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Ramp-Lengthening to Improve I-81 Safety

Tue May 29, 2012 - Southeast Edition
Peter Hildebrandt

Charles Blalock and Sons owns all their own equipment. Once in awhile they will have to rent some equipment, such as an air compressor or other odd equipment.
Charles Blalock and Sons owns all their own equipment. Once in awhile they will have to rent some equipment, such as an air compressor or other odd equipment.
Charles Blalock and Sons owns all their own equipment. Once in awhile they will have to rent some equipment, such as an air compressor or other odd equipment. The frontage roads behind the Hardees, BP and area hotels directly at this job site are currently open to traffic. But existing driveways to these businesses will be closed in for much of April 2012.

Interstate 81 as it swings around in a long gentle arc to the north through Tennessee is a hectic, well-travelled thoroughfare. This is an area well known for its sudden fogs and regular rock- and landslides in mountainous stretches. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park can be seen on the horizon just to the east and south.

With all this going on for this busy roadway it’s inevitable that area accidents lead to massive traffic tieups. One way to reduce the number of accidents and to relieve the congestion is to lengthen the exit and entrance ramps in the area. Longer ramps increase visibility while driving, give plenty of room to vehicles and let drivers prepare and act when incidents occur just ahead on the interstate.

In White Pine, Tenn., lengthening work has begun on the ramps on the south side of the interstate. Ramps also will be lengthened going north and coming off I-81, as well as on and off ramps C and E.

On the north side construction work will change ramps A and I. Motorists will no longer have to cross traffic to head south on the ramp leading to Knoxville.

Travelers going south from Morristown who need to get off on I-81 and go south often run into trouble in this area, explained Harlan Loveday, project superintendent of Charles Blalock and Sons Inc., Sevierville, Tenn.

“There have been several accidents right here where people were crossing over the traffic and people traveling from White Pine north will run into them when they cross the traffic — especially big trucks,” said Loveday. “That’s going to make it a lot safer on the north side of the bridge. On the south side of the interstate, people will be able to go south without having to cross over the traffic of people going to Morristown, Tennessee.”

As of February 2012, 24 percent of the work on this project was completed with 19 percent of the total amount of time on the project charged. From SR-32 to I-81 southbound (Ramp A) bridge substructure has been completed, with the beams involved scheduled to be set in the spring. The construction of the I-81 northbound on and off ramps is ongoing. Opening of these ramps is tentatively scheduled for mid-summer 2012.

The frontage roads behind the Hardees, BP and area hotels directly at this job site are currently open to traffic. But existing driveways to these businesses will be closed in for much of April 2012. The access entrance and Cracker Road construction (grading and utilities) is underway as well. SR-32 traffic (both directions) will be placed on the SR-32 outbound bridge to allow demolition of the northbound bridge. Work on the bridges will control the schedule for the remainder of this year into next.

“The biggest challenge on this project will be getting the bridges over Interstate 81 torn down and then building new bridges to replace them,” said Loveday. “That’s going to be really tough. We’re just going to have to work with a lot of caution. Traffic is going to be under us on the interstate; we’ve got be sure that nothing falls on the traffic below us.”

Lane closures will be done throughout the period of taking the bridge down. Traffic will be shifted to the left or to the right side as needed as all the work on disassembling the bridge and then reconstructing it is completed.

“We also have a wall to build under the existing bridges now,” added Loveday. “I came up with the idea to just put all the traffic going north and south on Routes 25 and 32 on one bridge, tear one complete bridge down and build a wall at the same time. The wall will be on the north side of I-81. The wall will hold the embankment back and prevent small landslides involved with construction.

This will be a lot safer for everyone, according to Loveday. He feels it is best to do things in phases on each bridge; tear one third down and once you have that done, you get traffic moving on that rebuilt section, where it is able to cross. Next you take the middle section out. When that is done you place traffic on that section.

“Finally we will take the outside section out and do the same thing. It’s going to be safer for everybody, safer for the public and safer for those doing the work.”

As of this writing, clearing efforts down along the ramp were underway. The ramps were being “blue-topped” and prepared for having stone placed on top of them. There is stone on ramp A and blue-topping will continue, placing down stone, dressing up the slopes and placing topsoil down in preparation for permanent seed to be placed on the banks.

Cranes are now onsite, prepared for when the beam-launcher will be used to start to mount the beams out onto the bridge. Bridge beams will be set on the beam-launcher and will then ride out onto the bridge. The cranes will set the beams on the pilings and piers.

A hill on the south side of I-81 has been sheared off some seven to eight feet, according to Loveday. This will give drivers a better look at what is ahead.

“The way it is now and has been for some time, has created hazardous conditions,” said Loveday. “Drivers from White Pine come up over that hill with perhaps more speed than necessary and start down the other side. If there is something that’s happened on the other side, such as an accident, before you know it you are right on top of them before you can see them. This new work will be a great improvement to area visibility.”

Loveday feels that once all these highway improvements — including the cloverleaf that is going to be constructed — are finished there will be a lot of other changes in the area too.

“Businesses will start to break out all through this area,” said Loveday. “Better ramps, visibility and other improvements traffic-wise mean that this area will be more accessible. I predict that four to five years from now people passing through here won’t realize how much things have changed in that short period of time.”

Overall, the job is on schedule. The rain is what slows down the work the most, according to Loveday.

“When it’s cold weather and it stays cold it is actually better weather for working. It’s the wet weather that kills you, especially in this wet clay,” said Loveday. “No soil had to be brought in, but we did have to remove some soil. We did have to bring in some six-inch rock material for lining ditches, otherwise everything we needed soil-wise was already here.”

At the corner of one of the ramps an excavator breaks up the gray limestone rock and loads it into a dump truck below, on the shoulder of the existing ramp. The rock will be removed and a stabilizing wall — the same type that you see along the side of the interstate — will in turn be constructed there.

Charles Blalock and Sons owns all their own equipment. Once in awhile they will have to rent some equipment, such as an air compressor or other odd equipment they don’t have in their stock. Equipment at this site includes two D-9s; a 530 Cat loader; 200 Komatsu loader; two rubber-tired Cat backhoes; a rubber-tired Cat grader; a Cat stone-roller; one Cat motorgrader and two tracked rock drills. These rock drills are used for the work and then move on to the next job site where they are needed.

The Blalock company motorgraders work the ramps to get them down on grade. This machinery has a GPS system onboard to tell the operator exactly where they need to be with the grading.

This job involves having about 17 people on the job all the time, according to Loveday. When the work involves the pouring of the road material for the ramps a bigger crew will be brought onsite.

“Also, there will probably be another bridge crew come in to tie this bridge down,” added Loveday. “There will be more people onsite at that time.

“We’ve moved 600,000 cubic yards of dirt on this job so far,” Loveday continued. “Most of that was waste, especially in the taking down of the hill some seven to eight feet; we didn’t have much fill material involved with the job, and most of the material moved was waste. The people who owned the property before we got this job had the land logged off. I was told the profit from the timber was about $56,000 dollars.”

Traffic while work proceeds is another challenge.

“A lot of these folk have little regard for the people out here working,” said Loveday. “The men on the job cannot be looking toward the traffic all the time or they wouldn’t be getting much work done. But I do have some good weather coming up and some good men working with me out here. We will meet this challenge fine, I think. We have time on our side. The project won’t be completely finished for at least another two years. So far we are right on schedule. In the end this will be a much safer area for drivers traveling through from all directions. At present we’re working hard to keep our workers safe onsite to get the job done for those travelers.”

Charles Blalock and Sons is involved in a wide variety of construction work, much of it involving highway improvements. The company also participates extensively in Environmental Green Building efforts.

The company also runs Blalock Academy, a required safety, HR and environmental training series for all company supervisors. The program includes state-administered erosion-control training and certification for all grade foremen; implementation of plant and job site inspection checklists for safety and environmental issues; extensive use of recycled asphalt; concrete, reclaimed aggregate; fly ash and blast furnace slag; pursuit of NRMCA Green Star certification for concrete plants and development of alternative concrete washout options, including self-contained bins.

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