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Helena Roadway Project Gets Good Start

Fri July 16, 2010 - West Edition
Rebecca Ragain


Cedar Street, in Helena, Mont., was a three-lane route before construction began in May to widen it to five lanes from Montana Avenue to Interstate 15. The Cedar Street improvements are the first phase of the three-part Custer Interchange project.
Cedar Street, in Helena, Mont., was a three-lane route before construction began in May to widen it to five lanes from Montana Avenue to Interstate 15. The Cedar Street improvements are the first phase of the three-part Custer Interchange project.
Cedar Street, in Helena, Mont., was a three-lane route before construction began in May to widen it to five lanes from Montana Avenue to Interstate 15. The Cedar Street improvements are the first phase of the three-part Custer Interchange project. The third phase of the Custer Interchange project, expected to begin in 2012, will improve Custer Avenue, including this intersection with Montana Avenue. Currently, the Custer Avenue/I-15 overpass is just two lanes. A new, five-ramp interchange will be built as part of the $20-plus-million Custer Interchange phase.

Just a few months ago, Jason Fenhaus walked up and down Cedar Street in Helena, Mont., visiting the businesses that would be affected by the roadway improvement contract awarded to his employer, Helena Sand & Gravel.

The $2.3-million project widens Cedar Street from Montana Avenue to Interstate 15, increasing the roadway from three lanes to five. It is the first phase of the three-part Custer Interchange project, originally recommended by city and county officials more than seven years ago to address increasing traffic volumes on 40-year-old local routes.

“Although the [Cedar Street] job is only 3,000 feet long, it’s through a pretty major business corridor so dealing with traffic and business access is pretty crucial,” says Fenhaus, who planned his spring walk-through in order to open lines of communication with business owners from the get-go.

Helena Sand & Gravel’s contract with the Montana Department of Transportation required the contractor to hold public meetings once a week. The meetings, Fenhaus said, have been “key in building relationships with those folks, so there’s not a constant battle. They understand what we’re doing, where we’re going.”

“Weekly construction meetings helped build business relationships so that all business entities were well-informed and knowledgeable about each week’s construction activities,” said MDT Project Engineer Mark Studt. “Our goal with the Cedar Street phase was to minimize inconvenience to the traveling public and surrounding businesses.”

Helena Sand & Gravel achieved that goal with elan: not only did the contractor maintain two-way traffic during construction, which began May 3, but it also revised the traffic control plan to accommodate local drivers’ concerns.

Partway through the project, it came to light that the “no left turn” traffic control policy was about as popular as a “no cannonballs” edict at a community swimming pool. So, instead of continuing to limit drivers’ access to businesses in the face of public disapproval, Helena Sand & Gravel got rid of the “no left turn” signs.

“That made everybody a lot happier out there,” said Fenhaus.

In addition, the contractor is on target to complete the project 30 days ahead of schedule, cutting nearly a third of the 100 days specified in the contract. Feedback indicates that “this project is a huge success in terms of relationships with business owners and how traffic has flowed… and how we were able to complete ahead of schedule,” said Fenhaus.

“There was a lot of work going on very quickly and MDT is gratified by the work completed by Helena Sand & Gravel,” said Studt.

As of the second week of July, crews were paving the final lift of Cedar Street’s south side; the north half was completed six weeks ago. Remaining work included pouring sidewalks and completing signing, striping and landscaping.

Though smooth, the project was not free of challenges. An unexpected amount of rain fell in June, during the earthwork and concrete phase of the job. Helena Sand & Gravel’s concrete subcontractor, Missoula-based Highway Technologies, had to work around the weather.

It helped that EnviroWorks of Billings, Mont., had been contracted to pulverize the existing road. That material was then used to widen the roadway.

“That pulverized material not being dirt, that helped a lot with the moisture we got,” said Fenhaus.

Storm drains crossing the existing road in eight places presented another challenge, which the contractor solved by obtaining variances from the city and state to perform drainage work at night, closing traffic to one lane during those less busy hours.

The equipment Helena Sand & Gravel utilized for the job included a model 14 Caterpillar grader and Caterpillar pavers and asphalt rollers. A John Deere 644 loader, a fairly new addition to the Helena Sand & Gravel fleet, rounded out the roster.

Fenhaus predicts that the Cedar Street project will be complete before bidding opens August 12 for the next portion of the project, Frontage Road. MDT expects that phase, which primarily consists of re-aligning Frontage Road and installing a single-lane, round-about intersection, to cost less than $5 million.

The final phase, the Custer Interchange for which the three-phase project is named, is the biggest investment by far, with an anticipated price tag of more than $20 million. The selected contractor will build a five-ramp interchange over I-15 and make lane adjustments to other relevant streets.

With the Cedar Street project nearly finished successfully, Helena Sand & Gravel, a subsidiary of Oldcastle Materials that Fenhaus said does “anything from driveways to $10 million interchanges,” plans to bid on the Frontage Road phase.

“As the first of the three phases of the overall Custer Interchange [project], [Cedar Street] was a pretty good test to see how public would react,” said Fenhaus.