“I’ve been around the block several times in a bunch of different modes,” joked Bob Bielek, P.E., District Engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) El Paso District.
A 50-year veteran of the transportation industry (see “Five Decades in Transportation” sidebar), Bielek’s experience in the private and public sectors prepared him to deal with the many and varied challenges in TxDOT’s six westernmost counties, including the decades-old, deteriorating Interstate 10 that carries much of the commerce crossing the country east to west; mountains and unique topography; Fort Bliss, a growing U.S. Army base; an expanding population; and hundreds of border miles.
“We’re the only TxDOT district with both an international and state border,” Bielek said. “We have seven bridges that connect Texas and Mexico, with four different owners. We also have a land port that affects us; it’s in New Mexico, but the only way to get all of that traffic distributed to the east is on I-10 through our district.”
With 4,917 lane miles across 21,700 square miles, the El Paso District covers Brewster, Culberson, El Paso, Hudspeth, Jeff Davis, and Presidio Counties. “We’ve got a lot of open space in the district, but it’s very challenging because of the rough topography,” Bielek said.
El Paso sits at an elevation of 3,800 feet. “Within five miles of downtown, we have a 7,200-foot peak in the Franklin Mountains,” Bielek said. “The University of Texas at El Paso is cut into the side of that mountain. If you go out the front door of the university, you get to the eastern right-of-way for I-10. There are 800 feet from that line to the border. Within that 800 feet we have I-10; U.S. 85, a four-lane arterial; three main tracks for the new Union Pacific railroad, with space for a fourth track; two BNSF Railway lines; and we’re building the four-lane Border West Expressway (scheduled for completion this summer).”
Because of the cramped quarters, “One of our biggest challenges is maintenance of traffic anytime we work on one of our primary roadways,” Bielek said.
Bielek was hired as District Engineer in 2012 and oversees 293 employees. “In the seven years I’ve been here, we put over $1 billion of construction on the ground,” he said. “We’ve tackled most of the local problems that we can and we’ve gotten everything set up to deal with the I-10 issue.”
For the next fiscal year, the district will have a capital budget of $243 million as they build smaller projects and prepare for future work on I-10 and other major corridors. (See “Upcoming Projects” sidebar.)
The Problem with I-10
Originally built more than 50 years ago, El Paso’s I-10 has reached the end of its useful life, Bielek said. As the district works on a major corridor study to identify the best fix, “A lot of our priorities center around how we can keep traffic moving while we deal with the I-10 issue.”
Unfortunately, “There isn’t enough capacity on alternate routes to completely make up for the capacity on I-10,” Bielek added. “We can’t shut down a piece and reconstruct it in one fell swoop. Anything we do on I-10 needs to be constructible under traffic.”
Part of the urgency in fixing the interstate comes from a depressed section that runs through downtown El Paso. “Over the years, groundwater flows came down off the mountain and put water under pressure right underneath that roadway,” Bielek explained.
To complicate the problem, “There was a layer of epoxy between a four-inch, bonded concrete overlay and the original concrete pavement,” he continued. “Now our cores show that water replaced the epoxy. If we get a multi-day, hard freeze, the water is liable to freeze, expand, and pop that four-inch overlay off. If enough of it pops off, we’ll lose I-10. We’re trying to get the project done before that happens.”
Preparing Alternate Routes
To help provide alternatives before work begins on I-10, the district is finishing the $158 million GO 10 project on the west side of El Paso. Collector/distributor roadways on both the east and west sides connect three interchanges. “We’re adding capacity by taking a lot of the local traffic off I-10,” Bielek said.
In addition, work began this month on the $95 million I-10 Connect project to link with the new Border Expressway.
“We hope to start on I-10 as soon as that project finishes in 2021,” Bielek said. “It’s just a question of whether we can get the environmental and design complete because it’s a fairly aggressive attack on that center section; it’ll take a fair amount of land acquisition and utility relocation. It also depends on funding. Right now we have a half billion dollars allocated as a placeholder, but the work we’re talking about is probably over $1.1 billion.”
Maintaining 5,000 Lane Miles
In addition to capital projects, the district operates with a $20 million annual maintenance budget, plus $11 million in contracted maintenance. Given the size of the district, effective maintenance within that budget requires planning and prioritization.
“We’re the largest district in land area and El Paso is the sixth-largest city in Texas,” Bielek said. “Our district is larger than nine states, and we’re trying to cover maintenance with about 100 people. It’s exacerbated by the condition of I-10; once concrete pavement gets that old, you’re maintaining it almost continually.”
The mountains and weather patterns further complicate maintenance. “Although we’re classified as desert, most of the district is above 5,000 feet in elevation,” Bielek said. “El Paso gets the third-highest snowfall of any Texas city, and the elevation goes up even higher to the east, so those areas receive a lot more moisture during the winter. Our staff is really spread out so we have to do a lot of prioritization to keep primary routes open.”
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