Dallas-Fort Worth was inundated in May with nearly 17 in. ((43.19 cm) of rainfall, according to the National Weather Service, making it the rainiest May in the Texas cities in almost a quarter century. The 17 inches was just four shy of the amount of rain falling on the cities in all of 2014. Yet despite this veritable monsoon, major reconstruction of Fort Worth’s Interstate 35W is on track.
“The record rainfall slowed the work,” acknowledged Michael Peters, public information officer for the Texas Department of Transportation, which owns and is funding the contract, “but the contractor is still planning to finish on schedule next year.”
Peters spoke specifically of the 3.6-mi. (5.7-k) leg that runs between two major intersecting arteries in Fort Worth, Interstate 820 and US 81/287. The $200 million reconstruction of that stretch of roadway is expected to be substantially complete in mid-2016, three full years after work began.
Unfortunately for commuters and I-30 travelers, that isn’t the only piece of I-35W torn up at the moment. The 6.5 mi. (10.4 k) running south from I-820 to the intersection of Interstate 30 nearer downtown Fort Worth also is being widened and upgraded. Like their peers to the north, construction crews in the southern work segment were idled for several weeks by the torrential spring rains, disrupting work schedules.
Interstate 35 splits into East and West legs as it approaches the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, with I-35E routed through Dallas and I-35W through Fort Worth, the 16th largest city in the U.S. The west corridor was first redeveloped in the 1960s, with further reconstruction in the 1970s and ’80s.
Despite the improvements, the artery remained a clogged one, as was once expressed plainly by a resident of the city in a Fort Worth public forum: “I have always felt so sorry for schmucks driving from Austin to Oklahoma North on I-35. They now hate Fort Worth. It is hard to forgive constant gridlock. Nothing gives a worse name to a city.”
The corridor indeed is a significant one, for good or ill. “I-35W is important for the region and the state,” said Peters. He added that, because it is a trucking lane north from Mexico, “the highway is a special international trade corridor, too. Daily truck volume amounts to 11 percent of all traffic.”
Peters calls it “Main Street Texas” with 140,000 vehicles rumbling through the corridor daily. The roadway includes a section that has been declared the most congested in all of Texas.
So the major reworking of the highway is at least due, perhaps overdue. A tertiary part of the project was the recent reconstruction of a dozen miles of North Tarrant Expressway, which feeds into I-35W. That project was completed late last year at a cost of more than $2 billion. In addition, all major intersections with the interstate are being rebuilt at this time, which means local drivers merely crossing over I-35W are running into construction delays, too.
A consortium, NTE Mobility Partners, is building, financing and ultimately managing the longer southern section of I-35W at a cost of $1.4 billion. It began tearing up the old roadway last year.
Day and Night Work
Crews work night and day on the combined 10.1-mi. (16.3-k) highway project. In the northern (DOT) segment, all four lanes of the existing roadway are open during peak travel periods, with intermittent exceptions, but there are numerous lane closures at night and during off-peak hours. The southern portion of the projected is even more constricted as workers and travelers obstruct one another.
“On a typical day in the 3A (southern) segment,” said Tommy Williamson, assistant public relations manager for the consortium, “two to three lanes are still operating in each direction. During night-time hours, there may be a lane or two closed in each direction to allow the roadway works to be performed and minimize the disruption to commuters.”
Asked in October if this clogging has contributed to any significant accidents, Williamson responded, “So far, so good.”
Local commuters are trying to avoid the congestion, of course, but in some parts of Fort Worth such attempts at avoidance are futile. Travelers crossing the country on the interstate can, of course, go through Dallas instead of Fort Worth, but stretches of I-35E also are under construction.
The northern section of I-35W is today a four-lane expressway with four frontage roads. Upon completion of the upgrade, the interstate will be an eight-lane roadway (four of them toll lanes) with four frontage roads. Because the entire corridor is being rebuilt, the frontage roads also are being torn up and constructed anew. The northern section is farther along than the southern one. The northern section is about 60 percent complete, in fact, so some completed improvements already are enhancing travel.
For instance, 17 on-off and connecting ramps in the northern section were touched by the project and nine of those have been finished and are in service. All told in that segment, some 600,000 cu. yds. (45,873 cu m) of embankment will be pushed up by dozers and more than a million cu. yds. (764,554 cu m) of dirt excavated. Major intersections and bridging in this segment include Western Center Boulevard and Basswood Boulevard, with a bridge over Big Fossil Creek.
Connecticut-based Lane Construction is the contractor and also the supplier of surfacing material for this segment of the project. Most traffic lanes will be constructed of asphalt, some 500,000 tons (453,592 t) of it. Structures, curbing and elevated pavement will consume about 100, 000 cu. yds. (76,455 cu m) of concrete.
A Consortium Project
The longer southern leg of the project is being worked and overseen by a design-build team in the consortium called North Tarrant Infrastructure LLC. The joint venture construction team is comprised of global company Ferrovial Agroman, with U.S. headquarters in Austin, and Webber LLC, a Texas-based construction firm operating in the state for over half a century. Webber is actually a subsidiary of Ferrovial, and is the largest heavy highway construction company in Texas. The company reached that plateau after starting with six employees in 1963.
The southern section is slightly wider than the northern section. The current roadway in that stretch is four to six lanes wide, with four frontage lanes in most areas. When completed, the roadway will be eight to 10 lanes wide (four toll lanes) with four improved frontage lanes. Some rerouting of the frontage roads will occur. Besides being nearly twice as long as the northern DOT-managed segment, the southern stretch contains about 60 bridges and 28 off-on ramps.
Potholes in the original pavement as well as new ones created by the heavy May rains were an aggravation for travelers in this section until they were fixed this fall. The soaking of the roadway by remnants of Tropical Storm Patricia in late October threatened to create more potholing. NTE Mobility Partners says it has spent more than a million dollars on cosmetic repairs and other temporary measures just to keep motorists safe and happy.
This longer segment is a about 25 percent finished. Nearly 1,300 Ferrovial-Webber onsite employees are plugging away 24-7 to complete the project in 2018. “Thanks to the design-build nature of our project and the hard work of our employees, this project is still on schedule,” Williamson said.
When both segments are finally finished three years from now, a comprehensive development agreement calls for NTE Mobility Partners to operate and maintain the revived expressway. This will include such maintenance responsibilities as pothole repair, guard rail repair, snow and ice removal, mowing of right-of-ways and similar seasonal and incidental work. The organization’s tolling service provider, North Texas Tollway Authority, will be responsible for collecting tolls.
However, that will not be the end of the I-35W reconstruction story. Later this year, Texas DOT will accept bids for a final far north eight-mi. (13-k) segment of I-35W that runs past Fort Worth Alliance Airport and reconnects with I-35. Reworking of that final segment of the corridor won’t be finished until 2021.
(This story also can be found on Construction Equipment Guide’s Web site at www.constructionequipmentguide.com.) CEG
An unusual element in the reconstruction of I-35W through Fort Worth, Texas, is the source of some of its funding. The longer of the two I-35 segments is being rebuilt through a public-private partnership that includes a consortium of investment companies and organizations. One of the 2009 investors is the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System.
The Dallas system claimed to be the first pension fund in the United States to invest in an infrastructure project. Such investments are more common in Canada and a few other countries than they are in the U.S. Pension funds and other private sources of money are increasingly talked about as alternatives to the unreliable highway funding coming out of Washington.
The Dallas system invested $43 million of its $3 billion fund. The fund’s administrator called it a “proud moment” and “an excellent investment.”
Richard Tettamant declared, “We believe that private investment is the future model for infrastructure construction in this country. It’s a visionary move by our leadership to be the first pension fund to participate, and a win-win-win for the citizens of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.”
However, the I-35W investment returns may not be enough to save the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System.
Tettamant was forced to resign last year after it became clear that the system could be bankrupt in 25 years. Repeatedly putting pension money into nontraditional investment venues, such as risky real estate ventures, did not bring anywhere near expected returns and, in some cases, lost millions of dollars. The prognosis is not good that the Dallas pension system will return to financial health anytime soon.
A new director, Kelly Gottschalk, was hired to lead the system back toward long-term solvency. She declined to be interviewed for this article.
Other investors in the public-private partnership include Cintra US, a global investor in transportation infrastructure, and Meridiam Infrastructure, a global investor in public facilities.
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