Future Traffic Estimates Spur U.S. 17 Widening Project

Wed November 30, 2011 - Southeast Edition
Cindy Riley

A Caterpillar 375 L hard at work at a retention pond site with a Volvo off-road earth hauler 
in the background.
A Caterpillar 375 L hard at work at a retention pond site with a Volvo off-road earth hauler in the background.
A Caterpillar 375 L hard at work at a retention pond site with a Volvo off-road earth hauler 
in the background. Workers installing a drain pipe. Concrete truck on new two-lane bridge spanning the Thornton Branch Creek. Workers on new bridge with cranes in the background during pile cap concrete placement. Workers installing the liner for one of the eight retention ponds. Caterpillar backhoes installing drainage along the future northbound travel lanes.

Despite a series of weather delays, construction work is on schedule along U.S. 17 in Florida, involving roughly 4 mi. (6.4 km) of a four-lane divided rural roadway to replace a two-lane undivided highway.

According to Ralph Bridger, project manager of general contractor Better Roads Inc., his company is responsible for all phases of construction on the $14 million Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) project to widen the 4.65-mi. (7.5 km) segment of U.S. 17 from two to four lanes from the Charlotte/DeSoto county line to SW Collins Street in Fort Ogden.

“Two new travel lanes built to the east of existing travel lanes will carry northbound traffic, and existing lanes will carry southbound traffic after being resurfaced, and in some places, completely reconstructed. Northbound and southbound lanes will be separated by a grassy median. In addition to construction of new travel lanes, the project includes building a new two-lane bridge spanning Thornton Branch Creek, new storm drains and eight retention ponds,” Bridger said.

The project began in November 2010.

“The future northbound bridge crossing Thornton Branch Creek is completed,” Bridger went on. “Base for an 8,000-foot-long segment of new northbound travel lanes from the Charlotte/DeSoto county line to SW Liverpool Road is substantially complete and will be ready for paving very soon. Phase I utility work, 95 percent of the Phase I storm drains and five of eight retention ponds are also completed. Work is also nearing completion on reconstruction of part of Enterprise Boulevard where it intersects U.S. 17.”

Enterprise Boulevard is a four-lane divided road serving a large Wal-Mart distribution center in DeSoto County.

“The next major milestone is scheduled for mid- to late- November when all northbound and southbound traffic on U.S. 17 from the Charlotte/DeSoto county line to SW Liverpool Road will shift to what ultimately will be the two new northbound travel lanes. This shift will take traffic off of existing travel lanes south of SW Liverpool Road so the contractor can resurface them in some areas and completely reconstruct them in others. The next phase also will include installation of turn lanes in the median separating U.S. 17 northbound and southbound travel lanes,” said Bridger.

“Once the traffic shifts to the two new U.S. 17 travel lanes from the Charlotte/DeSoto county line to SW Liverpool Road is done,” Bridger went on, “we’ll focus on construction of new northbound travel lanes between SW Liverpool Road and SW Collins Street in Fort Ogden and making improvements to existing travel lanes from the Charlotte/DeSoto county line to SW Liverpool Road. The final phase of the project will be reconstruction of existing travel lanes from SW Liverpool Road to SW Collins Street.”

Bridger remarked that the biggest challenge so far has been coping with soggy conditions.

“Due to an unusually heavy rainy season with exceptional amounts of rainfall in July, August and September, excavation of new retention ponds and installation of liners have been major challenges. Maintaining 24-hour access to the Wal-Mart distribution center off Enterprise Boulevard and to a number of mobile home communities with entry roads leading directly to U.S. 17 is essential and requires close attention.

“One of the factors contributing to smooth operation of this project is FDOT’s partnering concept when the contractor, subcontractors, utility companies, construction engineering inspector and FDOT take a team approach to running the project and use a jointly agreed upon process to rapidly resolve issues,” Bridger stated.

Better Roads is using Caterpillar excavators and bulldozers, Volvo trucks, backhoes and excavators, and a variety of John Deere equipment. Most bulldozers used on this project are GPS equipped.

The bridge subcontractor, Zep Bridge Builders, used P & H Mobile and American cranes as well as Hyundai shovels. Lee Mar Building & Construction Corp., the subcontractor responsible for constructing retention ponds, is using Kawasaki backhoes and Volvo trucks. Another subcontractor, Guymann Construction of Florida Inc., is using Caterpillar and Volvo equipment.

Some of the materials used on this project include soil from the retention ponds, millings for temporary crossings, shell for base rock and bank and shore rip rap in the vicinity of the new bridge spanning Thornton Branch Creek. Earthwork quantities include 467,088 cu. yds. (357,114 cu m) regular excavation; 2,813 cu. yds. (2,150 cu m) subsoil excavation; and 371,000 cubic yards (283,649 cu m) of embankment.

Bridger explained, “The project has had minimal effect on traffic. Occasional flagging operations on U.S. 17 to install temporary barrier walls, haul soil to and from pond sites, and move pipes across the highway have been carefully deployed and monitored to limit slowing or stopped traffic. Intermittent lane closures also have been in place for brief periods on several side streets intersecting with U.S. 17 for utility work and construction activity at locations where they will intersect with new northbound U.S. 17 travel lanes. Importantly, crews completed reconstruction of Enterprise Boulevard where it will intersect with new northbound U.S. 17 travel lanes without affecting operations of the Wal-Mart distribution center, which is accessed exclusively from Enterprise Boulevard.”

State and federal dollars have funded road and bridge work and state funding (including DEP funds) has been used for joint project agreements with DeSoto County for utility work.

According to FDOT Public Information Officer Ken Nelson, “U.S. 17 is a significant transportation corridor important not only to the state and its visitors, but also to community members living and working along and near the highway, as well. U.S. 17 plays a prominent role in moving people, commerce, and industry, and during historic hurricane seasons several years ago, the highway demonstrated its critical value as an evacuation and recovery route for the area. As the region grows and traffic increases, improvements to U.S. 17 are needed to connect already widened roadway segments between Punta Gorda and Orlando. Planning and designing this project and now building it have provided valuable jobs in Florida.”

As for what the work will mean to motorists once the work is complete, said Nelson, “With this project, traffic will move more efficiently and safety will be enhanced. Notably, U.S. 17 must move significant truck traffic from phosphate and agricultural industries as well as move trucks into and from the Wal-Mart distribution center adjacent to U.S. 17 at the southern end of DeSoto County. Left turn lanes will be effective in providing access to nearby industrys and residential areas and in keeping mainline traffic moving smoothly.”

According to the latest statistics, the annual average daily traffic count in 2010 for U.S. 17 in the area ranged from 5,400 to 7,300 vehicles traveling the highway each day. The need for this highway expansion job is perhaps best illustrated by projected 2029 traffic volumes indicating traffic, essentially, will double, with 12,300 vehicles expected to travel this segment of U.S. 17 each day.

“Most importantly,” Nelson explained, “FDOT and the contractor have paid close attention to the maintenance of traffic plan. Seasonal residents returning for the winter months and motorists who may not travel the highway on a daily basis must be able to easily follow traffic patterns that change and adjust with phases of construction. FDOT also works closely with regulatory agencies to be certain all permits are in place and conditions are met throughout the life of the project.”

Crews first began placing construction signs and installation of erosion control. Initial work involved clearing land for the two new travel lanes and beginning drainage activities. The contractor’s crews have reportedly been working from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Construction activities predominantly will occur during daytime hours, although some work will be done at night. It also is possible the work week may expand to six days during some stages of the job.

The contractor will maintain two-way traffic (one lane in each direction) during most of the job. Flagmen will be present for some operations requiring one-lane traffic.

A value engineering study made several recommendations to reduce construction costs. The first mile of the project required complete reconstruction to prevent overtopping of the roadway during a design storm event. The middle two miles of the project utilized the existing pavement for the two southbound lanes and constructed two new northbound lanes. The last mile of the project required reconstruction of all four lanes in order to provide the proper clear zone. This required shifting the roadway eastward away from the existing rail road.

One of the most challenging aspects on the project was the coordination with local property owners and the Department of Transportation regarding driveway access and median opening locations.

Services included survey, right-of-way-map preparation, archeological studies, geotechnical and contamination investigation, drainage design, structures design, roadway design, signing and marking preparation, and complete utility coordination.

Engineers have determined the types and locations for 11 paved median openings based on criteria and guidelines established by the Federal Highway Administration and the Florida Department of Transportation.

Key factors considered were traffic counts, proximity of median openings to one another and their effects on safety and traffic flow.

The project is scheduled for completion at the end of 2012. CEG