Number 1: I-355 South Extension

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They sat like two stags at a dance party.

For well over a decade, a pair of obese and stiff bridge columns looked lonely and desperate for action as traffic did all the shakin’ and moving on I-55 in the Chicagoland area. The Illinois Tollway thought it had the perfect plan. As construction was winding up on the I-355 toll road in 1990, the authority decided jump out in front and prep the area for an extension that would lead motorists to I-80—and the two bridge columns were born.

After all, this was one of the fastest-growing areas in the Midwest, if not the country, and something would have to be done to ease congestion within the next couple of years. Sure enough, traffic worsened, but so did the tension. Environmental concerns tossed the lengthening project back in the court system, where it lingered for over a decade.

Today, the stags have turned to studs, holding steel beams which will one day shoulder the load of everyday traffic. The complexity, flexibility and perseverance of the I-355 extension project is why it is the king of the class of 2006 Top 10 Roads chosen and published annually by ROADS & BRIDGES magazine.

“This project has been in the works for about 40 years,” Jeff Dailey, chief of engineering for the Illinois Tollway, told ROADS & BRIDGES. “There were a number of big hurdles to get over to the point where we are right now.”

Perhaps the biggest of them all was finding a way to cover the wrinkles of a 12-year-old design. Traffic was now more intense, the environment was more sensitive and materials were more costly. The first order of business was to bring the original designers back on board. To maintain budget, it was decided to break the project down into smaller pieces. Originally divided into seven sections back in the early ’90s, the I-355 extension project now stands at 15 different contracts. This approach kept the bidding competitive and helped with the sequence of work.

A dramatic increase in traffic was another driving force for change.

Designers found themselves creating dual left-turn lanes where there was originally single left-turn lanes. The corridor was set to carry six lanes, including full-width shoulders, up to 127th Street before reducing to four over the remaining distance to I-80. Through reconfiguration, the tollway decided to keep six lanes intact the whole way. A group of estimating experts also was in on the planning challenge, and by using value engineering were able come up with $60 million in savings.

“Much has changed in the Will County area in terms of adjacent land use, too,” Tom Valaitis, construction program manager for the V3 Construction Management Team, told ROADS & BRIDGES. “We did a lot of coordination with the local communities and updated agreements.”

Current plans have the I-355 South Extension project at 12.5 miles long—including a 1.3-mile-long bridge—and costing $730 million. Just over 11 miles of mainline paving will be executed. Work will include laying a 12-in. aggregate subgrade, a 3-in. stabilized sub-base and a 12-in.-thick jointed concrete pavement.

The corridor will feature six interchanges, including flyovers, full-diamond, split-diamond and partial clover-leaf configurations. After visual and instrumentation inspections were conducted on the 12-year-old bridge columns, steel beams were set on the end caps. As of mid-September, a pair set on two of the four piers. The flyover ramps have produced the highest degree of complication. There, crews are installing long, horizontally curved steel beams that are being temporary supported by shoring towers. All of the interchange work is cast in place.

To keep traffic moving crews have built temporary, one-lane asphalt road runarounds where bridge work is taking place. Much of the intense work, like placing the steel beams, is conducted under lane closures at night. According to Dailey, the entire project contains only one detoured section.

Location: Chicago, IL

Cost: $730 million

Length: 12.5 miles

Designers: HNTB Corp., Harry O. Hefter Associates, IE, URS Corp., Teng & Associates, American Consulting Engineers, Crawford, Murphy & Tilley, V3 Cos. of Illinois, Bollinger Lach & Associates, Wight & Co.

Owner: Illinois Tollway

Contractors: Walsh Construction Co., Albin Carlson & Co., TJ Lambrecht, Lindahl Bros., K-Five Construction Co., Herlihy Mid-Continent, Lorig Construction Co., Divane Bros. Electric, D-Construction Co.

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