I-10 Upgrades Help El Paso Keep Pace With Growing Population
Standing along the northern banks of the Rio Grande is the city of El Paso, where Texas, New Mexico and the Mexican state of Chihuahua meet. On the west side of the Franklin Mountains, only three arterials ferry high-speed and high-volume traffic in and out of El Paso's downtown area - one of which is Interstate 10 (I-10).
Currently, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is spearheading infrastructure improvements on I-10 along El Paso's west side. The GO10 project will help improve traffic flow and safety and expand capacity between the Executive Center Boulevard (Exit 16) and North Mesa Street (Exit 11). This four-year effort consists of four major components: constructing collector-distributor (CD) lanes throughout the corridor; improving I-10's direct connection with Paisano Drive/Border West Expressway; adding lanes to I-10 in both directions; and reconfiguring ramps and overpasses at three exits.
At $158 million, this undertaking is the largest traditionally-delivered project ever performed by TxDOT's El Paso District, which is comprised of six counties (Brewster, Culberson, El Paso, Hudspeth, Jeff Davis and Presidio) spread across 21,700 square miles.
The project team consists of TxDOT as the developer, Zurich American Insurance Co. as the primary contractor, and Sundt Construction Inc. as the general contractor. GO10 is being funded by both state and federal sources. A portion of funding stems from El Paso County's $10 increase in vehicle registration fees in 2014.
A Growing Population
Formerly known as the Interstate 10 Collector-Distributor Lanes Project, GO10 addresses infrastructure improvements needed to keep pace with the region's growing population. In El Paso County alone, the 2010 census reported the population to be 800,647. The Texas Water Development Board anticipates that the county's populace will reach 925,565 by 2020, crest 1 million by 2030, and exceed 1.5 million by 2070.
El Paso and the Mexican city of Juarez are the world's largest contiguous border cities, states TxDOT officials. As such, existing vehicular traffic burdens extend beyond El Paso County's population stats. Commuters from Juarez traverse this I-10 corridor daily, as do travelers from Fort Bliss, where the Biggs Army Airfield is located. According to the U.S. Department of Defense's Base Structure Report for fiscal year 2015, the total number of people on this military base was around 32,400 (this includes those on active duty and in the reserves, as well as civilians). The Juarez metropolitan area is the eighth largest in Mexico, with 1.3 million inhabitants reported in 2010, per research documented by the University of Texas at El Paso's Center for Interdisciplinary Health Research and Evaluation.
According to TxDOT's website, this 5.75-mile section of I-10 was identified as a high-priority corridor by Congress, as part of the larger Camino Real Corridor. Contractually, TxDOT must keep two lanes open while construction is underway. But to minimize inconveniences to commuters, crews are keeping three lanes open and performing a majority of work overnight and on weekends. "This stretch of I-10 is a vital national commercial corridor, with three main lanes and no access roads. With 130,000 ADT, a reduction to two lanes would create delays to the traveling public," says Tim Twomey, PE, TxDOT's West Area Office Engineer for the El Paso District. Twomey has worked for TxDOT for the last 30 years and is charged with overseeing the GO10 project.
DOTs work closely with Federal Highway Administration offices to ensure that strategic highway safety plan requirements are met. Safety advocates and other transportation and public stakeholders endeavor to employ strategies that have the greatest potential to reduce highway fatalities and serious injuries, and focus resources on areas of greatest need.
Re-shuffling the Project Team
Construction started in April 2015, and the original contractor was Mexico City-based Grupo Tradeco. In June 2015, Grupo Tradeco voluntarily defaulted on the contract, citing legal challenges on other projects, according to TxDOT officials.
The surety, Zurich, one of three bonding entities participating in the project, stepped up as the primary contractor. Next, Sundt Construction - one of the oldest and largest construction companies in the nation - was selected as the general contractor. The employee-owned general contracting firm, which operates in Arizona, California, Texas and Utah, officially started its four-year contract in September 2015.
As is to be expected in a project of this scale, the transition was slow-moving at first. Significant construction activities did not resume until March 2016, and by that point the ratio between the work performed and the time charged on the contract had fallen behind by 10 percent.
The project team held weekly meetings to assess work progress, and to find ways to make up for lost time. Additional special meetings took place behind-the-scenes to discuss scheduling details and acceleration methods that could be employed. One solution to help pick up the pace involved modifying original phasing plans to allow for multiple project activities to occur simultaneously. Redesigning the pavement structure to match existing conditions, and value-engineering a large retaining wall, also helped speed construction.
"Persistence and teamwork allowed for the contract to be back on schedule by January 2017. Despite the original default, with continued acceleration we anticipate an early completion date," says Twomey. Substantial completion is expected by winter 2018.
Twomey adds, "Significant cost reductions yielded negative change orders totaling $2.8 million. These funds were maintained within the project allowing for their use to cover other work and overruns normally found during construction." Approximately $1.8 million in funds remained at the contract's halfway point, and should be more than adequate to complete the remaining work, reports TxDOT officials.
These savings were achieved in multiple ways, such as utilizing portable concrete traffic barriers versus ones supplied by the contractor. Materials substitutions also helped cut costs.
The GO10 team is also working with project officials in charge of the Border West Expressway project. The latter venture will provide a new direct connection to the Border West Expressway just east of the Sunland Park overpass. Contractors from both projects are coordinating construction schedules and road closures to mitigate traffic conflicts.
"Traffic control plan changes had the largest impact on project acceleration," notes Twomey. "Critical path work at the North Mesa and Sunland Park interchanges were allowed to progress out of sequence, helping us maintain a significant workforce throughout the project rather than having workers shifted to other projects. This action also bought TxDOT time to overcome design challenges encountered through the acceleration of other project components."
The GO10 improvements will enhance traffic flow along I-10 by shifting multiple merges from cross streets to a CD lane system, which will run between North Mesa Street and approximately one-half mile east of Sunland Park Drive. As the name implies, these high-speed roadways "collect and distribute" vehicles. CD lanes reduce the need for weaving and merging within the mainlanes and are similar to access roads, except that traffic generally moves faster because the passageway isn't encumbered by numerous entrance and exit points. Commuters entering or exiting I-10 will have dedicated use of the outside CD lanes, while those who need to pass through the corridor nonstop will use the mainlanes. These lanes will also provide emergency responders with more room to manage incidents.
A total of 29 bridges along I-10 are either being widened or replaced. At Sunland Park and Resler Drive, direct connectors utilizing steel beams will span I-10. Fourteen bridges will extend over drainage ways, or arroyos. By the project's end, approximately 610,000 square feet of bridge deck will have been constructed - the length of which equates to about 10-and-a-half football fields.
In addition, frontage road upgrades - such as improved turning lanes and drainage - will be made to a portion of North Mesa and portions of North and South Desert Boulevard, and turnarounds will be constructed at North Mesa and at Sunland Park.
Construction commenced in 2015 with the widening of existing pavement between Sunland Park and Executive Center. "Significant right-of-way and utility clearance issues were still pending when construction started. The project team worked closely with each entity to mediate these concerns without impacting the construction project schedule," says Twomey. For instance, at North Mesa the Starbucks property was targeted for purchase through eminent domain. This condemnation was eliminated by geometrically redesigning the project and reworking underground utility plans, saving $1.4 million along with potential project delays. Later in the year, drainage structure and bridge foundation work along the project limits was also performed.
In 2016, crews hit several major milestones, which included demolishing the Paisano Drive and Buena Vista bridges, constructing several new bridges, and beginning bridge work at North Mesa. Crews also created CD lanes between Sunland Park and Executive Center, improved frontage roads, built retaining walls, and performed a vast amount of earthwork and underground activities involving drainage and utilities.
This year, phased construction will maintain access to the North Mesa juncture as bridgework continues. The Resler flyover will be reconstructed and the existing structure over I-10 demolished. The new bridge, which swings wide to connect to the CD lanes, parallels the existing structure. The geometry behind the design facilitates building the replacement ramp prior to demolishing the old ramp. The final portion of the new ramp will be connected to the CD lanes within a very condensed time frame (likely an overnight closure to move barricades and restripe), which will have minimal impact on drivers' commutes.
Another activity taking place in 2017 includes work at the Sunland Park exit, which is near the second-largest shopping mall in the region. Here, turnaround bridges will be built to carry existing traffic temporarily while a direct connector is replaced. Along 2 miles at the south end of the project, commuters will utilize the newly constructed CD lanes while the center median is being completed and existing pavement repaired.
Remaining work for 2018 will include the completion of the North Mesa interchange, the Resler flyover, and finalizing the reconfiguration of ramps and overpasses at Sunland Park.
From the start, safety has been a top priority for GO10 project officials. "Individual and public safety is the first topic of discussion at all weekly meetings," says Twomey. "The project team works diligently to ensure that traffic control efforts are properly employed and functional. All team members are actively involved in evaluating traffic control devices, ensuring these warning systems successfully guide the public." On this freeway expansion effort, the riskiest operation point involves the full closure of I-10.
To prevent motorists from penetrating work zones, numerous safety measures are being employed. A water-filled barrier placed behind the closure barricades physically prevents errant vehicles from entering the work zone. The presence of police officers and truck-mounted attenuators strategically eliminate any potential for ingress.
"Also, a "˜dragnet' system involving a flexible fence is being used to capture any vehicle that may enter the work area. This technology is similar to that used on aircraft carriers to catch a plane that may not be stopped conventionally," says Twomey. In addition to offering work zone protection, these vehicle-arresting barrier systems support security measures.
Twomey concludes, "Construction is our livelihood, allowing all members to support their families. Without an emphasis on safety, the possibility of not going home increases. Everyone is working together to ensure that we watch out for each other and complete this project without incident."