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East to West, FL’s I-4 Spreads Out

Tue September 16, 2003 - Southeast Edition
Giles Lambertson

Contractors are upgrading Interstate 4 in central Florida, section-by-section, reshaping the future of the heavily-traveled highway.

The 20 or so projects planned, completed or in progress along its 140-mi. (224 km) length carry a total price tag of approximately $1 billion in construction costs. Funding comes partly from an economic stimulus program pushed through the legislature by Gov. Jeb Bush.

The general task given an array of contractors is to widen Interstate 4 to six lanes in some places, to eight lanes in other sections and to prepare some stretches of the corridor for an ultimate width of 10 lanes.

To that end, bridges are being built or widened to accommodate traffic moving up and over the interstate. Other bridges are being built or upgraded to serve vehicles moving on I-4. New interchanges connect the various roadways.

Interstate 4 neatly bisects the long peninsular state, cutting southwest from I-95 on Florida’s Atlantic coast till it runs into Gulf of Mexico at Tampa Bay. Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) officials conservatively estimate that the corridor carries between 40,000 and 180,000 vehicles a day depending upon location.

That is considerably more travelers than Spanish conquistador Hernando DeSoto encountered when he sailed into Tampa Bay in the 16th century, wholly unaware that the bay was the future home of a Super Bowl champion.

Even 40 years ago, when Interstate 4 was brand new, traffic was much lighter. At that time, Daytona, which sits at I-4’s eastern terminus, was a popular destination for racing fans.

But in those same years a man named Walt Disney had just begun to buy up thousands of acres of swamp near Orlando for an eastern version of Disneyland. His development has attracted millions of travelers onto I-4.

A glance at three of the I-4 projects gives some idea of the scope of the corridor’s massive renovation.

Interstate 4’s Eastern


Near the Daytona end of the interstate, engineers and crew from the Tampa office of Granite Construction Company are reworking 6.3 mi. (10 km) of roadway in Seminole and Volusia counties. The work includes adding two lanes of asphalt, widening four bridges and wholly constructing six others.

The $110-million design-build project is actually a joint venture of Granite and PCL Civil Constructors Inc.

PCL is building the largest bridge on the project, a 20-span structure across St. Johns River. The longest of its concrete girder spans is more than 140 ft. (43 m) and total length of the bridge is 2,566 ft. (778 m).

It is worth noting that oversized footings and abutments are being constructed in the river so that one day they can carry an even wider structure. This anticipatory approach to the upgrade is evident the whole length of Interstate 4.

Coordinating the various bridge and roadbed activities has gone smoothly, said Jay Medlock, project engineer for Granite. Medlock said the joint venture combined with the variety of projects makes this job “a little different. But it has worked out well.”

Devon Johnson is Granite’s project manager.

The largest bridge Granite is building is 300-ft. (91 m) long, a steel structure with girders supplied by PDM Bridge Co., of Palatka.

The other structures are fashioned from concrete girders manufactured by Standard Concrete Products of Tampa.

Granite rented a 400-ton (360 t) crane from Maxim Crane Works to set the largest girders in place. But the company has on site its own Manitowoc 4100 and a 100-ton (90 t) Link-Belt HC 218, along with a rubber-tired 65-ton (59-t) Grove all-terrain unit.

Asphalt work is subcontracted to the Florida firm of Ranger Construction Industries.

The road work became more interesting than usual for Ranger when an Indianshell midden, or refuse heap, was discovered in the path of the widened roadbed. The discovery included some bones.

As a result, Granite and its subcontractors were required to proceed without disturbing the soil containing the native American artifacts. This meant that some of the clearing work was done by hand rather than by machine.

Geotextile material eventually was draped across the undisturbed area and fill dirt deposited on it.

The sensitive work was monitored daily by an archaeologist and a representative of the Seminole tribe.

Dealing with the region’s buried antiquity was not the biggest challenge for Granite, Medlock said. More challenging was extending the highway’s Intelligent Transportation System (ITS), a high-tech network of sensors, cameras and signs.

The electronic equipment is used to monitor traffic flow, respond to tie-ups and feed electronic data to media and FDOT officials.

The system employs traffic sensors in the roadbed, as well as radar units and cameras that can pan and tilt. It also has permanent message boards situated at various intervals to inform travelers via messages punched in from an FDOT keyboard at district headquarters.

“It’s been a challenge,” Medlock said of extending the ITS network. The state added to the challenge by stipulating that the new ITS capacity be on line before any other construction activity interfered with traffic. Thus, electronic lines were being buried about the same time dirt was being dug up.

“We have struggled,” said Medlock. Specifically, the 72-strand fiber optic cable that connects the various sensors and cameras to an FDOT district headquarters 25 mi. away has been severed more than once.

This leg of the I-4 project is on schedule for completion in 2004 even though work has been “impacted big time by rain,” said Granite Tampa Area Manager J.C. Miseroy.

The silty sand of the area lies “very flat” across much of Florida and drainage after a rainstorm is slow. Soaked sand is disked and aerated, Miseroy said, but the least expensive response to puddled water is just to wait until it seeps away.

Building In Mouse Territory

Farther southwest on Interstate 4, Hubbard Construction Company crews, of Orlando, are working on a section that runs for approximately 9 mi. (14 kilometers) from the western edge of Orlando to the Osceola-Polk county line.

The project involves widening the four-lane roadway to six lanes and reconstructing an interchange at I-4 and U.S. 27. A new bridge will serve a county road, and an existing I-4 four-lane bridge is being widened to six lanes.

Hubbard crews are widening the roadbed to receive 5.5 in. (14 cm) of new asphalt in two lanes.

Structures crossing over I-4 routinely are being built to larger dimensions, however. Their span is wide enough to let the “ultimate I-4” configuration of 10 lanes pass beneath. Those extra lanes are not even on drawing boards yet.

Also incorporated into the bridge’s design is clearance for a high-speed rail that is expected to be built in the I-4 median. Therefore, new structures along the route are required to be at least 18 ft. (5.5 m) high.

The idea is to have future I-4 projects “accomplished without having to reconstruct what we’re building now,” said Mike Turner, Hubbard’s project manager.

The project’s new steel-beamed county road bridge is 336 ft. (101 m) long and 48 ft. (15 m) wide. The interstate replacement bridge is approximately the same length, but is 130 ft. (39 m) wide so it can carry two extra lanes of traffic. It is being built in thirds so traffic can continue to flow.

To set girders, Hubbard uses a Manitowoc 2250. Other cranes employed include a 200-ton (180 t) Link-Belt 248, a rubber-tired 50-ton (45 t) Link-Belt 8050 and a 100-ton (90 t) American 7260.

In this project alone, approximately 240,000 tons (216,000 t) of base material and 1.8 million cu. yds. (1.4 million cubic meters) of earth are being moved and hauled by assorted equipment. Hubbard operators fashion shoulders, retaining walls and ramps using excavators like the Hitachi 400 and Komatsu PC-750, Caterpillar 615 and 623 scrapers and D5 and D6 Cat dozers along with one D8.

Ingersoll-Rand SD100 and Caterpillar 563 rollers are compactors of choice and asphalt is laid using a Blaw-Knox paver.

Turner said this $62-million leg of the I-4 project is on schedule for completion in the fall of 2005.

’Malfunction Junction’

At the western terminus of Interstate 4 is an intersection that is popularly dubbed “Malfunction Junction.”

Tampa’s notorious interchange is a 90-degree joining of Interstate 4 and Interstate 275.

An attractive design on paper, the three-level interchange has proved much uglier on concrete with drivers having to merge their vehicles too abruptly and to steer their way through several lanes of traffic to reach an exit lane on the other side.

“We have a lot of weaving,” said John McShaffrey, DOT’s District 7 public information officer for interstate construction. “This is going to eliminate a big weaving problem.”

How chronic is congestion at the interchange? Becoming a construction zone hasn’t even worsened the situation.

“Interestingly enough,” McShaffrey said, “traffic did not flow well before we started construction and it still doesn’t flow well now, but it hasn’t slowed it up any.”

That can’t be said about many highway projects. In defense of the interchange’s designers, the intersection is handling considerably more traffic than originally envisioned.

The solution that FDOT engineers have embraced is to add a lane in each direction — and build a slew of new bridges. A total of 18 bridges will be widened and eight new ones built. Some of the structures will separate exiting traffic and otherwise better sort vehicles by destination.

The most prominent of the structures is a new flyover ramp that will feed southbound I-275 traffic into eastbound I-4 lanes.

A similar structure already flies eastbound traffic across lower lanes, but entering that ramp is a chore for southbound drivers. The new ramp will exit from the nearer side of I-275 and fly up and over in tandem with the original structure.

The curved steel girder bridge has seven spans that range in length from 108 ft. (33 m) to 206 ft. (61 meters). The bridge’s outside girders — which are 66 in. (168 cm) tall — are suspended from the interior girders, an engineering trick to increase clearance between the flyover and the lanes beneath.

Shepherding this $80-million project is another Granite Construction crew.

Wayne Roberts is project manager.

Begun in October 2002, the project should be completed by spring 2006, at which time the interchange finally is expected to lose its “malfunction” reputation.