Big part of LIFE

July 12, 2007

Improving the driving experience for Americans who waste their time in traffic every day requires a more modern and efficient transportation system. It means finding ways to reduce congestion and adopting new methods and technologies to build roads and bridges more rapidly and make them more durable. The faster delivery of transportation projects means quicker congestion relief for drivers. Likewise, longer-lasting infrastructure requires fewer repairs, reduces the need for work zones, improves safety and saves the taxpayer time and money.

Improving the driving experience for Americans who waste their time in traffic every day requires a more modern and efficient transportation system. It means finding ways to reduce congestion and adopting new methods and technologies to build roads and bridges more rapidly and make them more durable. The faster delivery of transportation projects means quicker congestion relief for drivers. Likewise, longer-lasting infrastructure requires fewer repairs, reduces the need for work zones, improves safety and saves the taxpayer time and money.

Work zones, although necessary for construction and maintenance, account for 10% of our nation’s congestion. That’s why the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Highways for LIFE program is about construction techniques and strategies that minimize the length and frequency of work zones. In seeking to decrease traffic and inconvenience to drivers, the program supports the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Strategy to Reduce Congestion on America’s Transportation Network, a bold national initiative to reduce congestion and improve the quality of life in America.

At a time when congestion is on the rise, highways are in need of rehabilitation or reconstruction. Because roadwork can bring months or years of delay, Highways for LIFE is about achieving long-lasting, innovative and fast construction of efficient and safe highways. The program’s purpose is to spur and spread innovations in highway construction and maintenance that will significantly change the way the highway community views the concepts of building and repair. It is redefining state-of-the-art in highway practices by encouraging states to use novel operational and contracting approaches that shave time off construction projects, enhance safety and minimize disruption to travelers. Ultimately, Highways for LIFE seeks to make common practice of the innovations that are already being used, albeit sparingly, in construction projects across the country. The key is to get designers and builders of the nation’s highways to be more aggressive in their use of new approaches.

The program is funded at $75 million through 2009 under the “Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users” (SAFETEA-LU). It funds project grants to states, encourages technology-transfer partnerships and provides training and marketing initiatives to foster new thinking about highways. The program seeks to build on the successes that states already have had and push for new innovation to speed up construction and reduce the congestion and safety impacts of work zones on travelers. These innovations include the use of prefabricated bridges, precast concrete pavement panels, full road closures and incentive-disincentive contract clauses.

The fab of prefab

The use of prefabricated materials is a key part of Highways for LIFE. Building bridges and road segments offsite away from the flow of traffic brings enormous benefits to the highway user. Prefabrication can save time in construction and minimize traffic disruption since units are assembled elsewhere. Just like building blocks, connecting them and making them ready for traffic is often a matter of a few hours rather than days or weeks. In addition, prefabrication elements are typically of higher quality, which helps bridges and roads last longer.


The Florida Department of Transportation used prefabricated bridge elements and self-propelled modular transporters (SPMTs) to cut the construction schedule for the new Graves Avenue Bridge in Volusia County from 12 months to eight.

Using SPMTs, computer-controlled platform vehicles that can move bridge systems with great precision, the Florida DOT lifted the two old bridge spans and transferred them to the side of I-4 in less than an hour each. The Graves Avenue project was the first time SPMTs have been used to replace a bridge crossing an interstate highway.

Crews built two new concrete bridge spans next to I-4 instead of over the interstate, reducing the need for road closures and minimizing disruption to the 83,500 vehicles that use I-4 at this location each day. They used SPMTs to move the new spans into position in two nighttime closures of just a couple hours each. The Florida DOT estimated that using SPMTs cost an additional $560,000, but that the shorter construction time saved the traveling public $2.2 million in delay-related user costs.

New York City

In another project, the New York City DOT combined prefabrication with innovative contracting strategies to complete the Belt Parkway Bridge in Brooklyn in 285 days. Construction would have taken three to four years using conventional methods. The deteriorated bridge crossed by 166,000 vehicles a day was replaced with a prefabricated bridge in a few nights in each of four weeks, with no impact to rush-hour traffic and at a cost savings of 8%. The project included reconfiguring an outdated interchange and other rehabilitation work.

The project team used a variety of prefabricated bridge components to accelerate the onsite construction schedule and minimize traffic disruption, including foundation piles; precast retaining walls; precast post-tensioned cap beams; prefabricated superstructure segments; precast bridge parapets; median barriers; and approach slabs. In addition to speeding up construction, prefabrication improves work-zone safety, enhances durability of the finished project and in many cases lowers construction costs.

Incentive/disincentive clauses in the contract encouraged early completion of the project. The awarded bid of $55.5 million was $4.5 million less than the design engineer’s estimate and 300 days shorter than the low bid, resulting in a delay-related user cost of $25 million less than the low bid. The project was completed 29 days ahead of the contract bid schedule, netting the contractor the maximum $2 million incentive.

Impact statement

A number of states are already using operational strategies that reduce the impact on drivers during construction or repair. A variety of road-closure strategies designed to address the local environment and conditions have proven their effectiveness in minimizing disruption to travelers.


When upgrading the Lewis and Clark Bridge over the Columbia River between Longview, Wash., and Rainier, Ore., the Washington State DOT stuck to a tight construction schedule to minimize impact on the traveling public. Instead of closing the bridge for months, the agency shut it down from 9:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. for only 124 nights and three weekends.

Crews replaced the bridge deck with 103 precast concrete deck panels. They used SPMTs with a specially designed lifting and transporting frame to lift each old panel, lower a new panel into place and move the old panel off the bridge. They replaced one panel within a six-hour period per night.


In a project with the catchy moniker “Hyperfix,” the Indiana DOT used a complete road closure to rehabilitate a section of the combined I-70 and I-65 arteries in Indianapolis in the shortest time possible. The closure enabled the contractor to work full time and unimpeded over the entire site, cutting the construction schedule from two years to two months. It also improved quality control and safety for the public and project staff.

The Indiana DOT coordinated with the city of Indianapolis to prepare alternative routes and arrange police support to minimize the impact on the 175,000 daily trips displaced by the interstate closure. They restricted construction on I-465, the major detour route, and completed strategic improvements to the local street system to accommodate increased traffic caused by the closure. They also set up a park-and-ride program to provide express bus service to commuters.


As one of the first projects to receive a Highways for LIFE grant in October 2006, the Minnesota DOT is using a five-month road closure to cut delivery time by an estimated 75% on its project to upgrade a two-mile section of Highway 36 in North St. Paul. The closure began May 1, and the roadway section is scheduled to reopen to traffic in the fall. Maintaining traffic on Highway 36 throughout construction would have resulted in prolonged driver impacts until fall 2008, a full year longer.

The full road closure is expected to cut project costs by 15%, improve safety for motorists and construction crews and enable the Minnesota DOT to build a better-quality highway. The project uses A+B (cost-plus-time) bidding to reduce contract time and lane rental to minimize the impact on motorists. Contractors will be charged a fixed fee for lane closures during maintenance and cleanup operations. Minnesota has been a leader in using marketing research to educate the public on full-road closures.

New thinking about innovation

By supporting these and other projects that employ available but infrequently used innovations, the Highways for LIFE program is serving as a catalyst for a new way of thinking in the highway community. As FHWA focuses on mitigating construction congestion in its mission to reduce congestion on the nation’s highways, the Highways for LIFE program encourages states to set congestion-reducing goals for projects and use the best solutions to achieve them. The result will be greater mobility, increased safety, better quality and heightened user satisfaction on our nation’s roads.


Highways for LIFE Grants

  • Arizona: The reconstruction of a section of Rte. 179 in Sedona. The project includes construction of six roundabouts and traffic-control features to improve traffic flow and safety.
  • Georgia: Construction of a new interchange on I-85 in Troup County to lessen traffic congestion. The plan reduces construction time by 40% through contractor incentives and clearing work-zone incidents not involving injuries in less than 20 minutes.
  • Iowa: The reconstruction of an interchange in Council Bluffs using prefabricated bridge sections that can be made away from the roadway and installed overnight, sparing drivers months of onsite roadwork.
  • Maine: Bridge replacements on Highway 116 in Old Town and on Rte. 4 in Addison. The roads will be completely closed and precast concrete superstructures will be used to accelerate construction by 80%.
  • Minnesota: The reconstruction of a portion of Highway 36 in Minneapolis/St. Paul using a full-road closure for five months to complete the project faster.
  • Missouri: The rebuilding of a section of I-29/I-35 in Kansas City to increase capacity, improve safety and upgrade the Missouri River crossing. The project will use fixed-price, design-build contracting to encourage innovation in design, traffic management and construction phasing.
  • South Carolina: The replacement of four bridges near Kingstree using a “no excuses” clause in the construction contract for meeting the specified completion date.
  • Oregon: The replacement of five bridges on Oregon 38 between Drain and Elkton. The state will use prefabricated bridge elements made with high-performance concrete for enhanced durability and strength. Moving the prefabricated structures into place overnight will minimize disruption to the traveling public and freight carriers by not having to use a 50-mile detour.
  • Virginia: Repairing a two-lane ramp on I-66 at U.S. 50 in Fairfax County. Work will be done at night and one lane and shoulder will be replaced at a time. Use of prefabricated slabs and nighttime lane closures is expected to cut construction time from more than 100 days to 35 nights. In another Virginia project, a prefabricated bridge structure will be used to replace a bridge on Rte. 15/29 in Prince William County.

About The Author: Capka is the administrator of the FHWA, Washington, D.C.

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