Four lanes to the Four Corners

Highway Maintenance Article December 28, 2000
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In the high desert of New Mexico, northwest of Albuquerque, stretches a two-lane highway that runs 120 miles between San Ysidro


In the high desert of New Mexico, northwest of Albuquerque, stretches a two-lane highway that runs 120 miles between San Ysidro and Bloomfield, toward the Four Corners area of the Southwest. The highway, known as New Mexico 44 (NM44), is the economic lifeline for the northwest part of the Land of Enchantment, transporting goods and tourists.


Residents of the area, however, have for years been disenchanted with the rural highway. The roadway can be dangerous, they say. The crosses that lie alongside the highway lend a measure of validity to their claims. "We have all had our close calls on 44," wrote one reader to an area newspaper recently.


An ambitious and unique plan to open up the Four Corners area of the state to improved economic development and increase motorist safety is being undertaken by the New Mexico State Highway & Transportation Department (NMSHTD). The plan involves an innovative contracting method whereby the state contracts with a developer to manage the widening and reconstruction of the entire 120-mile highway in only three years. Estimates are that if standard design-bid-build practices were used the project would take 27 years to complete.


In addition, the project contains a warranty agreement between NMSHTD and the developer that is the first of its kind in the U.S. The state has agreed to pay a warranty fee of $62 million to the developer, Mesa, PDC, LLC, a limited liability corporation. In return, Mesa will warranty the performance of the pavement for 20 years, or up to a certain level of usage, and the structures, such as bridges and culverts, for 10 years.


Project development


The NM44 project is in part a product of the ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act) legislation. According to Max Valerio, project development engineer in the Engineering Design Division of NMSHTD, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) worked with NMSHTD to find a way to gain financing for the project through innovative financing provisions in the act. With federal aid for the project lined up, the state began to seek a way to build the project.


Mesa, PDC (Project Development Contractor), was formed specifically for the NM44 project. Under its contract with the state, the company is responsible for the project’s design and construction management, including project and quality management, bid package preparation, inspection and testing and measurement services. While the company is responsible for the project’s design and construction management, two companies, CH2MHill and Flatiron Structures, Longmont, Colo., are performing the respective design and construction management services.


Although the project sounds much like a design-build project, it is not. Mesa officials stress that the company is not a construction contractor and is not performing any of the construction itself. The company was not formed for this purpose because New Mexico law does not allow design-build. The project follows NMSHTD’s standard low-bid contract procurement process for the selection of contractors. The bids, however, are opened in separate lettings.


The first of four bid lettings to be conducted for the project was awarded to Sundt Corp., Tucson, Ariz. Construction on the 9.7-mile portion of the project began in December. E.L. Yeager of Riverside, Calif., won the second bid package for a 30.1-mile stretch of the project and at press time was mobilizing in preparation to begin work. A low-bidder has been selected for the third bid package and largest section of the project, 50.2 miles, but at press time the contract had yet to be awarded to the contractor. The fourth and final bid package, or a 28-mile portion of the project, was due Jan. 20.


Originally the project was split into eight sections, according to Tisha Jones, Mesa’s communications director. But the competing contractors bidding on the packages requested the project be condensed into fewer, but larger, sections.


The project has captured the attention of contractors. "Some of the top contractors in the U.S. are looking at the project and bidding on it," said Jones. "The contractors like the challenge and the opportunity to show what they can do."


"We think this is the way future construction projects will be done and we are excited to be a part of it," said John Cluff, president of heavy and civil construction for Sundt Corp.


Learning curve


Working within the innovative contracting environment has proven to be a challenge for NMSHTD. "There’s quite a few things we are learning from the project which we think we can apply to future projects," said NMSHTD’s Valerio, who is serving as the project engineer for NM44.


The project got off to a slow start when the first set of bids received far exceeded the state’s $180 million budget for the project. "We had a completed set of bid documents advertised for bidding, and the bids were so high we realized that we couldn’t finish the corridor at that rate," Valerio told ROADS & BRIDGES.


The department then went through a four- to six-month re-engineering effort, searching for ways to change specifications and plans to build the project more economically. Of the 120 miles in the project, 110 miles made its way through the value engineering process. "One hundred and ten miles is quite a distance and we had a lot of completed documents," Valerio said. He credits Mesa with bringing new ideas and different approaches to the process. "We in the department work in a specific policy mode and [Mesa] brought a lot of new ideas and different approaches to how things should get done. I think we’ve seen some benefits to that. We were able to solicit more competitive bids."


The re-engineering effort resulted in engineering changes and specification changes, and the bid packages were then restructured to reflect the changes. According to Valerio, changes were made in a variety of areas. Significant changes were made in the materials specs, where allowances were made for the use of different properties in the aggregates. Because the project is mainly paving and earthwork, aggregates are a key factor in the project. Spec changes were made in areas such as mineral properties, hardness and fractured faces to allow the use of aggregate that could be found along the corridor. This reduced trucking and aggregate costs for the contractors.


In addition, changes were made in pavement design wherein Mesa, through its relationship with Koch Industries, a member of the Mesa limited partnership, revisited the oil content and incorporated a European technology in the design. Alternative structures were considered in the drainage design, which lent itself to competitive pricing. Retaining wall designs were streamlined.


"We’re pretty comfortable that we are in a position where we can award the projects and still complete the project in November 2001," said Valerio.


Project particulars


Though the project is taking place in a rural area, it is an ambitious one. The 120-mile section of NM44 is to be widened from two lanes to four. Once the widening is completed traffic will be moved onto the two new lanes and the original two lanes will be reconstructed to make them equivalent with their counterparts. A 6-ft median with an upward slope will be placed in the center of the new four-lane highway. Four-hundred structures are involved in the project, seven of them bridges, the remainder culverts.


The reconstruction of the original roadway will be conducted from the subgrade up to correct problems with soft or unstable soils that may have resulted in roughness of the pavement. Reconstruction of the pavement also will result in less maintenance being required for the pavement than with other techniques such as an overlay.


Reclaimed asphalt pavement (RAP) from the original two-lane will be recycled back into the existing roadway as an aggregate base layer and possibly to improve poor subgrade conditions as a subbase layer. Officials note that reusing the RAP material not only saves money through the use of an existing resource, but it also benefits the environment in another way by lessening the amount of excavation that is required to construct the improved highway.


Because of limited right-of-way space along the corridor, the RAP material will be trucked up and down the route to where it is needed.


While crumb rubber is said to be in consideration for use in the asphalt mix, pavement designs continue to be under development. According to Mesa, a form of the Superpave mix design process also is being considered for the project.


"The pavement design product that we’re getting is about as close to Superpave as you can get," said NMSHTD’s Valerio.


Work guaranteed


After the project is completed, the warranty agreement between Mesa and NMSHTD calls for Mesa to be responsible for maintenance work on the asphalt pavement for 20 years and on bridge and culvert structures for 10 years. "We want the facility to last its service life," said Valerio. "We wanted the best bang for the buck. For 20 years we won’t have to expend any more resources on the project."


If traffic on a segment surpasses expectations and the pavement experiences pavement loadings in excess of 4 million ESALS (equivalent single axle loads), the warranty will end. "It’s like having your car warrantied for X number of years or so many thousand miles," said Valerio. "If any of the segments reaches 4 million ESALs, in effect it would carry out the warranty coverage."


What if the highway reaches 4 million ESALs in 10 years instead of 20? "If the highway reaches 4 million ESALs in 10 years then [the project] will have met one of its goals, that being the goal of economic enhancement," said Valerio.


According to Mesa, NMSHTD’s most recent projections suggest that the southern segment of the project could reach 4 million ESALs in 18 years. ESAL accumulation starts after construction, so the southern segments could still be under warranty 22 years from now.


For its commitment to the maintenance of the project, the state agreed to pay Mesa a one-time warranty fee of $62 million. According to Mesa, the state expects the warranty to save approximately $89 million in maintenance costs over the 20-year period. The state based the saving estimate on past history and future projections of costs to maintain the highway.


To ensure against a return to poor pavement conditions during the warranty, the agreement requires Mesa to keep the pavement to acceptable levels in areas such as cracking, rutting and roughness. Toward this end, Mesa is required to inspect the pavement at least once a year and will reimburse the state for repair work bid out. According to Valerio, there also will be combined inspections with the state and federal government.


Mesa plans on using an automated distress identification vehicle to assess the smoothness of the road, the crack width and spacing and any rutting, bleeding or raveling. The corporation will develop annual maintenance plans that will include any work necessary to meet the warranty criteria throughout the warranty period.


The rutting and cracking will be measured by Mesa, but the definitions for pavement distresses are from the FHWA Long-Term Pavement Performance guide. NMSHTD will review Mesa’s condition reports. Roughness will be measured by ASTM E-950 and reported to NMSHTD by Mesa.


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