I-35 Central Texas: Four Contractors and Mobility Coordinator Work to Minimize Impact Over 80 Miles
Interstate 35 in the Waco, Texas, area has been a busy place for a long time. First came back-ups and congestion on the road originally designed for rural traffic. Then, from 2010 through 2014, 12 separate I-35 projects broke ground between Salado and Hillsboro, Texas. Designed to reduce congestion, improve safety and mobility, and increase economic development, the $2.1 billion, 80-mile construction project spans McLennan, Bell, Falls, and Hill Counties in the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Waco District.
"End to end, in terms of the number of miles, it's the largest project TxDOT has undertaken since the original construction of I-35 through the state," said Jodi Wheatley, TxDOT's I-35 Public Information Officer. "Other projects involved more money or more lane miles because they're eight lanes wide, but we've been working through about 80 miles of essentially nose-to-tail construction."
I-35 remains open as contractors widen and upgrade the highway. To keep traffic flowing as smoothly as possible, minimize the impact of construction on residents and businesses, and enhance communication among contractors for the 12 projects, TxDOT enlisted the help of an independent mobility coordinator - Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) of College Station, Texas - for the first time in the Waco District.
The New I-35
TxDOT originally constructed I-35 in the 1950s and 1960s. As the state's population and economy grew, traffic volume far exceeded the intended capacity. Heavy truck usage compounded problems. In 1999, the Waco District created an I-35 Office in the planning department to specifically address the need for expanding the highway through the district.
When the Texas legislature awarded funding in one chunk to complete much of the construction at once, the Waco District sped up their design with the help of engineering consultants, as well as other transportation department resources. "We tried to foster a cooperative environment within TxDOT, rather than insular districts," Wheatley said. "For example, one of our designs was done by a team out of the San Angelo and Childress Districts. Construction of the two southernmost projects, Salado and Belton, are being supervised by the Georgetown office of the Austin District."
TxDOT divided the planned work into 12 construction contracts, each bid separately. Four contractors - James Construction Group from Belton, Texas; The Lane Construction Corporation from Justin, Texas; Webber, LLC, from The Woodlands, Texas; and Williams Brothers Construction from Houston - won the work awarded so far. (See "Project Breakdown" sidebar.)
Crews are widening I-35 in central Texas from four to six lanes in rural areas and to eight lanes in the cities of Temple and Waco. In addition, contractors are converting two-way frontage roads to one-way to improve safety, upgrading freeway ramps, installing Dynamic Message Signs to increase communications with travelers, adding crossroads and U-turns to improve access to area businesses, and developing modern traveler safety rest areas.
Six of the Waco District projects are now complete, with two more expected to wrap up by the end of 2016. James Construction is working on five projects from Bruceville-Eddy south to Salado, while I-35 through the City of Waco still awaits funding.
Adapting to Community Needs
The volume of projects presented unique challenges. "With all these miles under construction, how would a project manager make sure all the inspections got done and worry about the impacts to the communities?" said John Habermann, TTI I-35 Lead Mobility Coordinator. "How could project managers balance their needs against the needs of other projects on the same highway? The district engineer in Waco learned of the mobility coordination initiative in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and decided to use this type of help on I-35."
TxDOT tasked TTI with anticipating mobility challenges and ensuring that stakeholder concerns are heard and addressed in support of timely project completions. That includes supporting TxDOT's ongoing public information campaign and real-time traffic information, and serving as a project ombudsman to represent the needs of the traveling public and local stakeholders.
For instance, Habermann talks with local businesses to find out their concerns and the rhythm of their properties, then TxDOT project managers discuss the concerns with contractors during weekly construction coordination meetings. This effort can minimize some negative impacts of construction, Habermann said. If crews replace a culvert, "The TxDOT project manager wants to make a concerted effort to pick the best six hours that create the least disruption. If it's far enough in advance, the contractors and TxDOT staff can think ahead and adjust a little bit without impacting overall schedules."
Habermann also works with city leaders, emergency services, school districts, and others impacted by construction. "If they say, "˜That turning radius is a little tight where the road is closed,' that concern is conveyed to TxDOT. The TxDOT project manager can then instruct the contractor to adjust the barrels or stripe the area differently to make it wider. Sometimes TxDOT requests that the contractor open small areas temporarily to make sure a long bus or delivery truck can use it."
Habermann also organizes closure requests (usually limited to weeknights for mainline) across all the projects. Each contractor must submit closure requests at least seven days in advance.
"All requests are compiled for review, then TxDOT determines if there are any conflicts," Habermann said. "If there are two or three closures in the same direction on the same night, the district director of construction analyzes delay predictions to determine if the multiple closures will create too much delay for the traveling public." To avoid potential problems, TxDOT looks at the different activities being performed and, when necessary, directs a contractor to postpone their work to another night.
After one instance when a maintenance contractor showed up at the same time the construction contractor needed I-35, TxDOT's district director of maintenance also began using the lane closure request system to avoid future conflicts.
The contracts allow crews to shut down I-35 for a maximum of 12 hours at a time, but in a few instances contractors requested more time to complete complicated tasks. In those cases, "TxDOT staff studies the traffic data from the traffic counters installed before construction started," Habermann said. "The real-time traffic data is useful to the TxDOT director of traffic operations in identifying time periods with lower traffic volumes. That analysis feeds into the decision as to when TxDOT allows the contractor to perform the work - when it has the least impact on the traveling public."
Safety By Design
To boost safety, TxDOT built stricter standards into every contract. In part, they required all project managers to complete 40-hour OSHA training and all workers to complete 10-hour OSHA training. "Of course we want a quality job completed on time, but the main goal is to make sure everyone gets home at night - free from accidents or fatalities," said Bobby Littlefield, TxDOT Waco District Engineer. "I'm hoping the new contract requirements become the norm across the state."
In the recently completed Lorena project, Lane Construction worked more than 1.5 million man-hours. "They didn't have a single lost-time accident in all those days and all those hours," Wheatley related.
TxDOT and TTI also focus on traveler safety, with extensive, ongoing communication through many channels.
What Lies Ahead
Work on I-35 through Belton and Salado is expected to finish late this year. Two more projects are scheduled to finish next year, with I-35 through Temple completed in 2019. To keep all the work moving forward as efficiently as possible, contractors work six days a week and receive financial incentives for finishing ahead of schedule.
In addition to the Waco District work, a number of projects are underway in the Dallas/Fort Worth region to improve I-35 connections to I-820 and I-635. With a limited amount of traditional funding available, those projects include private sector partnerships. TxDOT continues to plan other improvements to the I-35 corridor in the City of Waco and throughout the state.