Transportation Agencies Partner to Build New Flyovers at Convergence of 290 Toll and SH 130 in Austin
Soaring Solutions: Transportation Agencies Join Forces on 290-130 Flyovers Project to Keep Up with Crushing Traffic Demands in Austin
Since opening to traffic in 2014, the 290 Toll road has served as a convenient east-west route to connect the cities of Manor and Elgin with the Greater Austin area. Operated by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (Mobility Authority), this 6-mile corridor is traversed by more than 43,000 toll customers on an average weekday. Toll transactions have surpassed initial projections, growing nearly 10 percent a year since opening.
Such explosive growth is usually celebrated as a healthy indicator of a region’s economic vitality. However, local and state transportation planners anticipated reaching this level of demand more than 10 years after opening the toll road. But capacity was exceeded within just two years, requiring sooner-than-expected roadway upgrades to keep up with the crushing demand.
The heaviest levels of congestion are concentrated at the frontage road intersection of 290 Toll and State Highway 130. This particular segment of SH 130 is a tollway operated by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), and carries an average of 46,000 travelers daily. With all drivers (including those using non-tolled lanes) experiencing traffic jams at the toll road juncture, mobility and safety are impacted – especially during peak times of travel for southbound SH 130 drivers heading into Austin on westbound 290 Toll.
To turn things around, the Mobility Authority, in partnership with TxDOT, is currently constructing three new flyovers at the convergence of 290 Toll and SH 130. This solution will provide free-flowing, elevated direct connections between the two toll roads without requiring tollway drivers to exit the mainlanes and travel through signalized intersections.
“This project will advance mobility in numerous ways,” affirms Lloyd Chance, the Mobility Authority’s Senior Project Manager of Construction. Benefits of the flyovers include decreased travel times, reduced potential for crashes at frontage road intersections, and reduced queuing on the southbound and northbound mainlanes of SH 130. For drivers preferring to use non-tolled lanes, this project will improve traffic flow at the frontage road intersection by increasing available signal green time.
“These improvements will save the traveling public an estimated $5 million annually in associated time, fuel and vehicle costs,” adds Justin Word, Director of Engineering at the Mobility Authority. “The new flyovers are also expected to attract more than 5,000 vehicles per day from parallel facilities, providing additional congestion relief to other corridors.”
There is already an existing flyover that links eastbound 290 Toll to northbound SH 130, which will remain non-tolled. Project officials anticipate the new flyovers will shift 67 percent of vehicles off the southbound SH 130 frontage road. This project will also help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1,020 metric tons annually, as well as increase economic development opportunities by enhancing local and regional connectivity.
“This project demonstrates that commuters recognize the convenience toll roads provide,” says Ray Wilkerson, Chairman of the Mobility Authority Board of Directors. “We’ve seen how the high demand for 290 Toll has led to congestion at the frontage road intersection with SH 130. In order to keep Central Texans moving, commuters need a safe and efficient link between the two roadways.”
The three new flyovers are being designed and constructed by the Mobility Authority. TxDOT is financing construction of the flyover between eastbound 290 Toll and southbound SH 130, which will be non-tolled. The Mobility Authority is financing construction of the flyovers from northbound and southbound SH 130 to westbound 290 Toll. These tolled connections will be named in honor of former Mobility Authority Board Vice-Chair James H. Mills, a noted advocate of the 290/130 Flyovers Project.
This design-bid-build project is being implemented under a single $127 million total project budget administered by the Mobility Authority. The agency, in partnership with TxDOT, is utilizing innovative construction approaches and pooled administrative resources to deliver project financing and construction. According to Mobility Authority spokespersons, this collaborative effort has helped to expedite the project schedule and reduce risk.
“The interagency collaboration required to bring this impressive, multi-level interchange to fruition is quite unique,” Word says. “We’ve got two separate tolling operators working together to deliver a project in the most streamlined, simplified manner possible. That’s a big deal, and the hope is that this initiative may serve as a model for future interagency partnerships.” Other government agencies have also been involved in project development, including the city of Austin, Capital Metro (Austin’s main transit agency) and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (a Central Texas regional transportation planning organization).
Up to $41.1 million is being paid by TxDOT from available Central Texas Turnpike System toll revenues, while the Mobility Authority funds the remaining balance (at least $85.9 million) using toll revenue bonds and a federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan. According to the Mobility Authority’s 2018 annual report, the TIFIA loan is anticipated to yield between $80 million and $100 million in interest savings over the life of the loan.
An Accelerated Project Schedule
Construction has been underway since November 2018 and is being led by Webber, LLC, a general contracting firm headquartered in Houston, Texas. The project zone extends from U.S. 290/290 Toll (from west of Blue Goose Road to Parmer Lane) to SH 130 (from north of East Parmer Lane to south of Blue Bluff Road).
Currently, the biggest push is to complete the south-to-west flyover, which could be finished as early as the end of 2019 (approximately six months ahead of schedule). The next major milestone involves construction of the direct connector between SH 130 North and Toll 290 West, then finally crews will build the bridge between Toll 290 East and SH 130 South.
Key subcontractors involved in the construction activities include Beaird Drilling (drilled shafts), Indus Road & Bridge (concrete structures), Texas Highway Walls (mechanically stabilized earth retaining walls) and The Levy Company (electrical).
Also, the Mobility Authority selected professional services firm HDR to handle all construction, engineering and inspection (CE&I) responsibilities. “The CE&I team acts as an extension of our staff (‘boots on the ground’) by managing the day-to-day activities of all the different contractors,” Word says. “The CE&I model is relatively new to Texas, and contractors are learning this construction monitoring approach. Right now, as the industry continues to mature its members are growing accustomed to an owner employing consulting engineering firms to perform CE&I. The Mobility Authority is on the cutting edge of delegating work effectively to CE&I teams in a manner where all parties are reasonably happy.”
As of mid-August, crews had completed approximately 70 percent of the estimated 11,000 linear feet of drilled shafts required for this project, as well as 40 percent of column construction for two of the three flyovers. Particularly, the installation of large, deep shafts requires extensive attention-to-detail to ensure workers’ safety.
“We have 38 large mono shafts on this project, which are a combination of 96- and 108-inch-diameter drill shafts ranging in depth from 40 to 50 feet. Each of these shafts takes anywhere from 80 to 120 cubic yards of concrete to refill the hole. To maintain a steady pace, we usually have four drilling crews at all times,” Chance adds. “Thermal Integrity Profiling (TIP) was performed on select shafts to verify shaft construction techniques and integrity.”
Several noteworthy tools are being employed to streamline or enhance project activities, including e-Builder Enterprise, a cloud-based construction management solution that aims to improve productivity and on-site accountability. The software is capable of centralizing project data, workflow, documentation, change orders, resource management, invoicing and more, which is valuable because it increases transparency and eliminates data silos between systems and people.
In the field, an automatic portable smart traffic monitoring system assists with work zone traffic control. Specifically, it increases safety by providing advance traffic information in real time to motorists when there are traffic stops or slowdowns. Utilizing non-intrusive speed detectors at regular half- to 1-mile intervals approaching the work zone, this system delivers condition-responsive notifications to portable changeable message signs that have been placed on all four main directional approaches to the project.
The Mobility Authority is also offering productivity-boosting financial incentives to speed progress and improve construction performance. Currently, Webber is working toward a maximum potential $1.5 million bonus to complete the south-to-west and north-to-west flyovers as much as six and 11 months ahead of the original schedule, respectively. The incentive package also includes an uncapped reduction in compensation should the general contractor fail to meet these agreed upon requirements.
“We’ve really started pushing these incentives as a method to achieve our priorities, which is to get infrastructure on the ground as soon as possible, and at the quality level we want. It’s been a great tool for us on past projects, and thus far on this project it’s played out very well in helping us accelerate the schedule,” Word says.
Chance adds further, “Traditionally, schedule certainty is subsidiary to the rest of the construction contract, because you don’t pay for it directly. Our thought process was, ‘Why don’t we start paying for this? Why don’t we show contractors this element is very important to us?’”
Under this novel (and what some might call radical) approach, the Mobility Authority pays the contractor for schedule development. This includes a larger one-time payment for the approved baseline, as well as a smaller monthly payment for each approved monthly update.
“This is the first contract we’re doing this on, and we’re seeing very favorable results from the contractor and getting great schedules. Also, the contractor is seeking innovative ways to improve the schedule every month, which is great,” Chance says.
Word agrees, adding: “This is a big deal and a real shift with contractors, many of which are surprised that we’re willing to pay them to put together a schedule. But man, it’s working. As far as I’m concerned, this is standard protocol now.”