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Flood Damage Slows Work on $34M I-5 Project in Wash.

Wed May 14, 2008 - West Edition
Rebecca Ragain

We’ve all heard the saying, “When it rains, it pours.”

The proverb really hit home this winter for Scarsella Brothers Inc., when the Kent, Washington-based construction company stopped work on a $34-million highway improvement project and instead helped repair flood damage in the area.

Since July, Scarsella Brothers has been working on the Rush Road project, which consists of widening a 4-mi. (6.4 km) section of Interstate 5 — from Rush Road to 13th St. near Chehalis, Wash. — from four to six lanes, and constructing a new interchange at I-5 and LaBree Road.

In concept, the project is relatively straightforward, said Scarsella Brothers Field Engineer Bill Amata. First, contractors built up the shoulders of the road and shifted traffic to the outside in order to work on the median. Then, traffic was directed to the inside so that crews could complete the outside lanes. Lastly, Scarsella Brothers demolished the old LaBree Road overcrossing and built a new interchange.

Because the community has been looking forward to the improvements, which will allow freight trucks easier access to the interstate and thereby reduce conflict with passenger vehicles, Amata said that drivers mostly have been giving construction crews the thumbs up.

So overall, the project was going pretty smoothly until the intense rains hit.

For example, the Chehalis River overflowed its banks Dec. 3 and I-5 was closed to traffic. Hundreds of people were displaced from their homes, and thousands more went without power or drinking water. In addition to those hardships, The Seattle Times reported that the closure of the 20-mi. (32 km) stretch of freeway near Chehalis was costing the state’s economy approximately $4 million a day.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) hired Scarsella Brothers, which had halted its planned construction on the Rush Road project due to the adverse weather conditions, to help out with emergency repair work.

In turn, Scarsella Brothers called in subcontractors such as Lakeside Industries, Pavement Surface Control, Cowlitz Clean Sweep and P.R. Systems. Amata said that the response was inspiring.

Amata recalled: “We said, ’We need you here doing such-and-such.’ And they said, ’Great, we’ll be there. What time?’ Not a single one asked how they were going to get paid for this, or what’s the time frame for getting paid.

“I can’t say enough good words about the people I dealt with who, in an emergency, came when called and just pitched in,” he added.

Under the direction of WSDOT, Scarsella Brothers breached a dike Dec. 5 so that the floodwaters could recede from the freeway and cleanup could begin.

Throughout December, the weather remained so severe that Scarsella Brothers could do little on the Rush Road project except to secure the construction site from erosion. Even that proved challenging as straw bales became a hot commodity; Scarsella Brothers ended up buying straw from local feed stores and farmers.

“If you were to look off to the west, all the adjacent ground was underwater, including major portions of the highway where we were trying to widen,” said Amata. “We mostly hunkered down and cleaned up the job … for all of December.”

Although the weather remained a challenge for Scarsella Brothers crews and subcontractors into late April, crews were able to demolish the LaBree overcrossing in January.

As soon as the old structure came down, embankment work began for the new LaBree Road interchange. The 128-ft.-wide (39 m) bridge will be constructed from 142-ft.-long (43 m) “super-girders” that cross from one side to the other without a center span. Scarsella Brothers hopes to set the girders in early June.

At present, however, the process of digging the foundations for the new LaBree bridge is still being hindered by rain. And because sensitive wetlands surround the job site, certain areas cannot be tackled at all under rainy conditions.

Amata said that paving also is an issue: “We’re having a hard time getting some pavement done, because it rains every few hours and we can’t get anything to dry out.”

Paving is further complicated because WSDOT restricts daytime lane closures to minimize traffic impact, so any wide swaths of paving must take place at night, when the temperatures are often not ideal for the process.

Despite these challenges, Scarsella Brothers hopes to complete the project as scheduled.

“Weather has had some major effects and we’re redoubling our efforts to stay on track,” Amata said.

One factor in Scarsella Brothers’ favor is its fleet. The company already owns everything needed for the Rush Road project, from Komatsu excavators —including a 750 that Amata admitted is “probably a little overkill” for this job — to Caterpillar dozers, graders, loaders and backhoes.

“Scarsella has a big commitment to Cat, we like the quality and standards,” said Amata.

Amata also is grateful that Scarsella Brothers has its own trucks, mostly Macks. He pointed out that many other companies don’t maintain fleets these days because they can hire independent owner/operators for less. That method may make good financial sense, but as Amata put it, “in the summer, it can be the dickens to get your hands on a truck, much less 20 trucks tomorrow.”

“It’s nice at Scarsella that we have the trucks to do the job,” Amata said. CEG

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