Cutting-Edge Precast Tech Speeds Construction of Laredo’s New Direct Connector at US 59 and I-35
Making Room for Freight: Rising Demands in Freight Transport Spur Construction of US 59 Loop/I-35 Interchange in South Texas
Did you know that freight transportation is one of Texas’ major economic drivers? In 2016, freight volumes in the state totaled 2.2 billion tons – a figure anticipated to nearly double by 2045 due to robust population growth and other factors, according to Texas Freight Mobility Plan 2017, a multimodal transportation strategy developed by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). With a gross domestic product of roughly $1.7 trillion in 2018, the state’s economic dominance is supported by an extensive multimodal network consisting of highways, railroads, ports and waterways, airports, pipelines and international border crossings.
Out of all these modes of transport, Texas’ interstate system handles the bulk of freight movement. Unfortunately, increases in congestion, truck tonnage, daily truck trips and truck-miles are impeding the efficient transportation of freight – including in Laredo, a border gateway city located at the nexus of three major freight corridors carrying out international trade with Mexico.
In addition to being the largest commercial crossing from Mexico into Texas, this Webb County community is the nation’s third-busiest U.S. customs district among roughly four dozen, according to WorldCity, Inc.’s 2018 Laredo Trade Numbers yearly report.
“Port Laredo conducts more trade than all but one of the more than 450 airports, seaports and border crossings in the nation,” adds Carlos Rodriguez, PE, TxDOT Laredo District Area Engineer. The ratification and implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the mid-1990s is a major driver of Laredo’s international trade activities, which have increased approximately 4 to 6 percent annually since 1995.
While continued economic growth will stimulate job creation, increase tax revenue and attract new investments in the region, it will also place greater strain on highway infrastructure and amplify ever-increasing congestion and safety issues – especially on and around Interstate 35 (I-35), the only north-south interstate freeway in the state that connects directly to Mexico.
A Series of I-35 Upgrades
To ensure the safe, efficient movement of both goods and people, TxDOT is developing a series of projects to upgrade approximately 24 miles of I-35 in the Laredo area. These improvements extend from the Shiloh Road interchange at Mile Marker (MM) 6 to MM 30, which is approximately 1 mile north of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection check-station.
Overall construction estimates exceed $460 million; as of mid-2018, only $234 million in funding had been identified to get certain projects off the ground. One major undertaking in progress is a $25.6 million interchange construction project to connect southbound I-35 to the intersection at westbound U.S. 59 Loop (formerly known as Loop 20), also known as Milo Road.
“The majority of the funding to construct this project, well over 90 percent, comes from federal Coordinated Border Infrastructure (CBI) funds,” Rodriguez says. Sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the CBI program provides funding to U.S. border state projects designed to enhance the safe passageway of vehicles at and across national borders.
The project broke ground in November 2017 and, as of February 2019, was roughly 65 percent complete. Once completed in December 2019, these infrastructure improvements will ease traffic flow to and from the city’s World Trade International Bridge IV (World Trade Bridge), which facilitates commercial transport between the U.S. and Mexico.
Rodriguez says, “Upgrading the U.S. 59 Loop to interstate standards was identified by TxDOT, the City of Laredo, Webb County, and the Webb County-City of Laredo Regional Mobility Authority as the priority project of this community, given its close proximity to the World Trade Bridge and the vast amount of trade with Laredo’s number one trade partner, Mexico.”
This project integrates with the construction of a new overpass at International Boulevard (completed in November 2017) and ongoing efforts to install U.S. 59 Loop mainlanes over I-35 and the Union Pacific Railroad line. These projects and others are part of the federal government’s broader plan to create an urban expressway that ties into Interstate 69 West.
Precast Bridge Components Speed Construction
The 1.2-mile-long U.S. 59 Loop/I-35 project extends from .33 miles west of I-35 to .16 miles west of McPherson Road. The construction scope consists of building two concrete bridge structures supported by a total of 134 drilled shafts ranging in diameter from 36 to 84 feet and drilled to depths anywhere from 28 to 40 feet. In addition, project plans call for a new two-lane mainlane, new entrance and exit ramps, and approximately 6,900 feet of continuously reinforced concrete pavement.
Construction is being led by general contractor SER Construction Partners, LLC (SER Construction), a heavy civil highway construction firm that provides services to clients in Houston and South Texas. Most of the work is taking place on weekdays, and occasionally overnight or on weekends to avoid interruptions to the project during peak times of traffic.
SER Construction Project Manager Joseph Camp says the bridge substructures and spans over the interstate have been completed. Designed by Dannenbaum Engineering Corporation, an engineering firm specializing in a diverse range of infrastructure projects, the new divided four-lane overpass will be approximately 2,900 feet long and feature an elevated crown near 60 feet.
Before construction commenced, SER Construction proposed using cutting-edge precast technology to build the bridges’ supporting structures.
A variety of components can be fabricated from precast concrete, meeting a range of project needs. According to the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute’s website, the precast method can be utilized on all types of bridges to construct both the superstructure components (flat slabs, adjacent box beams, pretensioned beams, and spliced and curved girders) and the substructures (precast end bents, piles and pile bent caps, water line pile caps, and precast columns).
The precast project solution is one of several Accelerated Bridge Construction (ABC) innovations endorsed by FWHA to create more durable bridges and accelerate project schedules.
Camp adds, “This process eliminates many hours of elevated construction activities that would normally be necessary for cast-in-place construction, significantly reducing workers’ exposure to potential falls.”
TxDOT liked the idea of speeding up the construction process in a safe manner while minimizing impacts on the traveling public, and approved SER Construction’s recommendation. This marks the first time in Laredo’s history where the precast method has been employed to construct interior bents in a bridge’s substructure.
“The TxDOT Laredo District views this project as a new learning tool, and plans on using more precast construction practices on future interchanges, as well as direct connectors at the Milo interchange,” Rodriguez says.
Bexar Concrete Works, Inc., a San Antonio-based concrete contractor, is providing the precast material. According to Camp, this company has been instrumental in getting Texas state officials to recognize the benefits of using the precast construction process. He estimates crews will install 30,000 linear feet of precast concrete bridge (TX-54) girders, 1,300 cubic yards of precast cap (51 caps), 600 cubic yards of precast capitals (107 capitals) and 170,000 square feet of precast deck panels.
Project Hallmarks: Partnership and Collaboration
In addition to the implementation of precast construction, Rodriguez notes that “excellent TxDOT-contractor partnerships and collaboration will be remembered as hallmarks of this project.”
On top of the organizations previously mentioned, a variety of other contractors, suppliers and manufacturers have participated in this landmark undertaking. These include, but are not limited to: Angel Brothers Holdings Corp., ATS Drilling, Inc., Dependable Fence & Welding Co., Cantu Electric Co., Inc., Highway Barricades and Services, LLC, Montalvo Bridge Systems, LLC, Bowman Engineering & Consulting, Inc. and Light It Up Electric, Inc.
Family-owned SER Construction, one of the driving forces behind this project’s development, has a cumulative total of over 150 years of transportation and infrastructure project experience. The firm’s leadership takes pride in delivering high-quality construction services and finding innovative ways to improve project delivery – a major reason TxDOT trusts the company with repeat contracts, Camp says.
Celebrating two decades in business this year, SER Construction has done numerous projects for government entities at the local, regional, state and federal levels. The company self-performs most of its work, owns 130-plus units of heavy construction equipment and has a workforce of over 300 employees.
“One aspect that makes this Laredo project successful is the craftsmen who have been with our organization for so many years. Many companies experience a great deal of turnover, but that is not the case with SER Construction,” Camp says, adding that many employees have been with the company anywhere from three to 20 years. “This makes for a cultural condition within the organization that equates to better managed, higher quality-controlled projects.”