Commonly referred to by nicknames like "Space City" and "H-Town," the city of Houston pulses with historic prominence, a robust economy and an ever-growing multicultural population. This epicenter for business and international commerce holds the title as Texas' most populous city - with a whopping 2.2 million residents - and draws additional visitors with attractions such as cultural events and exhibitions, renowned medical treatment facilities, higher learning institutions, and space exploration activities.
It is no wonder that Houston is home to 11 of the state's 20 most-congested roadways, according to the latest annual study conducted by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI). And it is State Highway 288 (SH 288), from downtown Houston to southern Brazoria County, that ranks as the third most-congested thoroughfare on TTI's list.
Currently underway is the SH 288 Toll Lanes Project, a toll concession undertaking designed to improve operational efficiencies along a 10.3-mile stretch within the SH 288 median (from the SH 288/U.S. Route 59 interchange to south of the Sam Houston Tollway).
SH 288 is a vital route for commuters, as well as freight and commercial trucking. The addition of two toll lanes in each direction in the median of the current roadway, along with improved functionality of all existing freeway interchanges, will enhance mobility and expand access to the Texas Medical Center and downtown Houston.
Construction efforts for this $815 million, design-build venture began in fall 2016. Plans allow for 1,000 days of work, with anticipated substantial completion slated for the second quarter of 2019. Tolling operations are expected to commence simultaneously in all project segments.
An Integrated Team of Construction and Financial Experts
The project was developed under a comprehensive development agreement - the first of its kind in the Houston district. The lead developer for this public-private partnership (P3) venture is Blueridge Transportation Group LLC (BTG), a special purpose entity comprised of worldwide and local companies with extensive experience in delivering large-scale transportation projects. In March 2016, BTG entered into a 52-year concession agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to design, build, finance, operate and maintain the new SH 288 toll lanes.
Stantec Inc. is the lead engineering firm on the project, and Almeda-Genoa Constructors (A-GC) will provide design and construction services. A-GC is a fully-integrated joint venture between Dragados USA Inc., Pulice Construction Inc., and Shikun & Binui Concessions USA Inc.
The integrated efforts of all team members are aimed at delivering innovative technical solutions to provide significant future cost savings. Without the P3 team's involvement, it is unclear how long it would have taken TxDOT to obtain the necessary funding to expand capacity within this segment of the SH 288 corridor, states BTG CEO Enrique Martin.
In April 2016, a $357 million Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) direct loan was approved to finance part of this infrastructure development effort. The TIFIA loan will be repaid through toll revenues.
Once complete, this expansion of SH 288 will positively impact the Houston economy in several ways. "These infrastructure improvements will increase mobility so that travelers spend less time on the roadways, and increase traffic speeds, which will naturally lower air pollution levels," says Martin.
A Project Plan in Motion
Design and construction of the SH 288 Toll Lanes Project has been broken down into four segments (Beltway 8, South Toll Lanes, I-610 Interchange, and North Toll Lanes). While work will be phased to minimize lane closures and maintain traffic mobility, all aspects of the project will be built simultaneously throughout the entire development period.
"The interchanges will require various phases with detours to complete all the structure components," says A-GC Project Manager Ralph Gleffe.
Maintaining mobility during peak hours - while also ensuring the safety of workers and the travelling public - serves as the cornerstone of the team's traffic management plan. Gleffe notes that construction activities may take place both night and day.
The project includes work on 56 bridges, construction of 18 new connector ramps, and erection of 541 structural columns. The Southmore Boulevard and Holly Hall Street bridges will be completely replaced. Several existing general purpose roadway bridges will either be widened - or new structures will be built adjacent to them - to support the new toll lanes. The most noteworthy freeway interchanges impacted by this expansion are:
· Beltway 8 (BW8), with eight direct connector/ramp bridges,
· Interstate 610 (I-610), with eight direct connector/ramp bridges, and
· Texas Medical Center, with two direct connector/ramp bridges at the Holcombe Boulevard intersection.
One of the primary project challenge includes managing traffic movements in a confined environment while building new interchanges and removing or widening bridges. According to BTG Public Information Coordinator Raynese Edwards, establishing access points to and from a live highway requires streamlined coordination between TxDOT, project officials, city managers and others.
The project team was tasked with developing an innovative, cost-effective design approach that minimizes the negative impact of construction activities on the surrounding community. As a result, design, construction, operations and maintenance staff members developed several alternative technical concepts (ATCs).
Gleffe affirms that the most critical sequence of this project is fully rebuilding the entire I-610 interchange. Original schematics included a fifth level for the interchange, but alternative design plans eliminated the need for this level by outfitting I-610 to include underpasses for general purpose lanes.
While there are potential future plans to add an additional purpose lane in either direction between I-610 and BW8, there is no firm date on implementing these improvements. "New general purpose lanes will be constructed when traffic warrants the need for them. It could be 10 years or it could be 50 years from now," says Martin.
Strategic Foresight Builds Longevity
Generally speaking, tolled highways are built more durably than non-tolled highways as P3 teams seek to minimize life-cycle costs. One significant technical innovation on the SH 288 Toll Lanes Project includes adjusting hot-mix asphalt pavement formulas to refine pavement thicknesses, thereby reducing upfront pavement costs and limiting future maintenance needs.
"The pavement was designed for a service life of more than 30 years and consists of continuously reinforced concrete for the toll lanes," states Martin. Another effort to improve construction efficiency involves enlarging certain existing detention ponds via over-excavation methods.
BTG engaged specialty advisors to help develop a basis for initial programming, cost estimation and strategy for renewal work. These researchers assessed the baseline conditions of existing infrastructure, as well as forecasted the potential future deterioration of pavement and structures, respectively.
"We identified structural deficiencies on numerous bridges throughout the corridor, which will be upgraded to current standards prior to final acceptance and service commencement," says Martin.
A designated design-build coordinator is leading the integration of all project disciplines, including spearheading cross-discipline meetings in which project officials collaborate to develop goals and solutions, and discuss challenges or issues. On similar projects, a slew of various design and construction leads usually fill this role.
"Most of the design schedule is driven by the construction needs. Having a design-build coordinator with both construction and design experience is essential to ensure that important aspects are handled first, and that efficient constructability reviews are completed in a timely fashion," says Gleffe.
Edwards adds, "Our cross-discipline meetings provide an opportunity to keep all team members on the same page and the lines of communication open. This, in turn, provides for smoother transitions across all necessary stages of construction as we move further into the project."
Maintaining a transparent operation extends into the public arena as well. A Public Information and Communications Plan calls for providing timely project updates to all customer groups and stakeholders (e.g., local residents, businesses, commuters, government agencies). Outreach efforts include the development of Drive288.com, a project-specific website designed to educate and inform both internal and external stakeholders. The project team is also using email updates, a texting platform, and extensive social media activity to spread awareness about the project and information about upcoming lane closures or traffic alerts.
Workforce Mission Fosters Safety and Community
For both TxDOT and project developers, safety is a top priority. Gleffe notes that some of the top safety concerns for this project involve falls, traffic dangers, and trench excavation work.
With a mission to achieve a zero-incident safety record, safety advocates continually monitor safety performance, provide additional training to employees, and recommend and implement safety program enhancements. In addition, a safety incentive program was established to reward those who actively adhere to and implement safety policies and procedures.
"We recognize "˜Crew of the Quarter' teams that demonstrate excellence in safety, quality and environmental compliance. We also have instantaneous recognitions (stickers, t-shirts, tools) that we provide to team members during safety inspections," says Gleffe.
Photo courtesy of BTG and A-GC
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