Work Speeds Ahead on Replacing Century-Old Bridges With Tunnel

Extreme Road Challenges Military, Border Personnel

Thu August 23, 2012 - West Edition
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(L-R): U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Tara Middlebrooks, U.S.M.C.; 1st Lt. Nick Martino; Sgt. Matthew Rhodes; and U.S. Border Patrol Agent Blanca Guerra stand on the eastern face of the border road with the crumbling border fence behind them during a day of concrete p
(L-R): U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Tara Middlebrooks, U.S.M.C.; 1st Lt. Nick Martino; Sgt. Matthew Rhodes; and U.S. Border Patrol Agent Blanca Guerra stand on the eastern face of the border road with the crumbling border fence behind them during a day of concrete p
(L-R): U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Tara Middlebrooks, U.S.M.C.; 1st Lt. Nick Martino; Sgt. Matthew Rhodes; and U.S. Border Patrol Agent Blanca Guerra stand on the eastern face of the border road with the crumbling border fence behind them during a day of concrete p A U.S. Army crew from the 864th Engineer Battalion of the 555th Engineer Brigade of Ft. Lewis, Wa., pours concrete on the 25 percent grade of the eastern slope.

A unique road built within spilling distance of the U.S.-Mexico border for the U.S. Border Patrol proved to be a test of the mettle of both the equipment and the operators, all active duty military personnel.

“This is the most extreme piece of road we’ve built,” said 1st Lt. Nick Martino, of the 7th Engineer Support Battalion, 1st Marine Logistics Group at Camp Pendleton. “The slopes of the hill and the amount of soil we had to take make this a unique and challenging project.”

Martino and his crew of engineers began cutting and subgrading for the road in March, using excavating equipment rented from Hertz. When they finished, U.S. Army engineers from Fort Lewis, Wa., came in and began the final compacting, prepping and pouring concrete.

More than half of the 2,227-ft. (679 m) road, with a lookout point, is built on slopes with grades between 17 and 25 percent atop a peak known locally as Bunkers Hill for the World War II army bunkers still standing at the top. The fence between the U.S. and Mexico crosses the top of the peak and ends, standing open for 25 yds. (23 m) because the terrain is so challenging.

For years, U.S. Border Patrol agents have fought with a short stretch of land — less than a half mile — where the terrain is so difficult that it has become a focal point for illegal border crossers willing to run down the steep peak with the border fence built across the top.

The Border Patrol’s only route up has been from the west side — and then only to the small flat area at the top. The entire east side was inaccessible except on foot. U.S. Border Patrol spokeswoman Blanca Guerra said patrol agents have lost precious minutes in apprehensions and emergencies driving around the peak to climb to the west mesa and come back east, and worried about agent safety when any movement on the east side meant they had to head into the treacherous terrain on foot.

“For our agents’ safety, this project is huge,” Guerra said. “We can cut response time from minutes to seconds, whether it involves responding to an emergency or apprehending illegal border crossers. It lets us put deterrents in place proactively.”

The project is a federal miracle: the Army Corps of Engineers designed it, the U.S. Marine Corps did the grading and preparation and the U.S. Army is finishing the concrete work.

The Army and Marine Corps crews rented equipment from Hertz, and noted they enjoyed the maintenance package that came with the rentals. In one of the unique contract requirements, the construction crews had to leave the equipment in a safety zone a certain distance from the border fence, according to 2nd Lt. Tara Middlebrooks, from the 864th Engineer Battalion of the 555th Engineer Brigade.

“We have really old equipment at Ft. Lewis,” Middlebrooks said. “Here it was all joystick — back home it’s all eight-levers. So that’s another thing our people got experience on — when they transition out of the military, if they choose to, they’re up to date on construction equipment.”

The 10-speed water distribution truck couldn’t take the daily climbs, she said. “It kept breaking down on the terrain and we found five speed works better.”

The Marines quickly learned that even utility equipment faced challenges on the steep grades — until you got the tires right.

“We had a lot of trouble with it until we got one designed for this kind of work. The tracked vehicles worked really well up here, they were important to us being able to get in and out on some of the slopes,” said Martino.

The first cuts were slow and precariously perched on the edge of the hill as the Marines cut into the sides — in some areas as deeply as 30 ft. (9.1 m), to make a wider road. All the soil they cut had to be hauled down to the base of the hill.

“It was a great experience, you never get to work on grades like that,” Martino said.

It took about three weeks of intense effort to get close to half subgrade, Martino said.

“The west side is mostly clay and the middle section of the road is clay, but the east side, the steepest and curviest part of the road was all sand — it was like a beach,” he said. “We had to pull the sand out and bring up some of the clay we cut out of the middle section to get to 90 percent compaction.”

The Marines also cut a drainage culvert into the inside of the road, sloped into the hill to keep water off the road and off the hillside.

Sgt. Matthew Rhodes led the crew that ran power lines 2,200 ft. from the nearest transformer which sounds easy until you see the terrain. The 0.38-mi. (0.6 m) run involved two steep ascents, crossing a mesa and avoiding the Border Patrol’s sensor and monitoring equipment to bring light to the top of the peak.

With the road cut and the wiring done, the Army came in to finish the job.

“A lot of our equipment is top-heavy and you have to pay attention to that when you’re on a 25 percent grade,” Middlebrooks said. “The backhoes, for example, you can see them getting at a bad angle and tumbling down the hill.”

For the grading and pouring however, the track vehicles are mostly out of the picture because they shouldn’t be driven over concrete.

When the trucks came to pour concrete, they found themselves facing the same challenging grades.

“We got some trucks to back up the slope, the ones with really nice drivers,” Middlebrooks said. “But we also laid 800 feet of 5-inch metal pipe to push the concrete up the hill. That’s exhausting work for any crew.”

Throughout the process, work crews found themselves dealing with would-be border crossers standing at the fence on the Mexican side.

“They would use our trench to hide,” Martino said. “And a few tried to blend in with us, wearing safety vests.”