Anyone who has ever visited Orlando probably has three vivid memories: the theme parks, Florida weather and traffic.
And if they had the misfortunate of getting stuck in morning or evening rush hour congestion, they probably have a new understanding of the word gridlock.
As one of the fastest growing areas in the United States and one of the top tourist destinations in the world, Orlando and Orange County have been hustling to keep pace with traffic woes for many years, a struggle that hasn’t escaped the watchful eyes of the Florida Department of Transportation.
In April, the FDOT started a $119 million interchange reconstruction at Interstate 4 and State Road 408. Tampa-based PCL Civil Constructors Inc. is the prime contractor for the project.
“If you’re in the morning rush hour traffic coming westbound on the 408 trying to access I-4, it backs up quite a ways and sits still,” said Amy Scales, FDOT interstate resident engineer. “We’re hoping the new ramp we’re building will facilitate keeping traffic moving instead of sitting still.”
Scales said this is just the first phase, not the ultimate solution to the area’s traffic nightmare.
“We’re doing half now and there’s more to come later,” Scales said. “Due to funding constraints we could only do part of it now. Right now we’re eliminating a lot of merges and weaves in the ramp from SR 408 to I-4 so what it does is it should speed up access from the 408 to I-4. Hopefully, it will increase capacity through the interchange.”
Scales said there are 13 different bridges being constructed, two of which have milestone bonuses.
“The westbound 408 to eastbound I-4 ramp has a bonus on it,” Scales said. “If they complete that ramp by September 18, they get a bonus of a couple million dollars. It looks pretty good right now.”
According to Scales, PCL has a shot at approximately $6.5 million in bonuses.
Gary Dale, senior project manager for PCL, believes the work will ease traffic in the area.
“What it means is there will be two new rush hour ramps from SR 408, which is a toll road,” Dale said. “In our contract we’re dumping those commuters on I-4 eastbound. It will relieve the congestion on I-4 from SR 408.”
Dale said the contract is the first of three as part of a 10 to 15 year program. The other contracts haven’t been let, but when they are, PCL wants to land those projects, too.
“The intersection of SR 408 was built and designed back in the late 1950s, early 1960s,” Dale said. “It’s just overloaded with cars. It was just time to upgrade.”
Scheduled for completion in September 2008, Dale and Scales said everything is on schedule and looking “pretty good.” They are currently busy installing the steel tub girder bridges, flyover ramps and steel plate girder bridges.
There’s a whole equipment catalog on site, Dale said, including dozers, excavators, loaders, rollers and graders, mostly Caterpillar. PCL owns some of the equipment and rents the rest from Hertz, United Rentals and Neff, which have provided excellent service, Dale said.
“We also use a lot of crawler cranes,” Dale said. “We’ve got 80 tons all the way up to 200 tons.”
Dale also is using Bid-Wells for the bridge decks.
“Some of these bridges are super elevated and there are a lot of different profile grades,” Dale said. “It required us to purchase some special Bid-Wells to frame the decks.”
Dale has several subcontractors for the job, including electrical, drainage and rebar erectors. There are approximately 160 hourly employees and 30 salaried staff, including subcontractors, working daily.
While building the interchanges offers its own challenges, Dale said the job’s location adds another dimension.
“We’re right in the middle of downtown, so there’s a lot of stakeholders you have to please,” Dale said. “There’s the city of Orlando, a lot of businesses through here, all the utility companies and you’ve got the FDOT. There’s a lot of utility conflicts we’ve encountered. Of course, in a downtown environment, you know what that’s like.”
Dale said lane closures and making sure everyone involved knows what’s going on are other challenges he deals with daily. He said communication has been key so far.
“Closely coordinated meetings,” Dale said. “We just have meetings, lots of meetings. Communication among all the stakeholders is the biggest challenge.”
Despite the heavily populated work site, Dale said there’s been minimal impact to the surrounding businesses.
“We work through everything with them,” Dale said. “They’re an integral part of everything we do here, detours, lane closures. Most of our impacted work areas are done at night so we try to impact them as little as possible by working second shifts in the tight areas.”
Scales agrees the constraints of working in an urban area add a little something extra to the project.
“Trying to find someplace to lay down your equipment and materials and stockpile and store them is a daily issue,” Scales said. “You’ve got a 100-ft. pile that comes in, where are you going to store that 100-ft. pile until you’re ready to use it?”
They created a staging area in a nearby median, though they try to coordinate the delivery schedule so they use materials as soon as they arrive.
This being Orlando, managing traffic is always an issue.
“In an urban area you’re dealing with high traffic volumes,” Scales said. “You try one thing and it may not work and you have to try something else, especially with these small city streets.”
Scales said there were some problems initially with the piling they were using.
“We were originally scheduled to drive 18-in. square concrete piling and just the logistics of trying to drive a 100-ft. long pile in the median of I-4 was kind of tough,” Scales said. “We ended up changing to steel H-piles to keep the project moving along. Obviously, with a job of this magnitude, you’re going to have issues, but nothing that’s a project stopper. It’s things we’re all working through.”
Dale said there’s a fair amount of dirt they’re having to move, about 500,000 cu. yd. (382,000 cu m), which is not “a big dirt job, but for a downtown area, it’s a lot of dirt.”
He also expects to use about 40,000 cu. yd. (30,600 cu m) of concrete by the time they’re finished.
Despite the location, traffic and piling logistics, Dale said it’s all just part of the job.
“There haven’t been any surprises really,” Dale said. “We have a really good team working here. Everything is working well.” CEG