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Archer Western Performs on Center Stage at the ’Big I’

Thu January 22, 2009 - Southeast Edition
Jeff Brooks

Considering the I-10/I-95 interchange reconfiguration, aka The Big I, is one of the largest, most expensive road construction projects in northeast Florida history, it might seem there would be more opportunities for things to go wrong.

Not on this job.

Started in February 2005, the project is about 73 percent complete and slightly ahead of its scheduled completion date in early 2011.

Originally bid at $150.8 million, the current cost estimate is $151.5 million. There are 10 major phases to the project, including building 17 bridges and constructing 25 lane mi.

“We’re clearly ahead of the state schedule, but that was our plan from day one,” said Jon Walker, senior project manager of Archer Western Contractors, the project’s prime contractor. “Our goal is to finish ahead of our own schedule. That’s what we expect from our people. We have Archer Western Contractors’ banners hanging from three of the structures on this site. We want the people of Jacksonville to know who we are. We want our crews to be proud of what we’re doing — working safely, building with quality, and being productive every day. This project affects everybody in the city and we take our goal seriously.”

Performing on Center Stage

Walker said the project is a $150 million billboard for the company.

“We are performing on center stage every day for Jacksonville,” Walker said. “We get many compliments on what we are accomplishing from our neighbors, the local business people, from the government leaders, and even from our competition — albeit not directly but through associates.”

Archer Western Contractors, a subsidiary of The Walsh Group, a firm currently ranked among the nation’s Top 20 contractors, was the low bidder for the job. A general contracting, construction management and design-build firm, it is relatively new to northeast Florida, but has worked on several major projects in the past seven years, including a 3.5-mi. (5.6 km) widening project on I-95 from the Trout River to I-295 and a $31.4 million project to widen 1.5 mi. (2.4 km) of U.S. 17, including the Doctors Inlet Bridge.

When complete, the Big I project will not only impact traffic patterns, but will trigger development on downtown’s western edges and give a boost to the city’s economy, transportation officials and city leaders say.

“We replaced the Acosta Bridge in the 1990s. Then you had the project to widen Riverside Avenue from four to six lanes from Forest Street to Park Street. So then the third project is the interchange reconfiguration,” said Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) spokesperson Mike Goldman. “The three of those projects are all complementary.”

Jerry Mallot, executive vice president of economic development at the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce, sees the project as a tremendous time saver.

“When I look at that interchange it has created the most challenges for the movement of people and goods in our regional system,” Mallot said. “Part of it got fixed when we built the new bridge, but it only fixed part because you still push a lot of vehicles into a funnel that can’t go anywhere. Today, every single day, you will have long backups from several directions coming into that interchange that last for several hours. The new flow of traffic will mean a lot to the everyday lives of people let alone the ability to move goods and services very effectively.”

Mallot said there’s an added bonus of the project in today’s uncertain economic times.

“It’s a massive project so it’s injecting a lot of money through the construction process into the economy today. That is probably more important recently than when the project started,” Mallot said. “It’s had a very positive economic benefit and will continue too.”

Recently, crews have fit together the next piece of the construction puzzle by opening the ramp from I-95 south to I-10 west on their milestone date of Dec. 20.

“That traffic switch gives us another big piece of work by opening up more of the center of the interchange,” said Walker. “It diverts a lot of traffic that used to go at grade through the middle of the interchange up in the air and out of the way, allowing us to go into more of what will be a larger earth work and concrete paving phase. Much of the work to date has been aerial structural work as we have moved traffic to the completed outer roadways. The next big milestone will be completing the inner mainline roadway sections.”

A few months ago, Walker said, they hit another milestone with the opening of the three-level ramp from northbound I-95 to westbound I-10, which had been dubbed the “ramp to nowhere.”

“That was a major milestone that topped off the most challenging work on the project,” Walker said.

Finishing those two bridges and getting traffic out of the way means Archer will have a larger footprint at the site.

“There will be much more work available to us than we have ever had before, because everything has been worked on the peripheral,” Walker said. “We only had small areas to work because of traffic. Now we are really hitting on all cylinders with our work force.”

Meeting the Challenges

Goldman said the biggest challenge is the project’s location.

“Traffic management is a real challenge,” Goldman said. “It’s a tight urban fit. The fact that we’ve had to do ramp closings and lane closings. We’ve had regular detours from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. so the beam work can be done. The contractor has been really diligent about getting out of the work area on time.”

Because of the project’s size, Walker said finding a capable workforce has been another hurdle for Archer Western Contractors to overcome.

“One of the challenges is to develop a workforce that is commensurate with the type of work we’re building and it has been a challenge for us,” Walker said.

“Most projects don’t have this scope of work intertwined in a downtown setting. We and the traveling public are at each other’s mercy. If we make a mistake, we could impact tens of thousands of commuters in their daily grind. On the other hand, our workplace is more often affected by what happens with the traveling public. It could be as elaborate as a truckers’ load shifting or a high-speed chase, or as simple as somebody having a flat tire. When that happens at that location in the heart of Jacksonville, we often can’t move manpower or materials around and we all suffer the frustration of standing still.”

Currently, there are about 150 workers onsite, with many operations taking place day and night. Walker also said that there is every piece of equipment onsite that you can imagine.

“Tons of equipment,” Walker said.

Making an Impact

Though still 18 months from completion, Goldman said the finished phases are already having an impact.

“There’s already a noticeable difference,” Goldman said. “The fact that the Forest Street ramp has opened makes it easier to get on 95 northbound. [In terms of] the traffic flow to and from Riverside Avenue and that part of downtown, there’s been a significant change. It’s really going to make traffic flow through that merger a lot easier. It’s the busiest section of two roadways in Jacksonville.”

According to traffic counts, about 150,000 vehicles travel that merger daily.

As the new ramps open, Goldman said, it’s helping take pressure off the other exits and creating new opportunities downtown.

“It’s indirectly helped clean up Edison Street,” Goldman said. “What we did for this project got rid of some dilapidated housing in that area. It had an impact on Brooklyn, making it more attractive for redevelopment just because of the access.”

Mallot also sees the new interchange as a spark for downtown development.

“Brooklyn is indirectly related to the project with the new off-ramp directly into downtown,” Mallot said. “I think it will make downtown a much more attractive alternative. In today’s environment there aren’t too many whispers about real estate development in the short term. In the long term, I have heard people say that [downtown] certainly is a prime area for development. As soon as the markets for condos and offices returns, I think that will be a prime location.”

Heading Downtown

Many also see the new interchange creating a new main corridor into downtown, which could lead to more restaurants and retail in the urban core.

“I think if people are headed downtown and they come off the Forest Street exit, they’ll have a much better impression of downtown so it’s going to be a terrific gateway into the downtown,” said Terry Lorince, executive director of Downtown Vision Inc. (DVI). “It will help with congestion in that part of town around the Riverside, Brooklyn area. If we can get another entrance to downtown we’re happy about it. Physically, it looks better already. I think it will be a big coup for downtown.”

While there have been some internal discussions about DVI expanding into Riverside/Brooklyn, Lorince said, currently they have no firm commitment to extend to those areas. She would like to see more signage and lighting so people exiting the highway can find their way downtown. Goldman said once the project is complete, there will be some extensive landscaping done around the interchange.

There also are those who believe the project will shift downtown’s center to the Riverside area. Mallot sees it a little differently.

“There’s some people who believe that area will become the new center of downtown,” Mallot said. “I see it as more of an extension of downtown than a shift of the center. It’s certainly the most likely area of growth for downtown would probably be along that corridor.”

In the past, Mallot said, people avoided going downtown because they didn’t want to deal with the interchange traffic.

“I think they consciously avoid it,” Mallot said. “I do think it will have a wonderful impact on how we view downtown as a destination point or a place to go and do things. Where we’ve avoided it in the past, it will be an easy choice going forward.”

In addition to improving traffic flow, Mallot sees the interchange project impacting other pieces of the transportation puzzle.

“I think it comes at a time when the level of movement for goods at the port is going to be increasing,” Mallot said. “The timing is good as we begin this ramp up in logistics at the port. This also is occurring right at the same time that 9-A is being completed so that will actually relieve some of the pressure on that interchange as well.”

The junction of I-10 and I-95 was originally constructed in the 1950s as part of a cross town expressway system built by the Jacksonville Expressway Authority, which stretched from south of downtown Jacksonville across the St. Johns River on the Fuller Warren Bridge and north to Beaver Street. The expressway also stretched west to Lane Avenue as what would later be I-10. In the 1960s, when the Interstate system connected to the expressway north, south, and west of town, the expressway junction became the I-10/I-95 interchange.

“The old interchange was woefully inadequate, not only from a capacity standpoint, but from a safety standpoint as well. It needed to be reconstructed,” Walker said. “It is going to be much safer, with more direct routes, larger radius ramps, and improved lines of sight for motorists, all leading to a much less harrowing experience getting through this interchange.”

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