North Carolina Turnpike’s Complete 540 project will bring the Triangle Expressway full circle

April 1, 2021

This feature published as "Going Full Circle" in April 2021 issue

In December 2012, the North Carolina Turnpike Authority (NCTA) opened the six-lane, 18.8-mile Triangle Expressway.

The state’s first modern, all-electronic toll road, it immediately improved travel times in the region of Research Triangle Park and the outlying suburbs of Raleigh. It was also the largest transportation infrastructure project in North Carolina history at $1 billion—until now.

The NCTA, after a years-long effort, is now underway on a $2.2 billion, two-phase project to extend the Triangle Expressway even farther—28.8 miles, from the N.C. 55 Bypass to I-87—and complete the 540 Outer Loop around Raleigh. Phase I will run between the N.C. 55 Bypass and I-40 near the Wake/Johnston County line. Phase 2, between I-40 and I-87, is projected to be awarded shortly after the completion of Phase 1.

The $1.3 billion Phase 1 effort is largely financed by a $500 million Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan, in addition to toll revenue bonds ($430 million). Bond anticipation notes ($300 million) were then issued, leveraging the TIFIA loan as collateral. 

The push toward construction, which opened in November 2019, was the result of a multiagency coordination that created a unique and workable timetable that both accelerated project expectations and opened the floodgates to competitive bidding and procurement.

First, the EIS

“You can’t place a 30-mile expresssway in an urbanizing environment without having a bunch of challenges.” So said Roy Bruce, senior transportation project manager for H.W. Lochner. Bruce’s team led National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) efforts. “We completed a Section 6002 Interagency Plan at the beginning of the NEPA process to guide participation and streamline processes to make sure all concerns were brought to light early and thus addressed. This helped to keep agencies actively engaged throughout.”

Since Complete 540 creates an entirely new corridor, as opposed to expanding an existing corridor, the environmental review process was lengthy and complex, and tied directly into how Phase 1 would be parceled out for contract. 

“There were very high expectations for how swiftly the stakeholders wanted this project delivered,” Jennifer Harris, senior project manager with HNTB, told Roads & Bridges. “We produced a reader-friendly format for the NEPA document. Environmental impact statements can be incredibly voluminous—sometimes inches thick—but we were preparing this for stakeholders and the public alike, so we really worked hard to offer a streamlined version. We did not regurgitate information from technical reports, but merely referenced them. We were also graphic-heavy, which people appreciated for clarity.”

Among the particulars were ecological concerns in adjacent bodies of water. “Along the project area lie Middle Creek, Swift Creek, and the Neuse River, each home to endangered species, primarily Swift Creek,” Bruce said. “Where we crossed Swift, we had the dwarf wedgemussel and the yellow lance, and those are federally endangered species. We prepared a biological assessment for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and all the storm water in that area is being captured and treated for spills and runoff, so that we are protecting the receiving water of Swift Creek and not having direct discharge from the highway into it, which could affect the conditions for these mussels species. And there is no construction activity within Swift Creek nor along the top of its banks.”

Once the EIS was prepared, NCTA faced a daunting and lengthy review process, according to NCTA chief engineer Rodger Rochelle: “Typically, the EIS would be reviewed internally by Turnpike, then by the NCDOT, and then by the FHWA, and then by their subject matter experts—for example, an expert on mussel species—and then FHWA’s headquarters would take up the review, and then finally a legal review by NCDOT and FHWA attorneys. We didn’t have time for the typical process.”

Rochelle and his team needed to accelerate their ability to begin the work of right-of-way (ROW) acquisition and design planning, and as such floated a novel approach process. 

“So we set up workshops,” Rochelle said. “This was a hard sell at first, because it was unorthodox. But for example, if we had the section on mussel species complete, we didn’t wait for the rest to be completed; we got the FHWA subject matter experts reviewing that portion right away. And then we had workshops where those sections were given to all parties, including the attorneys. We were able to address a lot of changes and comments on the fly. Because the lawyers were involved the whole time, their legal sufficiency review went much faster. To give you a frame of reference, the draft EIS took about 8 months; the final EIS took just a few weeks to get signed. And when we went to the Record of Decision document, everyone was on board for the same process. Those few weeks were hard, but [this] cut out a lot of the iterative steps of the review process.”

Three (somewhat) easy pieces

“From NCTA’s perspective, extending the Triangle Expressway from where it currently ends at N.C. 55 Bypass, the next logical place is to get it over to I-40, as that generates the most traffic and thus traffic revenue,” Bruce said. “As such, the Turnpike wants all of Phase 1 open at the same time.”

In order to achieve this goal and also offer a competitive and inclusive contracting situation, Phase 1 was divided into three sections. 

“We broke Phase 1 into three contracts in order to give contractors a better chance to bid on each of the contracts,” Harris said. “We also staggered those contracts, because each section was at a different stage of readiness, and doing so gave design firms and contractors more certainty as to where they stood on their bid for the first contract and then determine if they should devote resources to pursuing the second or third contract.”

The sections were, roughly speaking, small (R-2721A), medium (R-2721B), and large (R-2828), the latter of which was contracted first. This decision was based on the fact that expansion work on I-40, which connects to the Phase 2 project limits by way of a large turbine interchange, was ongoing, and coordination with that project was essential. It also allowed for more diverse pursuit of each project, as each section had respective disadvantaged business enterprise goals to meet.

The choice of going design-build added speed and the opportunity for innovation, both of which aided the ultimate goal of reducing cost. Section R-2828 was contracted to a JV between The Lane Construction Corp. and Blythe Construction, with WSP USA as designer. Sections R2721A and R2721B were awarded to a JV between Flatiron Constructors and Branch Civil. Section A designer was Gannett Fleming, and Section B designer was HDR Enginnering Inc.

Right-of-way acquisition was handled in different ways: On R-2828, the DB team handled all its own acquisitions. For sections R2721A and R2721B, right-of-way plans were prepared and hydraulic design plans were 100% complete at the time of contracting; this was necessary in order to secure a project-specific permit on that portion to get the financing in place. “It was a kind of modified DB for those two sections in that the ROW plans were already provided to the DB teams,” Bruce said. Therefore, NCTA and NCDOT did the acquisition. All told, the project either touched or required the outright acquisition of 650 parcels, of which at present less than 10 remain unsecured. 

Challenges expected (and otherwise)

“I think the big challenge to working with ROW and procurement was twofold,” Robert Hoffman, Resident Engineer with Summit Design and Engineering Services, recalled to Roads & Bridges. Hoffman represents both the NCTA and NCDOT by administrating the overall project. “Changes in North Carolina law in the last decade resulted in additional efforts required to procure ROW. And then you had to combine the impact of COVID with that procurement process—appraisals, documentation, finding new homes for displaced residents. Some residents did not want appraisers coming to their homes during COVID, especially when it first hit. But we were able to find a way through, and in fact we’re nearly done with the ROW process. We will be done in 2021. As of now, 95% of the project is available for access and construction.”

ROW aside, utility coordination presented, as it does on every project, its own set of challenges. Over the past 24 months, Rochelle and his team have had extensive weekly or biweekly meetings with the various utility companies to keep them abreast of when they would have ROW acquired, and when the utilities would need to have their crews lined up. “All the utility owners have been very responsive and willing to help,” Hoffman said. “We’ve got about seven crews from Duke Energy out there working now, for example, and that’s the first step in the process—getting Duke relocated, since a lot of the other carriers typically piggyback on Duke’s utility poles.” 

Early utility work also involved Colonial Pipeline. Colonial is the largest refined products pipeline system in the eastern U.S. “That fuel line zigzags across the southern part of Wake County,” Harris said. “We had eight conflict points with that petroleum pipeline, and so we were challenged to prioritize our methods for addressing them. Luckily, we were able to get on that before procurement, and having ready designs enabled that to happen.”

A final and rather unpredictable challenge was weather. “We got close to 120 in. of rain last year,” Hoffman said. “There were times when there was absolutely nothing we could do but play in the mud. And that kind of relates back to COVID, in terms of conditions separating people. A lot of these large-scale projects have these coordination meetings and it’s easier to do those meetings in person, when you can sit across the table and really have a good discussion. We had to make a lot of quick changes to go virtual and still keep up the level of communication we need. It can be easy to misread a situation in an email, but if you’re in person, you can really understand the intent behind things.”

Progress report

Despite COVID-related restrictions, there was much progress made last year.

“The majority of 2020 was spent on utility relocations,” Hoffman said. “We’ve got somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 different crosslines that go across the 540 mainline. We’ve been focused on keeping that on track so the bridge construction portion can begin. Most of the grubbing and clearing took place in 2020. More recently, toward the end of 2020, we began to work on the bridges, culverts, and bottom pipe. We’ve got a total of 52 bridges with 23 presently under construction; and 33 reinforced concrete box culverts, with 15 currently under construction and five already completed. We’ve poured about 11,000 cubic yd of concrete, installed about 10,000 linear ft of pipe, and moved about 1.25 million cubic yd of unclassified earthwork. A majority of last year was staging for this year. As I said, last year was one of the wettest years on record for North Carolina, and it really slowed things quite a bit by taking away opportunities to do a lot of the massive earthwork. But with getting a majority of the biggest utilities out of the way—including Colonial Pipeline, Cardinal Pipeline, and Duke Energy Transmission—we’ve put ourselves in a good position for this year. A lot of the other utility carriers, like Verizon and Spectrum, are well underway now. We are about to begin the mass grading and heavy hauling.”

Hoffman is encouraged by a practically year-round construction season: “We don’t get a whole lot of snow, so we’re really able to progress the project. We will have some seasonal limitations on some stuff that comes toward the end of the job, such as soil stabilization and asphalt paving, but for this year, there shouldn’t be any hindrances due to the seasons, so long as temperatures stay fairly mild. Our intent for the next year is to really progress a lot of the heavy earthmoving, the majority of the mass hauling, the large fills and cuts—all should be either complete or well underway in 2021. All utility relocations throughout the corridor will be completed. ROW acquisition will be done. Bottom pipes and culverts completed. And we should have all the construction of the secondary roads well underway, and possibly get into fine or finish grading on portions, as well. 2021 and 2022 will be heavy progress years.”

All three sections of Phase 1 are expected to open simultaneously in 2023. 

About The Author: Budzynski is senior managing editor of Roads & Bridges.

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