I-279 North Parkway Undergoes Extensive Reconstruction
A Focus on Preservation: Pennsylvania DOT Gets Ahead of Future Issues with I-279 North Parkway Reconstruction
Some construction projects occur when the need is dire, the public is up in arms, and something must be done. Other projects occur for maintenance or preservation, and the public hardly recognizes the need. The I-279 North Parkway project in and around Pittsburgh is like the latter, yet the work being done is extensive and has impacted commuters greatly.
The I-279 North Parkway is a major interstate that comes from the north and leads into Pittsburgh's business district, with an average daily traffic count of 70,000. So, any sort of work is sure to be of interest and concern to commuters. "We've put several hundred press releases out about this project," says Steve Cowan, a Press Officer for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT).
The project involves patching and overlaying 8 miles of roadway, preservation work on 30 bridges, 49 overhead sign structures, 29 retaining walls, complete replacement and upgrades of the HOV gate system, and replacement of all guiderail and signs. The stretch includes 5 miles of HOV. Since I-279 was built in the 1980's, this is the most extensive work it has ever undergone.
Protecting the Future of the Highway
The main focus of the project is preservation. Many of the bridges were beginning to deteriorate, some with severe potholes throughout their decks, which significantly drove the need and timing for this project. The bridges are receiving new latex modified concrete overlays, deteriorated concrete repairs, and other structural repairs. Some on ramps are being lengthened for safety purposes.
"The pavement was starting to break down and the smoothness of the concrete was starting to deteriorate," says Jason Zang, Assistant District Executive for Construction for PennDOT's District 11. Zang, who oversees all the projects in his district, is responsible from everything from costs to quality and managing the project in terms of cash flow to the contractors. He adds, "People don't always have a good handle of how much work and money goes into preservation."
New overhead signs are being implemented which include LED lights while the sign structures are being repaired and painted. Work on the retaining walls includes some minor wall repair/preservation. However, the majority of the work is related to ensuring proper and improved drainage behind the walls by adding additional catch basins and underground drainage pipes. Installation of a bridge anti-icing system is also part of the project.
Communication Eases Challenges
Construction on the I-279 North Parkway project began in March of 2017. It's scheduled to be completed next month. Work focused on southbound traffic in 2017, and on northbound traffic in 2018. Multiple kinks have arisen, but the project is still expected to be completed on time. This is due to a team effort.
"Our contractor is proactive and brings issues to our attention as soon as they arise," says Doug Thompson, a Principal Assistant Construction Engineer with PennDOT and the engineer in charge of the project. "We've worked together through all the different issues with our bi-weekly meetings and monthly CPM meetings."
The majority of construction work in District 11 is scheduled for spring and summer due to the weather patterns in the area. This means construction crews do their work primarily from April to the end of October or beginning of November. The challenges related to this limited time frame were compounded by 2018 being the wettest construction season in recent memory.
One way the team has made up for lost time due to weather is to utilize accelerated concrete. Unlike standard concrete, which takes seven days to reach its full strength, accelerated concrete takes just 24 hours.
"Accelerated concrete is not regularly used because it’s more expensive than standard concrete and is more challenging to work with, which can lead to premature cracking," says Zang. In order to keep the schedule, the team took additional quality assurance steps to ensure all of the work will serve the public for many years to come.
Besides using accelerated concrete, the contractor added work shifts. The extra shifts took place on Saturdays, Sundays, and nights. PennDOT also relaxed traffic restrictions in order to find different time frames for the contractors to do their work. However, “the most significant factor in meeting the project schedule is the hard work of the men and women out there every day, performing the work, in adverse weather, and speeding traffic, many greatly exceeding the 45 mph construction zone speed limit,” says Zang.
Pittsburgh is home to three major sports teams, and their arenas/stadiums are off of the I-279 North Parkway. Accommodating for traffic associated with the teams' home games and other events in the arena has also complicated scheduling. Repairs to the HOV lane were particularly impacted because when games let out, traffic is directed towards those lanes. "We work with them all the time and did as much as we could to mitigate their concerns," says Thompson.
A Unique HOV System
I-279 North Parkway's HOV system is distinctive. It's barriered off, completely exclusive, and changes direction twice a day for inbound, and outbound rush hours. The technology used for the HOV is being updated to make that directional change even safer. Fast acting gates will now be controlled via a software system.
"This prohibits our employees from making mistakes to ensure the gates are opening in the proper sequence, so cars can't get into the lane accidentally going in the wrong direction," says Zang.
Interchanges can bottleneck during peak flows. The Federal Highway Administration is developing innovative solutions to traffic congestion and selected Pittsburgh for a pilot project to better manage traffic in work zones. The goal is to improve safety, increase travel time reliability, and reduce periods of stop and go in work zones. Known as the Work Zone Ramp Signals Pilot Project, the temporary ramp meters were in use for six months in 2018. They are like regular traffic signals but only have a red light and a green light and are controlled by sensors that monitor traffic and change the lights to allow traffic to flow. One driver at a time proceeds on a green light.
The $92 million I-279 North Parkway project, which is being funded primarily by the federal government (80 percent federal funds and 20 percent state funds), will soon be complete. The new pavement, smooth ride, lack of potholes on the road and bridges, new HOV gates, and added safety features through use of LED lighting and lane control devices make this a preservation project that commuters will surely notice.