Full cooperation

April 18, 2002

Calling it “a big project” would be an understatement—because it is bigger than that, much bigger. Try this on for size:

The Big I Reconstruction Project in Albuquerque, N.M., involves more than 2 million cu yd of dirt, 610,000 tons of hot-mix asphalt (HMA) and 165,000 cu yd of concrete. And all of it is being used to rebuild two interstate highways (I-25 and I-40) that happen to cross each other in the middle of a busy metropolitan area.

Calling it “a big project” would be an understatement—because it is bigger than that, much bigger. Try this on for size:

The Big I Reconstruction Project in Albuquerque, N.M., involves more than 2 million cu yd of dirt, 610,000 tons of hot-mix asphalt (HMA) and 165,000 cu yd of concrete. And all of it is being used to rebuild two interstate highways (I-25 and I-40) that happen to cross each other in the middle of a busy metropolitan area.

But the really big things that have emerged from the Big I Project are imagination, determination and a willingness to cooperate on the part of everyone involved. This job was presented to the contractors with a time frame that many people thought was absolutely impossible: just 24 months—June 2000 until June 2002—from start to finish.

Along the way, industry observers saw one other interesting intangible emerge. The government officials and contractors decided early on to set aside any predisposition or favoritism they might have toward the two traditionally competing construction materials, asphalt and concrete. Instead, they agreed to let each of the materials do the job it was best designed to do. The concrete was used for building 45 segmental and structural-steel bridges, and the asphalt was used to pave the project—a total of 111 lane miles of roadway.

With only 24 months to complete the $270 million project, speed and efficiency were absolutely critical to the Big I Project. From the very beginning, it was determined this was to be a fast-track project. Indeed, the time line was so compressed that many officials thought it was overly ambitious and that it could not be finished on time.

Beyond repair

The Big I intersection was originally designed more than 50 years ago to serve as part of the nation’s defense system, as well as speeding and facilitating the flow of interstate commerce. Two major interstate highways—I-25 (Pan American Freeway) and I-40 (Coronado Interstate)—were to cross just north of the downtown area of Albuquerque. When it was finished in 1966, the Big I intersection accommodated fewer than 40,000 vehicles each day. By 1970, the traffic had doubled. And today, more than 300,000 vehicles travel through the Big I in a single day.

Thirty-five years of increasingly heavy traffic had brought the Big I intersection to the end of its useful life. Officials with the New Mexico State Highway and Transportation Department (NMSHTD) considered repairing the roadways, but rejected that idea when it was estimated that the cost to repair and maintain the existing system would be more than $70 million. It also would be expensive in terms of taxpayer irritation since repair would require about six years of sporadic road closures and traffic rerouting. Additionally, there were a number of traffic-safety issues: the original design used a number of left-hand exit and entrance ramps connecting the two interstates.

The decision was made to totally redesign the intersection of the two interstates to reflect the latest in highway-design technology and traffic-safety protocols.

Pile it on

The original Big I interchange had been designed to last for about 20 years—or until 1986—and it was obviously not going to be able to handle the traffic loads of the next decade or two. The new de-sign incorporated innovations that would smooth the flow of traffic, increase driver safety and provide good service far into the future. The engineering team came up with an interchange design that called for 45 new bridges (instead of 15 on the original intersection) and 111 lane miles of roadway (instead of 17 lane miles on the original). And all of this would take place within a 1-mile radius of the Big I intersection.

Since 90% of the traffic on the Big I intersection is local, the engineers had to provide entrance and exit ramps at major thoroughfares, as well as frontage roads between those entrance/exit points so drivers could readily access destinations. With this complex web of freeways and frontage roads running, literally, in all directions, it was necessary for the engineers to think in terms of three-dimensional space: multiple levels of roadways would be required to achieve the desired traffic patterns. This would require numerous “fly-overs,” or bridges that carried traffic over other roadways. In its final design, the Big I intersection ended up with five different levels near the central part of the complex. From the surface of the bottom-most roadway to the surface of the uppermost fly-over, the vertical distance is more than 70 ft.

It quickly became obvious that a project of this magnitude was going to require a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of patience. Most observers estimated that demolishing the old roadways and bridges and building new ones would require a construction cycle of between four and six years, and it would probably end up being closer to six years.

Just a couple more

Early in the planning stage, everyone involved in the project was asking the same question: “Where do we start on a project like this?” Nothing like this had ever been done in New Mexico. Perhaps nothing like this had ever been done anywhere in the world, because the planners were determined that traffic through the area would not be totally closed down at any time during the reconstruction. The roadways were too critical to both local traffic and over-the-road transport.

One other fact emerged from the initial discussions between city officials, engineers from the NMSHTD and administrators from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA): The taxpayers would not tolerate an extended period of construction with confusing shutdowns, complicated traffic rerouting and endless traffic delays. Whatever plan they were to come up with had to assure a speedy construction cycle. According to Pete Rahn, secretary of the NMSHTD, “We decided that six years was out of the question. And so was four years. Consequently, we set out to get the job done in just two years. We thought the driving public could probably handle that.”

High start

It soon became apparent that the best way to approach this project was to rebuild the intersection from the top down: the highest ramps and fly-overs were built first, the middle-level ramps were built next and this was followed by finishing up the frontage roads. This “top-down” approach would permit the maintenance of traffic at the existing ground-level roadways while the major bridge-building activity took place above them. The contractor would proceed with construction simultaneously on all four legs of the intersection.

Work would take place six days a week in two 9-hour shifts each day. On any given day, two lanes of both freeways were to remain open to traffic during daytime hours. Only at night (between 9 p.m. and 5:30 a.m.) would the contractor be allowed to totally close a section of the freeway. Maintaining good traffic flow and positive public opinion was a part of job performance that all parties accepted as mandatory from the very beginning.

Long on supplies

Given the many constraints on this project, the selection of the right materials for each part of the project was a matter of critical importance. The 55 new or renovated bridges that were involved in the Big I Project would be built using concrete because of that material’s inherent structural strength when combined with steel reinforcing bars and cables. Ten of the original bridge structures would remain after being rehabilitated. There would be 37 new prestressed concrete and steel-girder bridges, and there would be eight precast concrete segmental bridges with a total of 663 different built-to-fit segments.

For the paving between the bridge structures, however, the engineers chose to go with multiple lifts of HMA with Superpave designations SP-2 and SP-3. The project would involve about 610,000 tons of asphalt to pave the 111 lane miles of freeway and frontage roads. About half of that would be base-course material and the other half would go into the finish lifts.

According to Reuben Thomas, division administrator with the New Mexico Division of the FHWA, the engineers initially picked asphalt as the paving material of choice because it was more cost-effective.

“We did a cost analysis,” said Thomas. “We were trying to do several things: keep the cost down and still get a long service life. We also looked at the project’s critical path, and so speed of construction also came into consideration. In all of these considerations, asphalt came out on top.”

Thomas said asphalt also worked out to be more economical than the traditional alternative, concrete. “Through value engineering,” he said, “we found that the initial cost of asphalt is lower. We also decided that using asphalt as our paving material was the only way to maintain the flow of traffic and give the contractor the flexibility he needed.”

Thomas said the history of the project has proven their choice of asphalt to be the right choice. “We are ahead of schedule at this point, and we are confident that the project will be completed at least a month ahead of schedule. We also are within budget, so our decision to use asphalt is being validated now.”

Any speeders interested?

The general contractor and project manager on the Big I Project is Twin Mountain Construction Co., a subsidiary of Peter Kiewit Sons Inc. The New Mexico-based contractor was chosen to handle both the HMA paving and the bridge construction.

According to Van Groves, president and chief executive officer of Twin Mountain, one of the most formidable challenges on this project was the two-year time frame from start to completion.

“When the highway department was letting this project,” said Groves, “they wanted only people who were truly interested in getting it built in 24 months. They weren’t interested in anyone who wasn’t going to take that deadline seriously. The only contractors they wanted bidding on this job were those contractors who were committed to meeting that deadline.”

Groves said this particular project has made history in how fast-track construction can be managed. But even more important, it has set new benchmarks in how all parties involved in a project can work together closely in order to achieve “impossible” goals.

“Almost everyone in the industry talks about ‘partnering’ from time to time,” said Groves. “But on this job, everyone actually does it. No matter where you look, you will find very high levels of teamwork: from the department of transportation to the Federal Highway Administration to the design-engineering firm to the contractor and subcontractors. Everyone involved in this project is really living and breathing partnering.

“Personally,” Groves continued, “I give the highway department the most credit for their commitment. They said they were going to do it. They committed themselves to doing it. And they are doing it. We’re just the contractor; we can’t make them do it. We could have a hundred partnering teams, but nothing substantive would happen if the highway department didn’t make it happen. They are the reason this project is all coming together so successfully.”

According to Pete Rahn, secretary of NMSHTD, the rebuilding of the Big I intersection required an extremely high level of cooperation and teamwork between all agencies and groups involved: NMSHTD, FHWA, the city of Albuquerque, Bernalillo County, the contractors, the business community, the trucking industry, the local safety and emergency agencies, the media and the individual commuters.

“On this project,” said Rahn, “we have broken new ground in terms of the partnerships we have formed and the cooperation we have received. There has been a spirit of mutual trust, respect and a willingness to work together to do whatever it takes to get the job done. This project will become the signature model for highway building everywhere—not just in New Mexico, but across the country.”

In June 2001, all of the parties involved celebrated reaching the halfway point in the project, five months later the work was progressing ahead of schedule. They now estimate that the project will be completed in May 2002—about a month ahead of the original deadline.

About The Author: Cervarich is vice president, marketing and communications, for the National Asphalt Pavement Association, Lanham, Md.

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