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MoDOT Tackles Tough Terrain on Ozark Highroad Job

Sat May 13, 2000 - Midwest Edition
Megan Nichols

Imagine building on the state’s toughest terrain while adhering to a fast-track design schedule and adopting an environmentally friendly approach. The Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) and the construction team working on the new Ozark Mountain Highroad (Route 465) are meeting these challenges.

Located near the Branson, MO, and Table Rock Lake area, Route 465 is a divided four-lane distributor route. This 27.5-kilometer (17.2 mi.) corridor is receiving widespread recognition for its aggressive design schedule and environmental success.

The history of the project is inextricably tied to the development of Branson, a scenic getaway that drew nationwide notice in the early 1990s. As Branson gained attention as a mecca for live music fans, the little Ozark Mountain town suddenly mushroomed from 3,706 residents to approximately five million tourists annually, dramatically increasing the need for an expanded highway infrastructure.

Designing on a Fast-Track Schedule

In early June 1992, the governor asked MoDOT to plan and gain design approval on a new highway network in a six month time span. Typically, the design and approval process for major roadways — especially those located in environmentally sensitive and culturally rich areas like the Ozarks — takes five to seven years.

“The goal of the model program was to demonstrate that a highway project could be advanced in an efficient and timely manner while, at the same time, assuring that the best decisions were being made regarding not only the project itself but also the environment as a whole," Jerry Mugg, project coordinator with consulting firm Howard Needles Tammen & Bergendoff (HNTB), said.

MoDOT’s “total partnership” approach proved instrumental in meeting project goals. With an aggressive design schedule in place, MoDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) knew that the design had to be completed quickly without compromising the integrity of the environmental review process.

“The procedures didn’t bend any rules. They just established a schedule that stuck to the deadlines already in the environmental regulations. This served notice to the various state and federal environmental review agencies that the State of Missouri and the FHWA put a high priority on the project,” Scott Smith, vice president and project manager with HNTB, said.

Ultimately, the entire environmental review — including recommendations for mitigation, design features to be incorporated, and alternatives — was approved in a remarkable seven months. It cost approximately $5 million to develop the location, environmental statement and right of way plans.

Assembling the Construction Team

The same coordination and collaboration characterized the approach of the contractors in charge of grading: a joint venture between Leo Journagan and Fred Weber Construction Co. Inc. both of St. Louis, MO; Jones Brothers Inc. of Mt. Juliet, TN; and Morrison Knudsen Inc.

Currently, work on Route 465 extends from Route 65 at the 65/F interchange to Route 76. According to Andrew Mueller, area engineer, MoDOT has not yet awarded contracts for bridges and paving. Work on the Ozark Mountain Highroad began in November of 1994. With a crew of approximately 20 currently on site, grading is running on schedule. The north section of Route 465 is estimated to be complete in 2004 to early 2005.

The south section, which crosses Lake Taneycomo and connects back to Route 65 south of Hollister, does not have an established schedule. Property acquisition is currently in progress. The total project cost is $164 million (property acquisition, $25 million; north section construction, $47 million; and south section construction, $92 million).

The total project includes 27.5 kilometers (17.2 mi.) of four lane roadway with 14.4 kilometers (9 mi.) in the north section and 13.1 kilometers (8.2 mi.) in the south; it also has seven interchanges, four ramps per interchange, numerous bridges, and miscellaneous drainage structures. What the job specs do not convey is the challenge inherent in the Ozark Mountains’ rugged landscape.

“We’re building roads on the roughest terrain in Missouri for road building,” Gayle Davis, resident engineer of MoDOT’s construction division, said. “The major challenge is the terrain.”

A total of 1.6 million cubic meters (2.1 million cu. yds.) of dirt will be moved along with approximately 2.8 million cubic meters (3.6 million cu. yds.) of rock in the north section from Route 65 to Route 76. Equipment on the current, active Morrison Knudsen project includes six Cat dozers, three Cat trackhoes, three drills, three 777 trucks, and a loader.

The first project was awarded approximately one year after location approval. Four of 18 separate contracts are now complete. Everyone involved with construction of Route 465 shares common project goals: To be completed on time, within budget and with quality work. The resulting roadway will significantly relieve the volume of traffic, according to Mueller.

Protecting Natural Wonders

During the fast-track design process, MoDOT was mindful of environmental concerns and worked to protect the unspoiled wilderness of the Ozark Mountains. Going beyond the accepted safety and connectivity issues, the design group was charged with creating a drive that emulates the experience of exploring an undeveloped wilderness.

Included in the design plans are extra-wide medians of 212 meters (700 ft.), a parkway-type highway design, bicycle and walking trails, numerous scenic overlooks, split alignment grades (creating the illusion that travelers are on a one-way trail through the mountains), and attention to natural landscaping. Even the color selection of the bridges blends with the terrain.

“We want to leave this region as beautiful as we can for the future. Landscaping — including trees, wildflowers and Virginia creepers — will be done to keep the natural beauty,” Davis said.

The area’s unique geological features such as a fragile, karst limestone topography and numerous caves challenged designers and builders. In addition, the mountains are populated by hundreds of wildlife species, some of which are endangered.

Residents have shared in efforts to preserve the region’s natural beauty. MoDOT hosted two major public open houses to discuss Route 465. Approximately 800 people attended each meeting. Phone surveys, focus groups, and community-based organizations facilitated citizen participation and helped gather information.

“Instead of using the usual, prescribed method of showing the public a pre-determined plan, we included them in the design process almost from the beginning,” Ludlam said. “It meant coming up with some pretty creative and innovative public involvement methods, all of which were well received.”

When the Ozark Mountain Highroad is complete, travelers will have a four-lane freeway in a parkway setting.

“The Ozark Mountain Highroad is completely unique. It’s designed to fit the environment and has a lot of special design features that make the highway more harmonious with its surroundings,” Angela Eden, MoDOT senior public affairs specialist, concluded.

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