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No More Bottleneck for 159th St. Viaduct

Mon January 04, 2010 - Midwest Edition
Lori Lovely

The infamous forty-year traffic bottleneck along 159th Street between the Tristate Tollway (I-294) and Halsted St. (IL Rt. 1) in Harvey, Ill., is coming to an end. In a two-pronged project, the Illinois Department of Transportation will reconstruct the viaduct that carries the Metra electric commuter and the Canadian National Railroad over 159th St. and simultaneously widen and improve 159th St.

This stretch of road is a main line between I-294 and the Bishop Ford, Ed McGuire resident technician for IDOT, explained — a main detour route for the expressway 2 mi. west of the Bishop Ford south of the city: a true commuter area.

“It’s been bottlenecked for 40 years.”

Average daily traffic (ADT) in 1995 was 20,200. Projected ADT for 2020 is 33,000.

Right of Roadway

Let in April 2009, the 159th Street Roadway Reconstruction Project contract was awarded to Greco Contractors Inc. and Excavating Contractors out of Des Plaines. The 159th St. project is 100 percent federally funded through the stimulus bill to a tune of $17,866,233.60. Work commenced in June 2009 and is expected to be completed by November 2010.

McGuire explained the work involved: “The pavement is four lanes with left turn lanes at the intersections. We’re widening it to four lanes with a left turn lane continuous.”

Additional work includes drainage and lighting improvement, with interconnected traffic signals. Approximately 12,500 ft. (3,810 m) of new storm sewers will be installed. Side street intersections at Dixie Highway, Wood St., Carse Avenue and Halsted St. also will see improved access with right turn lanes and new concrete pavement.

The old pavement is being removed and crushed. Since it meets the specifications, the aggregate being reused for a sub-base or PG where needed. Approximately 2.18 mi. (3.5 km) of pavement is being completely reconstructed with 84,000 sq. yds. (70,230 sq m) of new Portland Cement concrete pavement provided by a plant close to the work site — enough to cover 13 football fields.

“It went smoothly,” McGuire reported, adding that he was initially skeptical, but ultimately pleased with the result.

Equipment on site is “nothing unusual,” he said. Crews are using multiple hammers, including a small drop hammer, for pavement work and a number of backhoes, small dozers and end loaders for excavation.

Work on the roadway is going quickly, McGuire noted, despite a very wet October making cutting for subgrade a challenge.

“It was the wettest month in quite a while.”

Nevertheless, much of the pavement was done by early November because the contractor accelerated work on the project. Not having much excavation to do helped. McGuire said crews backfilled with stone because “there’s no dry dirt available.”

All this work is going on while at least one lane of traffic in each direction remains open, although the underpass is closed with a detour for up to 20 months. The area south along the RR is industrial, with a mix of commercial and residential along 159th St.

Businesses in the area also remain open.


A separate contract for the 159th Street Viaduct Reconstruction was let in June 2008. Construction costs of $38 million come out of the regular construction budget. General Contractor Walsh Construction Corporation is joined by 20 sub-contractors, including K-Five Construction, Ricci Welch, K & K Iron Works, Aldridge Electric, Mosley Construction and MA Steel Erectors, the latter two of which are minority business enterprises.

The current configuration of the narrow viaduct, some parts of which were constructed in the early 1900s, has insufficient room for more than two lanes of traffic. The improvement will reconstruct the two main railroad bridges to allow for two lanes of traffic in each direction under the railroad, with left turn lanes. According to IDOT officials, adding two lanes of traffic under the railroad viaduct, as well as left-turn lanes for Park and Center Avenues, should greatly improve traffic flow along the notorious stretch of 159th Street, particularly during peak travel times.

“The underpass was only one lane each way for 40 years,” McGuire emphasized. “Now, [the roadway] is going to five lanes plus a left turn lane.”

Adding two lanes of traffic in each direction, medians and dual left turn lanes at select intersections will provide congestion relief and reduce travel times along this important local south suburban route. Interconnected traffic signals and new lighting and drainage will keep traffic flowing smoothly. The widened viaduct also will feature improved vertical clearance.

Staying on Track

Work began on the viaduct project in October 2008 and is expected to be completed in May 2011. The project will take approximately 32 months to complete due to extensive coordination with the two railroads (Metra & Canadian National Railroad). According to the Chicago Tribune, a four-block stretch between Park and Center Avenues was closed when the project began. Work will require a shut-down of 159th Street and detour of traffic for 20 months beginning in September 2009.

Work is on schedule for both contracts — no easy feat considering the elaborate planning and coordination required on the viaduct job. In fact, McGuires said one of the biggest challenges of this portion of the project has been coordination with the city and the railroads to minimize detours and remain on schedule. However, he added, the situation is somewhat alleviated because the “contractors mobilize well.”

Another factor helping them remain on schedule involves extensive planning and prep work done prior to the official start of the contract. Because tight quarters have required detours, they built temporary pavement to route traffic, pushing it north. A 4.9-mi. detour will route traffic down Dixie Hwy to Sibley to Halsted St. and back to 159th St.

Also, work on one of the two old existing railroad bridges was performed on an advance contract so crews could reroute three tracks in preparation for construction.

“You have to move tracks around one track at a time,” McGuire elaborated. Not only that, but they had a “very short window” for moving them: between 9 and 2. “We were restricted to certain hours.”

Even then, they were required to use flaggers due to the proximity of electric lines to the track. The “window” got larger after structures for power lines were built and the lines moved, he noted.

IDOT is doing whatever it takes to stay on schedule. Although little night work has been necessary — just briefly for erection — and only one shift is called for, McGuire said crews will work through the winter so the structures are ready come spring.

“We have moved all the tracks we can now. The railroads won’t relocate tracks during the winter due to freeze issues, but we want to finish early so we can be ready for them to move the tracks.”

A total of 1.3 mi. (2 km) of railroad track has to be relocated.

Tracking the Work

IDOT crews do the main work of relocating tracks, but the railroad does the connection: checking the tracks and switching over.

“They take control then; there is no punch list for the contractor,” McGuire marveled.

Crews were just starting Phase 1 in November, using a side street for access to remove the existing bridge. Point breakers are attached to backhoes to break up the old bridge decks. Other equipment used on the bridges includes cherry picker cranes, pile driving equipment and caisson boring machines. Large cranes are employed for erection. When the bridge is out of the way, they get railroad equipment up on the tracks. A surfacing machine is used to raise the track and tamp ballast.

Stage 2 commences in the spring, with a completion date of Oct 31, 2010. Stage 3 involves a small section of the main bridge — wing walls and tie-in pieces — and is dependent on weather.

“We can’t work on it in the winter,” McGuire stated. “That’s why we want to get Stage 2 done early so we can start on it.”

McGuire has “done a couple RR contracts,” but nothing this extensive.

Working on eight elevated tracks involving two railroads and replacing two structures with five — three of which are steel structures — has required extensive coordination with the railroads, the city and the subs. A 25-page contract schedule (typically only a 2- to 3-page document) and weekly meetings help keep the work flowing smoothly, but some site conditions simply have to be dealt with.

Phase 2 is expected to be particularly challenging, due to the tight confines within which crews will be working, sandwiched between the tracks. Chicago-based URS is the Phase 2 designer of this IDOT-sanctioned project and “went to great lengths to get the phasing right for the railroads,” McGuire said. “That is key to the project.”

In addition to updating drainage systems, crews will set steel beams into place, using 1,096 tons (994 t) of structural steel. Approximately 10,500 cu. yds. (8,020 cu m) of concrete will be used in the construction of the railroad bridges, foundations and bridge decks, including concrete I-beams for the intermodal access area. That translates to 2 million gal. (7.5 million L), and more than 1,000 loads of concrete delivered to the job site. Roughly 20,600 sq. yds. (17,200 sq m) of new Portland concrete cement pavement will be poured, incorporating 1.7 million lbs. of epoxy-coated rebar.

During Phase 1, McGuire said they can pump from the street, but things get tougher in Stage 2.

“There’s no room for the pump in the gaps between the structures. We’ll have to pump from above, but there’s the issue of the tracks.”

During Phase 3, they’ll be able to pump from the street again.

Phase 2 is expected to be a complicated stage in a complex job, but in the words of IDOT engineer Diane O’Keefe, who was bracing travelers for delays and detours, “the road improvements will make a big difference.”

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