The massive $815 million overhaul of State Highway 288 in Houston, Texas, is moving along at a fast pace. Next year, motorists who traverse the 10.3 miles of roadway impacted by this toll concession project will enjoy expanded access to the major employment center of downtown Houston, the Texas Medical Center (the world’s largest medical complex) and the rapidly growing residential communities of Harris County and Brazoria County.
The SH 288 Toll Lanes Project, located in Harris County, is designed to improve highway operational efficiencies between the SH 288/U.S. Route 59 interchange to south of the Sam Houston Tollway (Beltway 8). This public-private partnership (P3) venture was developed under a comprehensive development agreement (CDA) – the first of its kind in the Houston district – and is expected to achieve substantial completion in mid-2019.
A Landmark Agreement
Many congestion issues concentrated within the SH 288 corridor are caused by decades’ worth of economic and population growth. Researchers at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute have estimated that Houston travelers (truckers included) collectively wasted nearly 200 million hours and 70 million gallons of fuel due to traffic delays last year.
To cut down on bottlenecks and gridlock, in 2012, a Memorandum of Understanding between the state of Texas and Harris County outlined the state’s intent to construct toll lanes on SH 288. In 2015, the Texas Transportation Commission approved a contract between the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Blueridge Transportation Group, LLC (BTG) to construct four toll lanes from south of U.S. 59 in Harris County at the north end to County Road 58 in Brazoria County on the south end, along with eight direct connectors between SH 288 and Beltway 8. In March 2016, BTG, as lead developer, entered into a 52-year concession agreement with TxDOT to design, build, finance, operate and maintain the new SH 288 toll lanes.
One major accomplishment of the agreement was the inclusion of dedicated access from the city of Pearland, Texas, to the Texas Medical Center and The Galleria – Texas’ largest shopping center and Houston’s most popular retail and tourist destination. A significant number of Pearland citizens are employed at both locations.
“We worked very closely with TxDOT on this project, especially on the direct connectors,” said Texas State Representative Ed Thompson in a 2015 press release statement. “This is going to help our communities and will allow folks the ability to travel back and forth with ease.”
During early planning stages, the direct connectors were taken out of the project, which would have stifled travel to and from Pearland. With the help of Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, however, the direct connectors were added back into the proposed construction.
In addition to hiring a large percentage of local contractors and staff, project planners have committed 12 percent of contracts to disadvantaged business enterprises (DBEs). This commitment to working with DBEs stems from a desire to build up and grow surrounding communities.
“Everyone who is working with this project is passionate about leaving a positive impact on the communities we serve,” says Raynese Edwards, Public Information Coordinator for BTG. “Our proactive involvement reflects that passion, and the willingness we have to go above and beyond for Houstonians.”
A Design-Build Effort
On October 25, 2016, construction commenced on the project, which is being delivered under a design-build contract. Stantec, Inc. is serving as the lead engineering firm, while Almeda-Genoa Constructors (A-GC) is overseeing design and construction services as lead contractor. A-GC is a fully-integrated joint venture between Dragados USA, Inc., Pulice Construction, Inc. and Shikun & Binui Concessions USA, Inc.
“The leaders of A-GC collectively bring over 400 years of experience in roadway construction,” says Fernando Arranz, Project Manager of A-GC. He adds that the design team brings over 300 years of experience to the project.
This multi-year undertaking is divided into four major work areas: Beltway 8, the south SH 288 toll lanes, the I-610 interchange and the north SH 288 toll lanes. While construction is being phased to minimize lane closures and maintain traffic mobility, all aspects of the project are being built simultaneously throughout the entire development period.
The project scope includes work on 56 bridges, construction of 18 new connector ramps and erection of 541 structural columns. To support the new toll lanes, multiple existing bridges are being widened or replaced.
The project team has made considerable progress on the Beltway 8 and I-610 connectors, says BTG CEO Enrique Martin. As of mid-June, major milestones achieved include: demolition of the Southmore Boulevard bridge; demolition of the I-610 eastbound bridge; demolition of SH 288 bridges crossing over Holmes Road and the Union Pacific Railroad; completion of the bridge spanning Airport Boulevard; and construction of 175 out of 252 columns for new connectors at the Sam Houston Tollway and SH 288.
Crews have also poured more than 51,000 cubic yards of concrete, a massive volume that could fill an entire football field – including the end zones – up to 27 feet high. In total, an estimated 240,000 cubic yards of concrete, 50.5 million pounds of steel, 49 miles of bridge beams, 2,400 miles of steel rebar and 2.3 million square feet of bridge deck will be used on the project.
More than 150 pieces of heavy construction equipment are being utilized, along with 800-plus workers on any given day. As of June, upwards of 2.2 million manhours had been logged on what Arranz calls “the first project of this magnitude” in the Houston area.
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 Beltway 8, there is no firm date on implementing these improvements.
P3 and Tolling Interoperability
These infrastructure improvements aim to capitalize on the diverse knowledge and resources of an integrated team of construction and financial experts. This starts with BTG, a special-purpose entity comprised of worldwide and local companies with proven performance in delivering large-scale P3 transportation projects.
Under traditional project-delivery models, the public sector carries the highest amount of risk. But in a P3 venture, many of those risks are shifted to the private sector, with the greatest amount transferred under a revenue-based concession.
“The fact that the P3 takes all the risks in the design, construction, operations and maintenance of the roadway makes it extremely important to provide not only a sound product, but one that is most efficient,” Martin explains. “Our design and construction processes are intended to decrease the amount of operations and maintenance so that the roadway is available to the traveling public with less closures.”
Tolling operations are expected to commence simultaneously in all project segments. BTG plans to work alongside public law enforcement agencies and TxDOT to optimize motorist safety and ensure tolling operations run smoothly. BTG will support TxDOT’s customer relations activities in various ways, including providing intel for customer inquiries regarding toll rate pricing, vehicle passage data, traffic information on both toll lanes and general purpose lanes, and traffic incident reports.
The design of the electronic toll collection system includes three mainline gantries located along the SH 288 managed lanes and eight ramp toll gantries located at the direct connectors at I-610 and the Sam Houston Tollway. The toll roads will have variable pricing, with higher rates at peak travel times in the mornings and early evenings.
According to an executive summary of the project prepared by BTG, toll interoperability will be addressed in two ways: at the roadside level and at the back-office level. At the roadside level, BTG’s toll system will make use of multi-protocol readers and antennas capable of processing all transponder types required under the CDA. Interoperability occurring at the back-office level will be handled by TxDOT, which will manage the interface with external systems. The interface between BTG’s toll collection system and TxDOT’s back-office activities will conform to the standards of other interoperable agencies to ensure transactions are properly submitted to third-party operators.
Key Project Details
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