A year-long $16 million to $17 million project to improve access from the township of Tuolumne to a vast portion of the Stanislaus National Forest reached a turning point Thursday when workers used a monster-size crane, their brains and balance to place the first of several 13-ton girders on a new bridge over the North Fork Tuolumne River.

Bob Hurd, a project engineer and contract officer’s general advisor with Denver-based consultant Yeh & Associates, said work on the job began in late October 2017 and is expected to be completed by the end of September.

That timetable remains unchanged, and the total cost of the completed project is still estimated to be $16 million to $17 million, Hurd said Thursday morning at the new bridge work site.

Meanwhile, delays continue for residents, commuters and visitors who have to navigate a series of traffic controls and follow escort vehicles on torn-up roads to get through a construction zone that stretches from the outskirts of Tuolumne down into the North Fork Tuolumne canyon. Current road restrictions in the construction zone also limit access to a parking area for the popular Westside Trail.

People with the Federal Highway Administration, Central Federal Lands Highway Division, in

cooperation with the Forest Service and Tuolumne County, say the project’s primary goals, improved roadway safety and reduced maintenance costs, will make it worth the wait. The project includes replacing the old bridge upstream from the new one. Project staff say the old bridge is obsolete.

Big crane

To get the job done Thursday, contractor KIE-CON Inc. of Antioch brought in an eight-axle Liebherr LTM 1500-8.1 guyed boom crane estimated to weigh 132 tons, one of the largest cranes on tires in the world. It has a multi-section boom that can telescope as high as 275 feet in the air.

Farshad Mazloom, project manager with KIE-CON, shared a photo of the crane being brought in Wednesday, before it was reassembled on-site. By 8 a.m. Thursday a team of crane handlers and bridge workers were ready to heft precast, prestressed concrete girders, each weighing more than a full-size school bus.

A solitary worker sat in the cab of the giant crane, while other workers used cables to guide crane-lifted girders into place on the new bridge’s north abutment and one of its piers above the river.

Workers on the pier, perched 30 feet to 40 feet above the river, used safety clips and harnesses to keep themselves safely anchored to their work platform. Between 8 and 9 a.m. the crane crew and bridge workers safely placed four 50-foot-long, 13-ton girders on a section of the new bridge. They had to wait until later in the morning for more girders to arrive. Mazloom said the plan for later Thursday was to place girders 70 feet long, weighing 18 tons each, to set the foundation of the superstructure for the longer section of the new bridge.

Hurd said the hope was to get a dozen girders in place on the new bridge Thursday so that work can begin on constructing the bridge deck as soon as possible.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.