The New York State Department of Transportation’s (NYSDOT) Gateway Connections Improvement Project to the U.S. Peace Bridge Plaza in Buffalo, N.Y., is scheduled for completion in June 2017. The plaza is adjacent to the Peace Bridge that links the United States to Canada. Union Concrete and Construction Corp. is the lead contractor on the project.
Work on the $56 million project began in October 2014, and is being funded by NYSDOT, the New York State Thruway Authority, The Federal Highway Administration, the city of Buffalo and the Peace Bridge Authority.
“The primary need of the project is to address the limited direct access between the Peace Bridge Plaza and Interstate 190,” according to a NYSDOT fact sheet for the project. “Existing direct access is limited and requires regional and international traffic to use the local street system. This limited access adds additional commercial traffic to the local streets, which were originally designed to only meet the needs of local traffic.
“The purpose of the project is to reduce the use of the local streets by interstate traffic and provide access to the existing Plaza at its current location,” it added. “The primary objectives of the project are to address the need for direct access from the Plaza to the northbound lanes of Interstate 190, to redirect through traffic from Front Park and to remove Baird Drive and re-establish the historic footprint of Front Park.”
Extensive public hearings were held during the project’s development and major stakeholders included U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Buffalo Public Works and Parks Divisions, Olmsted Parks Conservancy, D’Youville College, CSXT railroad, NYS Thruway Authority and NYSDOT.
“A major challenge to the designers was to ensure that access to the Peace Bridge be maintained during the construction phase, and that the effects on traffic using the busy I-190 corridor be minimized,” said Susan S. Surdej, assistant to the regional director and regional public information officer. “The Peace Bridge border crossing is the second busiest commercial entry point between Canada and the USA. Prior to the commencement of work, average annual daily traffic consisted of 13,000 passenger vehicles and 3,500 transport trucks.
“The upgraded road systems will allow all traffic exiting the customs plaza to move in the same direction to access I-190 and Niagara Street in Buffalo,” she added. “The existing connection on Baird Drive which runs through Front Park will be removed and 4.5 acres of parkland will be restored. In addition, the existing Porter Avenue bridge, which crosses I-190 and the CSXT railway just southwest of the Peace Bridge Customs Plaza, will be replaced by a new structure. A modern round-about will be built at the east end of the new Porter Avenue bridge to provide access from Porter Avenue to both I-190 northbound and to the Peace Bridge Customs Plaza.”
Construction of the new I-190 northbound on-ramp from the Peace Bridge Plaza required replacement of the existing Shoreline Trail pedestrian and bike bridge over the CSXT railway.
“The new bridge structure will span both CSXT and I-190 and includes a scenic overlook of the confluence of Lake Erie and the Niagara River,” said Surdej. “In addition, 700 feet of the trail will be relocated from in-between I-190 and the CSXT rail line to a location directly on the Niagara River.”
There has been frequent contact between the Union Concrete, the consultant design team of Parsons Transportation Group of New York, Greenman-Pedersen Inc., MJ Engineering and Land Surveying and the NYSDOT staff.
“Bi-weekly progress meetings have been held to keep all stakeholders informed on project progress and work out construction issues as they arise,” said Surdej.
The project presents several challenges, but Union crews are dealing with them.
“We’re working on the ramps surrounding the bridge and access in and around the bridge is tight, and it’s in a restricted area,” said Matt Bliss, Union project manager. “That’s why they call it the connections improvement project. The main goal is to build a new ramp from the Peace Bridge Plaza to Interstate 190 northbound, which runs from Buffalo to Niagara Falls. In order for us to get the new ramp in, we lowered an existing ramp by 20 feet in October and built the tunnel [258 feet] during the winter, which was opened to traffic in July.
“It’s basically a huge excavation that is 1,000 feet long, two lanes wide with pile and lag walls to support the surrounding walls, as well as a building and road on the east side,” he added. “The ramp had to be lowered to get the new ramp over it. The new tunnel is only going to have two feet of fill material on the top.”
The winter of 2014/2015 slowed down the work considerably.
“We had the coldest February on record in Buffalo and trying to pour concrete was certainly a challenge,” said Bliss. “Once the forms were in place for each pour, enclosures were built around the forms using lumber and insulated blankets. The enclosures were heated using a combination of ground heaters and propane torpedo heaters. Before the concrete pours, the enclosures were heated to melt the ice and snow as well as heat the rebar to a minimum of 45F. After the pour the enclosures had to be heated for seven days to a minimum temperature of 45F.”
Union crews also re-aligned two ramps south of the new tunnel, which was required to make room for a new ramp from Porter Avenue to the Peace Bridge Plaza. To make room for the new ramp connecting the Peace Bridge Plaza to I-190 North, an existing pedestrian bridge had to be demolished. A new pedestrian bridge also will be built as part of the project. Additionally, the bridge on Porter Avenue that crosses I-190 North and South is being replaced because it is in disrepair. This bridge will be built in phases to maintain traffic on it with the first half being started this fall and finished in the spring of 2016 and the second half being completed in 2016.
A lot of the work is being done at night to help minimize the impact on commercial and passenger traffic. Extensive safety measures are being employed to protect the public and construction crews.
“For the work on the two-lane ramps, which we did in two phases, we set up temporary concrete barriers to shut down one lane to have sufficient room to work,” said Bliss. “Basically anything we have to do that involves work on the I-190 has to be done at night because we have to close lanes. We can close them between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. We have to maintain traffic into and out of the Peace Bridge. The work has caused a lot of back-ups, but we’re doing our best minimize them.”
The public has been very understanding of the traffic impacts due to the long hours being put in by Union crews.
“This helps, as our crews will be here for another two years,” said Bliss. “The D ramp that connects the Plaza to the I-190 is a major focus of our efforts. We’re going to get all the piers and abutments built before winter and set the steel this winter. Next spring we’ll pour the bridge deck and complete the roadwork.”
With several stakeholders involved with the project, the work requires considerable coordination and planning.
“The DOT is the lead organization, and the rest of the agencies tend to communicate their interest through the DOT, which is our point of contact,” said Bliss
The DOT understands the challenges, but a lot of the limitations were built into the contract. In September of 2012, the Governor of New York brought in the Drivers First initiative, which put the focus on drivers and keeping traffic moving as opposed to allowing contractors to do as they wanted in terms of managing traffic in areas undergoing roadwork.
“This was not a low bidder project. It’s a ’Best Value’ project where we submit our price–a narrative of what we will do and how it will be done,” said Bliss. “This includes Drivers First tables. We set the number of days it will take us to do each portion of the job and once we set those days, it’s weighted into the bid. The DOT compares our proposal with others and in this case, we were the only proposal.”
The next step is to build the new ramps on top of the tunnel, one of which will cross an existing ramp and a rail line and then tie into I-190.
A typical construction season goes from mid-March to mid-November, with Bliss pointing out the Thruway Authority does not allow lane closures from Nov. 15 through April 1.
“We can do a lot of work without lane closures,” he said, “This year our schedule doesn’t require any winter work. We have planners and engineers that use the break to revise the work schedule and coordinate with the subcontractors. We have a very detailed job accounting/cost correcting system and individual equipment is linked to a certain code, be it pouring concrete, forming or paving asphalt and on this job we have almost 1,000 cost codes. We quantify the data and come up with the unit costs for various types of work. This helps when we bid on similar projects.
“The majority of our work is for the NYSDOT and during the winter break,” he added. “Our superintendents help bid jobs for the next season. New York State is not ’a lump sum’ bid system. It’s all unit bid and we have to review what the state paid us to make sure that covers the units for which we have to be paid for.”
The major subcontractors for this project are Surianello General Concrete Contractors for concrete pavement; Catco for electrical and ITS; Hayward Baker for drilling; Darling Construction for pile driving; A&K Slipforming for barrier; Pavilion Drainage for guide rail; Certified Traffic Control for signs; and Accent Stripe for striping.
Bliss anticipated his crews will remove 10,000 cu. yds. (7,645.55 cu m) of concrete, 300 tons (272 t) of steel, and 15,000 tons (13,677.7 t) of asphalt and 90,000 cu. yds. (68,809 cu m) soil. The new construction will require 14,000 cu. yds. (10,703 cu m) of concrete, 1,000 tons (907 t) of steel, 16,000 tons (14,515 t) of asphalt, and 60,000 tons (54,431 t) of recycled concrete used as subbase and backfill.
“On this job there is not enough room to do any on-site recycling,” he said, “but we have property about 10 miles away where we take the concrete from the roads and bridges to be processed by a Pioneer portable crusher, which is then brought back to the site to be used for bridge backfill, utility backfill, and road sub-base.
“It’s a challenge, but we always find space to store vehicles, construction materials, and temporary offices for us and the subcontractors,” he added. “We have a permanent storage yard for the project but it is not large enough for everything we need so we have to set up a lot of temporary staging areas that are not used for very long. Materials are brought in as needed and we have a lot of storage area at our main yard, which is only 15 minutes away. Traffic affects deliveries at times and for those days we have to do work early in the morning between six and seven a.m. During the day, delivery drivers will often have to call somebody on site to get him in and help him get out afterwards.
“With rebar and steel for the roads and bridges, we will bring the material the night before and place it next to where it will be installed,” he said. “We have some extra flatbed trailers and we store rebar on them. Individual trailers can be prepared for specific elements of the work and reloaded afterwards.”
For this project, Union Concrete is using 10 excavators, mainly Komatsu and some Cats, three Cat and Komatsu dozers, three cranes, 12 generators, eight work trucks and two to 20 dump trucks (mainly Kenworth) depending on the day.
“Our repair shop is open 24 hours per-day and we bring in mechanics as required,” said Bliss. “In terms of daily repairs needed, you name it and it has happened: hoses, tire punctures, broken windshields and electrical issues. If we have to rebuild the undercarriage or engine of an excavator or other piece of heavy equipment, it would go back to the shop. If the repairs only require one or two hours, the mechanics will take care of it here.”
Union’s shop manager is Tom Jacobs, who has been with the firm for 41 years, and has often visited the work site.
“As far as the machinery goes, we’re not overtaxing it and it’s very much a complicated project,” Jacobs said. “In the beginning we put in a lot of hours on the machinery because it is a fast-paced job equipment-wise. We try to coordinate with the superintendents to make sure that the machines are available for repair. It’s a congested area and if a machine needs serious repair, we try to get it to a location where we are not in their way–this system has been working and we have the cooperation of the operators who are very attentive of their equipment and report any problems immediately.”
Operators are required to do daily visual checks and fluid checks, and to grease the machines as needed. To ensure that operators spend as much time working, Bliss has assigned one operator to come in an hour earlier two days a week to help with the daily equipment checks, including checking out the horns, backup alarms, lights, and mirrors.
“With so much equipment on this project, this really makes a difference and helps to catch things that might be overlooked,” said Bliss. “This is important for safety because at times, if the machine is working but something small needs attention, an operator might say ’I can still do the job’ and ’I have stuff to do’, and then he forgets about it and small problems can lead to a machine that is not safe to operate or work around. The operator who checks the equipment an hour earlier, fills out a form for every piece of equipment, which lets us know what needs to be repaired.
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