Crews excavate between Old Meridian and Carmel Drive.
The Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) has provided serious funding to rebuild and widen 13 mi. (21 km) of U.S. 31 in Hamilton County between Interstate 465 and state Route 38 to rebuild the aging highway and upgrade it to freeway status . The work, which began in 2012, will be completed in 2016.
“U.S. 31 is a very heavily traveled highway for both commuter and regional traffic,” said Nathan Riggs, public information director of INDOT’s East Central District. “It also carries a lot of freight and is very important for the trucking industry. In addition, it’s an area that has seen a lot of residential and commercial growth in recent years and all of that has led to congestion of the existing U.S. 31 corridor. This is a highway that goes from Alabama to Michigan, so there is also a bigger picture to consider.
“The existing infrastructure is just beyond its capacity and that inhibits mobility, safety, and economic growth,” he added. “This is what we are targeting and right now we have two projects — one in Carmel, a $141 million project being constructed by E&B Paving Inc. and Gradex Inc. and another in Westfield, a $63 million project that Rieth-Riley Construction Co. Inc. is completing. They really go together with two other major U.S. 31 projects that we already completed — in Kokomo we completed a freeway around that city, as well as one in the South Bend area.”
In total five major contracts were awarded for the Hamilton County corridor —worth about $320 million, as well as minor ones for utilities and right-of-way clearings. E&B and Gradex formed a joint-venture for a project that has it building three new interchanges at existing intersections and two new flyovers at the 465 and U.S. 31 Interchange.
“Each of the five pieces is very substantial work, even for one contract,” said Riggs. “The Carmel contract is the largest at $141 million. Most of the people who drive in the corridor understand that the end goal will be a vast improvement for them. But this was an already congested corridor, so construction is not helping with traffic conditions. However, commuters, residents, and businesses are optimistic about the end goal of U.S. 31 being a signal-free freeway.”
Securing the understanding of commuters and truckers in regards to inconveniences is important to INDOT to ensure that the construction crews have a safe environment to work in, and that deliveries of construction materials and vehicles and equipment to complete the projects can be brought in safely and efficiently.
“Getting the work done in a timely manner is crucial,” said Riggs, “and a lot of improvements are now open to traffic. We anticipate having all of the improvements, interchanges, and ramps ready by end of the year. Construction will continue into 2016, but everyone can see the light at the end of tunnel. This year we are looking at a lot of closures and traffic shifts.”
The Hamilton County work has provided INDOT with opportunities to hone its planning skills and traffic management with the input of contractors. An example of this occurred last year when INDOT identified a section of roadway where the right-of-way had been cleared and the utilities had been relocated.
“This allowed us to make a major change in the planned schedule of work,” said Riggs. “We closed a section of U.S. 31 one year earlier than anticipated and that allowed us to complete it a year earlier. That left a smaller piece for the contractor to complete this year. It really didn’t affect the overall timeline for the project, but it improved that section one year earlier than originally anticipated.
“We did that on very short notice,” he said. “We had always communicated that we saw an opportunity for closing that section and accelerating construction on that section between Old Meridian and 136th streets. When the contractors [E&B and Gradex], designers [CHA, formerly RW Armstrong], and INDOT started to look at the upcoming construction season, they saw the opportunity and now while it is technically a construction zone and activity is ongoing, some of the traffic signals have been removed and the new Main Street and 136th Street interchanges are open to traffic. Closures like this are never easy, but we did receive compliments from the public saying they definitely appreciated this change of plan and agreed that the benefits were worth it.”
Managing traffic to meet the needs of motorists, businesses, and contractors, noted Riggs, is “about finding a balance in how you are impacting traffic and the people building the project. You want the work to be done safely and in a timely fashion and for projects to not drag on for years to minimize cost and inconvenience to the public.”
INDOT planners spent several years coordinating the planning for the Hamilton County work.
“Coordination for the project started in 2007,” said Riggs. “The largest challenge is reconstructing an existing highway through an already congested area, maintaining traffic and minimizing impacts to the public. Urban areas can create challenges and conflicts with right-of-way and utilities. Early and regular coordination with utility companies has been essential to keeping the project on schedule. Utilizing mechanically stabilized earth (MSE) walls has helped to minimize the freeway’s footprint and impact to existing homes and businesses while constructing the freeway and multiple grade-separated interchanges in an urban environment.”
The first contract for the overall work ($19.6 million) was awarded to Milestone Contractors LP, who built a new interchange at the former intersection of U.S. 31 and state Route 38 that includes twin two-lane bridges carrying U.S. 31 over state Route 38 and a ramp system linking the two highways. The second contract ($35 million) was awarded to Walsh Construction, who created a more efficient ramp system connecting U.S. 31, Keystone Parkway and 146th Street.
“Six new bridges and more than a mile of six-lane highway were upgraded to freeway standards while maintaining traffic and limiting ramp closures to the shortest possible times by using financial incentives to expedite construction,” said Riggs.
While INDOT does not typically mandate when contractors have to do certain work or regulate their day-to-day schedules, it does present reasonable timeframes based on input from in-house design teams and engineers.
“We sometimes have ambitious expectations because of the need for the project or the area where it is being planned,” said Riggs, “and we try to tie in incentives into the contracts and bring in innovative bidding techniques to get the best bang for the buck and the best results from the contractors. We like to allow contractors to be innovative with their ideas and really build on the project — that is best for taxpayers and also best for their business. What is important is making sure that they meet our guidelines and quality expectations.”