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Light Rail ’Darts’ to End of Line

Sat December 30, 2000 - West Edition
Ruth M. Pate

Despite labor shortages and constrained working areas, the largest light rail expansion in the country is on schedule and on budget to connect Dallas and three nearby cities by 2003.

The 24-mi. (38.4 km) $1.1-billion expansion will more than double Dallas’ light rail facilities and will offer commuters easy access to the northern corridor cities of Richardson, Plano and Garland.

Only six years ago, Dallas opened its new light rail system: 20 mi. (32 km) of track served by 40 vehicles at a construction cost of $43 million per mile. “When we built the initial system, the challenge was to show it could work and to get it built,” said Gary Thomas, senior vice president of project management for Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART).

Not only did the new system give an almost unprecedented dollar-for-dollar return on the initial investment, it also attracted $800 million in private development along the routes, prompting outlying communities to push for the expansion that is now under way. “The challenge now is to get it built quickly,” Thomas explained. Unlike “heavy rail” or “third rail” systems, light rail is more people-friendly, integrating vehicular and pedestrian crossings into the design, which adds to construction complications in heavily-populated areas.

To keep the project on the fast track, the expansion is divided into segments of about 4 mi. (6.4 km) each, which calls for careful scheduling of the 14 contractors carrying out a total of $425 million in construction contracts. The expansion takes two routes: A 12.5-mi. (20 km) extension of the North Central rail line through Richardson and terminating in Plano, with nine new stations along the way; and a separate 11.2-mi. (17.92 km) extension from Mockingbird Lane in Dallas to Garland, with four stations.

In Dallas’ booming economy, a major challenge is finding qualified engineers, architects and craftspeople to build such a massive and specialized project, said Jim Sampson, assistant program manager for the STV Group. Construction and program management are being handled jointly by STV, headquartered in Douglassville, PA, and Lockwood, Andrews and Newnam Inc., a subsidiary of the Omaha, NE-based Leo A. Daly Company.

Because the project is so labor intensive, some contractors have offered on-the-job training when necessary and have even provided housing for some workers. Hensel Phelps, based in Greeley, CO, won a 4-mi. (6.4 km), $41-million contract on a light rail segment connecting Garland and Dallas. This is Hensel Phelps’ seventh DART contract, said project manager Gregor Heinrick, and it includes $6 million of self-performed labor. With only 3.2 percent unemployment in the area, there is a scramble to find the craftspeople needed to perform the work to meet the firm’s December 2001 completion date.

Although the light rail system takes advantage of the newest technology, with futuristic aerial stations and clean-burning cars that “kneel at the curb” for wheelchair accessibility, the project has also incorporated historical concerns, Sampson said.

For example, a 1930s steel pony truss bridge over White Rock Creek in north Dallas was relocated to a location 6.7 mi. (10.72 km) away in order to preserve the structure, which was originally built for the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway System.

The light rail project also required an expanded freight bridge at the Duck Creek drainage channel, where a similar steel pony truss bridge was already in place. Oil Services and Construction Corporation of Dallas removed the bridge, which is 16 ft. (4.8 m) wide, 20 ft. (6 m) high and 104 ft. (31.7 m) long, from its abutments with two cranes and placed the entire structure on railroad “trucks.” The bridge was pulled down the old trackway with the cranes, then set in place on new abutments.

“Today, the finished structure serves the freight operations of the Dallas, Garland and Northeast Railroad Company [DNGO] with two steel pony truss bridges combined to span the Duck Creek Crossing,” Sampson said.

The existing DNGO railway also is a complicating factor for contractors working on the DART project, referred to as the Build Out. Much of the work must be done within 30- or 40-ft. (9.1 or 12.2 m) right of ways with the active DNGO rail line running alongside. “Maneuvering equipment in the available space, with constraints on each side, is a challenge,” said Heinrick.

Although they run side by side, the track installation for the light rail is a far cry from the methods employed to build the DNGO freight lines, according to DART assistant vice president, facilities engineering, Rick Brown.

The 80-ft. (24.4 m) long rails for DART’s track are manufactured in Pueblo, CO, by the Rocky Mountain Steel Mill, which transports them to a nearby welding plant, where they are electric-flash butt-welded. This process fuses the ends together by passing current between the rails, creating 720-, 1,200- and 1,440-ft. (219, 366.8, and 439 m) welded rails. The flexible rails are then shipped by rail car to Dallas.

Before laying the track, construction crews must put subballast and ballast to anchors the track and allow water to drain through. Ties are then added which support and fasten the rails in line.

More ballast is poured and the track is surfaced and aligned by a tamping machine that picks up the track and compacts the ballast under the ties at the same time it levels and lines the track. A field welding process is then used to connect the rails into continuous welded rail. Consequently, the light rail cars don’t “click and clack” like traditional trains and the continuous rails require much less maintenance, according to Brown.

Some parts of the DART expansion call for removal of old rail lines in order to install the continuous rails. Archer Western, a division of Walsh Construction, headquartered in Chicago, holds a $36-million contract for a 5.25-mi. (8.4 km) section of light rail from North Dallas to Plano.

“We’ve met all of our construction milestones so far,” said Joe Lee, program manager of Archer Western. “We’ve removed the old rail and regraded; we’ve successfully dealt with the traffic of road crossings, and we’re now finishing out three stations.” Like several other contractors, Archer Western has combined both civil work on the rail lines and architectural work around the stations, which will be complete in March 2001.

In downtown Plano, Martin K EBY Construction, based in Wichita, KS, is in the process of doing the structural concrete work on the Transit Village station as part of the firm’s 4-mi. (6.4 km), $26-million contract. EBY finds itself dealing with two jurisdictions — Plano and Richardson, which adds an interesting facet to the job, according to Bill Stinson, DART resident engineer. EBY’s contract is scheduled for completion by September 2001.

Managing a project that encompasses four cities is perhaps the biggest challenge of the Build Out, said David Kuehn, deputy program manager/construction manager for STV. Although each jurisdiction has strong community support for the expansion, managing a $1-billion project across four jurisdictions isn’t easy.

But, both voters and business leaders support the project, which has smoothed the way and kept the Build Out on track. A Phase II expansion is already under consideration, a $2.9-billion project to extend light rail to the DFW Airport and into southeast Dallas by 2013.

For now, however, the 24-mi. (38.4-km) Phase I expansion is speeding past construction complications and looks as if it will pull into the final station right on time.

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