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Largest Urban Highway Project Under Way in Mont.

Mon October 01, 2007 - Midwest Edition
Rebecca Ragain

U.S. Highway 2 runs east-west through Montana, roughly parallel to the U.S./Canadian border.

Because U.S. 2 also follows the northernmost line of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway, the highway and the country it passes through are known collectively as the Hi-Line.

In the middle of the state — right where a map of Montana usually folds — U.S. 2 becomes the main street (named 1st Street) for the town of Havre.

With a population of approximately 10,000 people, the greater Havre community is one of the largest urban areas on the Hi-Line. And because the nearest major city is Great Falls, about 120 mi. to the southwest, Havre is also a commercial focal point for those living within a hundred-mi. radius or more.

However, the current highway infrastructure through Havre was not built to accommodate today’s heavier traffic. Much of the roadway is deteriorating, as one might expect from half-century-old asphalt.

That’s why the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) hired Kalispell-based general contractor Nelcon, Inc., to reconstruct 2.4 mi. (3.9 km) of U.S. 2 through the city limits of Havre.

The project, which broke ground April 16, is the largest urban infrastructure project in the history of MDT. It has a price tag of nearly $30 million.

Town’s Input Counts

MDT district administrator Mick Johnson pointed out that 180 businesses will be impacted by the roadway construction.

“Anytime you’re working in an urban situation, it’s much more difficult” than in a rural setting, Johnson added.

As with most urban projects, the process of collaborating with the public presented some challenges as MDT planned the U.S. 2 reconstruction through downtown Havre.

For instance, Johnson would have preferred to close 1st Street/U.S. 2 down entirely during the course of the construction period, routing traffic through the back streets. He said it would be more efficient, less costly, and safer.

In fact, Johnson estimated that MDT could have finished the project in one year under those circumstances, as opposed to the 19 months expected under the final plan.

But businesses didn’t want traffic detoured through the back streets for a year.

So instead, traffic in both directions is being diverted to the two lanes on the south side of the street for the first phase of construction. Later, both directions of traffic will be routed to a graveled surface to the north side.

The people of Havre also asked MDT to change its initial proposal, which was to make the portion of U.S. 2 through Havre into a two-lane highway with turning lanes. The community wished to keep the original configuration, which is four lanes of traffic with parking on both sides.

MDT acquiesced, retaining the four-lane design. The reconstructed section will be the same width upon completion as it was beforehand.

Preserving the Past

Although these types of concerns are par for the course in terms of urban roadway projects, the town’s third request was much more unusual.

Havre boasts a block-long, underground commercial area dating back about 100 years, now called Havre Beneath the Streets.

Tourists go underground to visit the Sporting Eagle Saloon and Wah Sing Laundry and imagine themselves in the shoes of those who played and worked there during the days of the Wild West.

MDT concurred with the townspeople that it was important to preserve this historical attraction during highway reconstruction.

“It’s a historic feature that’s very unique, we all agreed it should be protected,” said Johnson.

In conjunction with the highway improvements, Havre Beneath the Streets will receive some new support walls underground, which will require excavation and backfilling. Sidewalk and landscaping improvements are also planned.

A temporary access ramp will be built, in order to keep the attraction open to pedestrians during construction. The ramp is approximately 8 feet wide and a city-block long, and will cost $500,000 to construct.

Another cost unforeseen during the early planning stages was an extra $50,000 in aesthetic enhancements along U.S. 2 through Havre, namely expensive, period streetlights, and sidewalk plantings.

Johnson had originally budgeted $100,000 for cosmetic improvements such as these. But when town leaders sat down with a landscape architect and discussed their wish list, they arrived at a number closer to $120,000.

So Johnson, who believes in supporting any community that works “really, really hard” to draw up improvement plans, okayed $150,000 worth of enhancements.

Handling H2O

As if the aforementioned hiccups weren’t enough, the Havre highway reconstruction project has two more significant hurdles to face, both related to water.

The first is a major drainage problem.

“The entire community drains to U.S. 2, so every time it rains in town, U.S. 2 is flooded,” explained Johnson.

Therefore, the planning stages of the project included a complete hydraulic survey to determine the origins of all the water draining to the highway.

The completed plan includes the installation of a massive storm sewer box pipe — one 6-ft. (1.8 m) section alone weighs nine tons (8.1 t) — which will require extensive excavation work.

Drinking water and sewer lines also will be maintained and replaced during the course of the project; the City of Havre has contributed $4 million towards that end. (The majority of the project is covered by federal highway funds.)

These complications are probably part of the reason that Nelcon’s project manager, Sam Weyers, stated in a press release that the U.S. 2 reconstruction “isn’t a highway construction project so much as a massive utilities project.”

The second major hurdle is perhaps even more sensitive.

The deeper excavations are filling with what is probably contaminated groundwater, considering that three nearby facilities (the Havre Refinery, and two ponds owned by Burlington Northern) have been assessed for hazardous waste by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program.

Johnson declined to name the companies responsible for the contamination, saying only that some facilities weren’t as careful as they should have been.

Consequently, the U.S. 2 through Havre highway project includes the construction of a pond capable of securely holding 16 million gallons of contaminated groundwater while it evaporates over the next five or six years.

As Nelcon digs the trenches for the various utility pipes, the trenches fill with water. That contaminated water is then pumped into elevated 10,000-gallon storage tanks, which are equipped with vacuum-activated valves to prevent overfilling. Conventional 4,000-gallon tanker trucks then transfer the water to the holding pond.

Environmental experts will be on site, testing the swelling groundwater and observing the safeguards that are in place to isolate it.

All told, one can begin to understand why Johnson said that he lost sleep over this project for months.

Three Phases

The first phase of the project is located on the east end of town, from 22nd Avenue to 7th Avenue. The viaduct at 7th Avenue to northbound roadways 232 and 233, which lead to Canada, will remain open at all times.

Phase I is scheduled for completion by November. At that time, project manager Weyers expects construction to shut down, due to the harsh weather conditions characteristic of Montana winters. Construction is scheduled to begin again in mid-March.

Phase II will take place along the section of highway from 9th Avenue West to 1st Avenue West. That work was expected to begin the week of May 28 with the removal of asphalt from the northern lanes between 9th Avenue West and Montana Avenue.

Phase III is scheduled for 2008, and will take place along the middle section of the road — between 1st Avenue West and 7th Avenue East — which has the greatest density of businesses.

All new surfaces will be concrete, replacing the asphalt that was previously in place.

“When you have a high volume of starting and stopping, I don’t care what kind of asphalt it is, it doesn’t hold up to concrete,” stated Johnson, who accepts the higher cost of concrete in return for its longer life.

Progress to Date

About six weeks into the project, construction along Phase I is progressing according to schedule. Nelcon has approximately 40 people on site at this time, plus an additional 30 people including representatives from MDT, subcontractors, and other support staff.

By April 19, crews were digging the storm sewer outfall and retention basin at 22nd Avenue East.

Preparation also was under way to lay the storm sewer box pipe under the north lanes at 22nd Avenue East to 14th Avenue East, so that crews would be ready to install it once the asphalt was removed.

Soon, workers also were deconstructing the curbs and gutters from the north side of the roadway.

As it turned out, the asphalt was removed from the northernmost and parking lanes between 22nd Avenue East and 8th Avenue East by May 3, which was sooner than expected.

To remove the asphalt, North Dakota-based subcontractor Industrial Builders employed a milling machine with a six-foot drum. Project manager Weyers praised the machine as “extremely effective” and “highly productive.”

The milling machine was scheduled to begin removing the asphalt from the remaining, southern lanes between 22nd Avenue East and 8th Avenue East as early as May 29.

That same week, asphalt removal was to begin along the Phase II section on the West end, starting with the northern lanes. This represents a change from the original schedule.

(Excavation for utilities along the Phase II section will still wait until later, probably until late summer, as scheduled.)

Another fast-tracked task is the grading of the West ditch, which, when completed, will drain storm water from downtown Havre into the Milk River.

Back at the east end of the construction area, storm drain and water utility work remain in progress. As of May 16, about 492 ft. (150 m) of the 9-by-4 ft. (2.7 by 1.2 m) box pipe storm sewer had been placed. Weyers said that pipe installation is progressing at an average rate of 100 ft. (30.5 m) per day.

Because the project site is large, Weyers has been able to assign multiple crews. There also are multiple excavators on the job, as many as 10 at a time. Nelcon is using excavators in sizes ranging from 22 to 66 tons (20 to 60 t). The 60-ton machine is being leased from Modern Machinery in Missoula, Mont.

Most of the other equipment in use, such as loaders and rollers, is fairly standard for this type of job, said Weyers. By Aug. 30, the entire Phase I zone was resurfaced, with retaining walls, sidewalks, signage and fencing in place. CEG

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