of a bridge,” Clark said. “Everything is surveyed, so when they get it in the field, it will fit.

“[If] a guy calls me up and tells me a bridge does not fit, I tell him he messed up,” Clark said with a chuckle.

Aerial view of Tampa Steel Erecting's facility in Tampa.

Clark’s father founded Tampa Steel Erecting in 1945—they call themselves “Florida’s oldest erector-fabricator.” The company built the geodesic dome that is the centerpiece of Disney’s EPCOT Center in Orlando, NASA’s Atlas 11 and 13 rocket towers, and Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Unit 4 power plant. About 15 years ago, though, the company shifted focus solely to fabrication for steel bridges.

So how does running a successful business with so many family members work? Clark offered another laugh-line:

“In good times, it’s really a lot of fun. Whenever you’re losing [money], it’s everybody else’s fault.”

Read more about the technical feat of building the McDermott signature bridge in Modern Metals Magazine.