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Decades Long Minn. Road Upgrade Nears Completion

Fri February 15, 2013 - Midwest Edition
Dick Rohland

After six years of road construction, crews are closing in on the final year of work rebuilding a 15 mi (24 km) stretch of Minnesota highway from two to four lanes and expressway standards in the far, southwestern part of the state near the Iowa border.

This road work on Hwy 60 in southwestern Minnesota will be completed in the fall of 2013. It is coming in at the tail end of a Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) decades long program to expand the entire, two lane highway to four lanes between Mankato, Minn., and the Iowa border, a distance of 100 mi. (160 km) and stretching across mostly agricultural and prairie landscape.

By years’ end, only two gaps 18 mi. (29 km) long of two lane highway will remain to widen to four lanes and bring MnDOT into the final stretch of road improvements after nearly 40 years of construction.

When the entire road is completed, the original, narrow two lane highway will more than double in width to carry four, 13 ft. (21 km) traffic lanes, 9 ft. (14 km) bituminous shoulders on the outside lanes and a 3.5 ft. (6 km) unpaved shoulders on the inside lanes.

Mathiowetz Construction, a family-run, early 20th century founded company based in Sleepy Eye, Minn., and R & G Construction Company, based in Marshall, Minn., with 30 years of experience, led the most recent work under four separate contracts. Both contractors specialize in highway heavy road, commercial, excavation and demolition work operating in the upper Midwest.

Under a fifth contract as part of these highway improvements, Lunda Construction, a Midwest bridge contractor with headquarters in Black River Falls, Wiss., recently completed construction on the replacement of the Union Pacific railroad bridge crossing over Hwy 60 in Worthington, Minn.

All five contracts total $51 million dollars in construction costs with funding coming in from state bonds.

Road crews will return this spring to begin the final push to complete the remainder of the work at Worthington. At the same time, MnDOT will let bids to begin the final run of the Hwy 60 expansion in Minnesota just southwest of Mankato.

Located between the small, rural towns of St. James and Windom, Minn., MnDOT is hoping to finish this final section of highway in 2018. Covering six construction seasons, the final segment of road improvements will be completed under three contracts.

When the last piece of Hwy-60 is completed, motorists and truckers will have a convenient, four lane expressway at their steering wheels between Sioux City, Iowa, and the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis by way of TH-169 running north out of Mankato, a total distance of 275 mi. (440 km).

Built decades ago as a narrow, two lane highway, Hwy 60 is a primary route running diagonally out of Mankato, Minn., southwest to Worthington, Minn., and 10 mi. (16 km) further south to the Iowa border.

The city of Mankato is a college, industrial, agricultural and residential community with a population of 40,000 located 80 mi. (128 km) southwest of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Worthington, Minn., is 90 mi. (144 km) further southwest from Mankato and sits on the south side of Interstate 90. Most of its economy revolves around the agricultural sector with a mix of industry and business activities.

In between the two cities, smaller, rural communities and farms dot the highway, which is posted at 65 mph and loaded with numerous rural and city road crossings.

The highway over time out lived its useful capacity and original design, according to the MnDOT Web site for this project.

Specifically, along with battling on-going maintenance to repair deteriorating concrete pavement, MnDOT also had to make design improvements for the mix of increasing farm and truck traffic with the commuting and traveling public. As part of the new design, engineers consolidated accesses to the highway to eliminate the more dangerous local road crossings, again from information pulled from the MnDOT Web site.

Though a massive undertaking, MnDOT began to tackle the project by segments and systematically re-build a new highway 30 years ago. As the millennium in 2000 approached, only three, isolated gaps in the highway remained as two lanes.

MnDOT’s engineers focus was now on to complete the remaining gaps of two lane highway to expressway standards and eliminate the inconsistency of changing from four to two lanes and then back again a short distance later, which, they said was “not consistent with the good design system of providing a predictable design system for motorists.”

Work on upgrading the remaining sections of highway began in 2007 when Mathiowetz Construction mobilized 2 mi. (3.2 km) inside Iowa and pushed north with its road work. Taking on approximately 10 mi. (16 km) of road reconstruction over six construction seasons, Mathiowetz crews finished at a point just south of Worthington, Minn., last fall.

With a little bit of an overlap in contracts, R & G Construction moved in at the point Mathiowetz crews left at and continued to move north into the city of Worthington and will finish their work at a point just north of the Interstate 90 and Hwy 60 interchange on the east end of Worthington.

Mathiowetz Construction crews just completed their section of highway last fall. Randy Huiras, operations manager of Mathiowetz is pleased with the result of the road work and the cooperative effort between MnDOT staff and his own crews while facing some challenging weather over the length of the project. At the same time, road crews lost three weeks of peak construction time because of the state of Minnesota budget impasse at the legislature in 2011.

Making matters worse, the state of Minnesota closed down for three weeks because of a budget impasse at the legislature in July 2011 and during the peak of the construction season.

Despite the weather and three week delay, both contractors were able to get caught up and are pleased with the results.

“The job finished very well. Patience sometimes can be the best tool to use to complete these jobs,” Huiras said. And with a nod towards the tradesmen and MnDOT staff working the project he added, “on this job they hit a homerun and had a touchdown.”

“Driving through the job, it’s unbelievable the quality of the work that was done,” Huiras continued. “Everything about the project is great.”

“The highway was in desperate need of improvement in that area,” added Huiras. “The new highway is certainly going to save lives and it is a much safer route than before. It’s a win-win situation.”

Mathiowetz crews relied on GPS technology on their heavy equipment and on recycling to cut costs and make the project more efficient.

Along with local resources, “a lot of recycled material was placed back into the project, a lot of the old roadway was recycled back into the new roadway and trees were used for erosion control,” Huiras said.

Mathiowetz Construction also relied on a mix of employees on the job that were just out of trade schools along with a skilled set of local tradesmen, Huiras added.

A highway project like this “puts a lot of people to work. At any one time, there were over 100 people out there and there was probably an average of 50 people a day on the job,” said Huiras. “These highway projects certainly generate a lot of payroll, a lot of wages for the employees.”

Mathiowetz crews and their 21 subcontractors and six material suppliers had a good representation of equipment throughout the construction site.

Included in this list were Cat 627 E and G and 637 D scrapers, Cat D6 R, D6LGP, D5 dozers, Cat 14 H, 14 G and 160 M blades and a John Deere 750 dozer. For digging work, Mathiowetz brought in a Komatsu 650 and Cat 345 excavator. Driving in and out of the site for hauling were John Deere 40 ton trucks.

Gregg Mathiowetz, vice president of R and G Construction agreed that despite wet weather and the budget impasse, his work also went well and road crews were able to make up for the lost time.

In 2011, “we had some wet conditions and we had the government shutdown which forced us to change the sequence of the project because of the time lost. We also had a lot of muck that took some extensive work to get out,” Mathiowetz said. “This year, we had the dry conditions that helped bring the project back on schedule.”

MnDOT project engineer Bob Williams echoed these comments and added that “the shutdown in July 2011, in the middle of the peak construction season resulted in major impacts to the traveling public and significant impacts to multiple project schedules.”

Along with the excavation and grading work for 4 mi. (22.4 km) of new highway, R and G Construction and its 14 subcontractors are also placing new surfacing, storm sewer, sanitary sewer, water main, box culverts and lighting throughout the length of the project.

Mathiowetz added that “we’ve taken all of the concrete surfacing, the asphalt surfacing and some of the existing granular material and having a sub-contractor crush it and make it into a Class VII product to be re-used back on the project.”

Some of the notable quantities for this stretch of road work included the removal of 292,000 cu. yd. (223,380 cu m) of muck, the removal of 53,400 sq. yd. (44,856 sq m) of bituminous pavement, close to 3,000,000 cu. yd. (2,295,000 cu m) of common excavation and embankment 47,500 sq. ft. (4,420 sq m) of sheet piling and thousands of cu. yds. of concrete pavement poured.

For this type of heavy construction, R & G Construction had a variety of Cat equipment and Mack trucks on this project to get the work done. Some of the Cat equipment brought into action for the project included 627G scrapers; D7RLGP, D6RLGP, D8R, D9RLGP Cat dozers; 14M and 14G motorgraders and 345 excavators, 980G loaders and with most of the equipment equipped with GPS units. Approximately 12 to 20 Mack trucks with side-dump trailers hauled the removals and aggregates for the project.

Because of the highway expansion, the Union Pacific Railroad bridge crossing over Hwy 60 had to be replaced to accommodate the new, 4 lane divided highway configuration, Williams said. Though construction went well, it “was impacted by a major delay in the fabrication and delivery of the steel girder assemblies.”

Built adjacent to the existing bridge to keep the track online, the new bridge was opened to railroad traffic just last fall. Lunda, though, “is still on site constructing retaining walls on the south side of the bridge in anticipation of temporarily re-opening Hwy 60 underneath to traffic” by February of this year, Williams said.

While under construction, traffic was maintained under the bridge to accommodate access to local businesses and also to accommodate material hauling for the road construction work, Williams added.

Along with fencing and surface finishes, major remaining bridge related work includes grading of the abutment areas, removal of steel sheeting, and retaining wall construction on three ends of the abutments.

To make room for the expanded highway in some places, homes and businesses were either demolished or completely moved to new locations.

As spring approaches, R & G Construction crews will pick up where they left off last year and complete by this fall the most southern segment of the Hwy 60 road expansion. At the same time, MnDOT will take bids to upgrade the last two segments of Hwy 60 to four lanes between St. James and Windom, Minn. to make for a safer and more efficient highway serving the southwestern communities of Minnesota.

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