NJDOT Officials Tout New Road Construction Methods

Wed September 21, 2005 - Northeast Edition

TRENTON, NJ (AP) It started with an 18-wheeler that crashed on Interstate 295 and barreled into the supports of a bridge in Camden County.

The rush to replace one of the highway’s many small, yet invaluable bridges, forced the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) to use newly developed, quicker construction methods.

Now three years later, state road construction is entering a new phase that NJDOT officials said will save the Garden State hundreds of millions in construction costs and years of work that up until now meant more traffic on more roads.

Using the method recently coined as “hyperbuild,” more than $600 million and 48 years of construction time will be saved in the first 15 projects alone, including the recently completed three-day replacement of the Route 1 bridge at Olden Avenue.

That project would have taken 18 to 22 months to complete under the previous process, but instead took just less than 60 hours on Aug. 19 to 22. The shorter project also cost between $1.5 million and $2.5 million less, DOT officials estimated.

“We’re saving on labor and materials,” NJDOT Commissioner Jack Lettiere said. “Projects will be continually added to this list. This has got to be our way of doing business now.”

The secret to the efficiency is building some of the larger components off site and storing them at nearby locations, as well as more planning before beginning work and tighter deadlines once on site.

Seemingly simple ideas beg the question: Why hadn’t these techniques been in place sooner?

“The technology hadn’t caught up with [the ideas],” Lettiere said. “We’re dealing with the public safety and the public’s money, so I can’t be a public tester. If the product is tested and reliable I’ll be on the front of the line to use it.”

Perhaps the only losers that could be discerned from such beneficial changes in road work are the labor unions and their members who are hired to do the actual work.

But in a state where road construction is perpetual, local economists don’t see a shortage of demand for labor in the future.

“Increasing productivity hurts labor if there’s only so many projects to be done,” Rider University Professor of economics Herbert Gishlick said. “But I don’t know that that’s the case. We’re in New Jersey.”

The prospect of quicker finishing dates for projects could mean more projects completed in shorter periods of time, Gishlick said.

“Just because you complete a project more rapidly — that you’re just raising the productivity,” he said, “I have trouble seeing where there’s going to be losses.”

What officials are touting as a very successful initial project in the first Route 1 construction recently should mean even smoother work with the projects in the immediate future, including replacing both Route 1 bridges at Mulberry Street in September and in October.

During a recent weekend, Route 1 work went as scheduled, with only slight but manageable delays because of rain.

Construction crews worked around the clock to remove the old bridge and erect a new one. Work got under way at 7 p.m. Friday when the Route 1 southbound lane was closed from Whitehorse Road to Olden Avenue.

Around 9 p.m. demolition crews began dismantling the span over the Olden Avenue exit ramp.

By 3:30 Saturday afternoon they had removed the seven 20-ton beams and 400 tons of reinforced concrete that made up the bridge.

The beams were moved by cranes to flatbed trucks waiting below. The cement decking was dropped in chunks to the road below. The roads had been covered with sand to prevent damage.

As crews hauled debris from the scene, another construction crew prepared to erect the new bridge.

Work on building the new bridge began approximately 5 p.m. A rainstorm kept crane operators from lifting the new beams into place, but the delay was short-lived. Installation began later that night, with the prefabricated deck lifted up into place. The bridge opened on time before the Monday morning commute.

“Part of the whole benefit here is we don’t have to carry the overhead for so long,” NJDOT Engineer Harry Allen Capers said. “The traffic cones and the barriers are not necessarily ours. We often have to borrow equipment like that.”

Lettiere said NJDOT has turned a corner in its road construction methods.

“We have to get our folks, our engineers, to look at things differently now,” he said.