Northwest Ohio’s I-75 Project Wrestles with Mother Nature and Complex Scope of Work
Close Coordination, New Safety Measures Keep I-75 Reconstruction Moving Smoothly
When the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) began the $113.2 million project to reconstruct and widen 5 miles of Interstate 75 through the City of Findlay and Hancock County, Ohio, in March 2017, they expected three years of work. Already Mother Nature intervened to extend the completion date two months. However, with extensive coordination between ODOT and Prime Contractor Beaver Excavating Company of Canton, Ohio, the complex project is still scheduled to finish in 2020.
Originally built in the 1950s, the four-lane stretch of I-75 includes pavement and bridges near the end of their life expectancy, short ramps, narrow shoulders, and an increasing volume of traffic. The reconstruction project, financed with a combination of state and federal funds, will add one travel lane in each direction; replace existing pavement, all mainline bridges, and an overpass; redesign and reconstruct two interchanges; and add noise walls. With most of the work taking place next to two lanes of traffic, ODOT and Beaver Excavating implemented a number of new safety strategies.
Water with Nowhere to Go
The biggest challenge on the project so far came from Mother Nature, said Rob White, ODOT’s Project Engineer. When major flooding hit in July 2017, Findlay’s flat ground left few places for water to drain.
“The worksite was underwater, then saturated for several days, if not weeks, afterward,” he said. “We had to put all the earthwork on hold. We pumped water where we could and tried to open up ditches and pipes where possible, but everything in this area ultimately drains to the Blanchard River, which runs through the middle of the project. When the river is up, the drainage doesn’t function properly and sometimes backflows. Mother Nature put the water there and we just had to wait for her to take it away.”
That flood and multiple other rain days never brought work to a standstill, though. “The good thing about this project is there’s so much going on, even if we’re rained out on certain activities, there are still other things we can do to keep moving,” White said.
However, wet weather impacted work enough to postpone the project’s completion date from May 31, 2020, to August 6, 2020. All lanes are scheduled to open in their final configuration by May 8, 2020. Of course, all dates remain weather-dependent, White said.
Road and Air Traffic
As the project progresses, ODOT will employ multiple traffic shifts. “Other than weather, our biggest challenge is maintaining traffic,” White said. “Our plans specify that we maintain two lanes in each direction at all times, except we’re allowed to close a lane at night. At different times throughout the project we’re shifting traffic to the outside, the middle, the left, and the right to accommodate our construction.”
The scope and quantity of work further complicates the project. In January, for instance, “We were building five bridges at once, so that presented challenges to our inspection and engineering staff just keeping them straight,” White said.
To maintain smooth operations despite the complexities, “There’s a lot of coordination,” White added. “We share an office with Beaver Excavating, and I share a wall with their project manager. That helped us foster and develop relationships, which is really the only way to do things.”
ODOT also communicates on a regular basis with Findlay Airport, since its two runways lie within the project limits. At times construction work waits until a flight lands.
“We’re coordinating constantly on things like how high we’ll be up in the air with our crane boom, where we place lights and towers, or anything that could visibly distract air traffic or be an actual barrier, like a crane mast aircraft could hit,” White said.
Coordination with the airport becomes even more important as the project progresses. “In year three we’ll work pretty much at the end of their runway,” he added.
Several strategies help streamline the work while also lowering costs. For instance, a combination of concrete and steel beams are used in the project’s nine bridges. “Ordering all steel beams all at once could potentially overload a manufacturer and cause considerable lag time,” White said. “By specifying both steel and concrete, we opened up the market for more competitive bids.”
The largest beam forms the center span of the Blanchard River bridge. To set that 138-foot-long concrete beam, Beaver Excavating rented a 900-ton Liebherr LTM 1750-9.1 Mobile Crane.
For earthwork, “All the dirt is coming from onsite or just adjacent to the project,” White said. “Beaver purchased a large borrow pit right next to the highway so they can dig the dirt.”
That strategy reduced trucking costs and traffic issues. “We built haul roads throughout the project for two reasons – off-road vehicles can haul more yards per load, and it helped eliminate potential conflicts with traffic,” White explained. “Nobody wants to be on the highway more than they have to.”
To reduce waste, as crews replace old concrete roadway with asphalt, “We’re breaking up a lot of the concrete and mixing it with the dirt from our borrow pit to use in our fills,” White said.
Safety for Drivers and Workers
With most of the work occurring next to live traffic, ODOT implemented a number of new safety measures, including 18 variable speed limit signs.
“It’s a relatively new concept within ODOT and especially in District 1,” White said. “When there’s no work going on, like on the weekends, we set the speed limit at 60. If we have workers behind barrier wall in the roadway, we change it to 55. If we have workers not protected by barrier wall, we lower it to 50. The digital boards have flashing lights and they’re fully enforceable by the highway patrol. We emphasized this as a PR point so drivers pay attention to it.”
To avoid confusion, ODOT minimizes speed limit changes. “Usually we change the signs in the morning based on what we’ll be doing that day, then we change them back at night after workers leave,” White said.
The variable speed limit signs sit on each side of both northbound and southbound lanes, spaced about a mile apart. “Northbound may be at one speed and southbound at another,” White added. “We can also split the zone in half, so if we’re working on the southern end we might bump that down and keep the northern end at 60 mph.”
For real-time traffic information, crews installed seven speed-zone sensors throughout the corridor that ODOT can access remotely. The sensors also send information to message boards placed outside the project limits to warn oncoming traffic about delays or slowdowns. Two cameras allow ODOT to see most of the construction zone and deal with any issues that arise.
Since the project includes considerable night work to avoid daytime lane closures and accommodate temperatures necessary for concrete pours, “We outfitted our inspectors with halos – hard hat lights that look like a halo above your head,” White said. “They act as flashlights and really make the inspectors more visible during low-visibility times.”
When reconstruction finishes in 2020, in addition to a safer route, drivers will enjoy congestion relief and improved connectivity with nearby roadways.
Key Project Personnel
- Owner – Ohio Department of Transportation District 1; Kirk Slusher, Deputy Director; Chris Hughes, Capital Programs Administrator; Eric Scheckelhoff, Design Engineer; Scott Mullins, Construction Engineer; Mike Murphy, Construction Area Engineer; Rob White, Project Engineer; Beau Smith, Project Supervisor
- Prime Contractor – Beaver Excavating Company, Canton, Ohio
- Subcontractor Reconstructing Northern End of Project – Shelly & Sands, Inc., Zanesville, Ohio
By the end of 2017, crews completed:
- 63 percent of the project’s earthwork, with 628,000 cubic yards of dirt moved
- Removal of 35 percent of existing I-75 pavement, equaling 84,000 square yards
- Slip forming for 45 percent of median walls