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Safety Concerns, Traffic Volume Woes Prompt $350M Expansion of I-4

Wed February 23, 2000 - Southeast Edition
Cathy Hirko

Drivers traveling the interstate system in West Central Florida are no strangers to gridlock, accidents and overall traffic dangers. The same holds true for Interstate 4, one of the most heavily traveled roadways in Florida that spans the state, connecting thoroughly populated Florida cities including Tampa, Lakeland and Orlando.

I-4 has not only seen its share of heavy traffic volume, but anyone commuting the road on a daily basis during the past few years will say they have seen their fair share of construction — greatly needed work — according to commuters, contractors and state officials alike.

“It’s an ugly road. It’s a dangerous road,” said Joseph Beatty, Granite Construction Company project manager. Beatty should know. His home away from home since the mid 1990s has been a trailer office adjacent to Exit 13 off I-4 on the outskirts of Plant City, which is located between the cities of Lakeland and Tampa.

Since nabbing a $70-million highway construction project on the I-4 corridor, his company and hundreds of Granite Construction workers have been revamping, reconstructing and generally giving an overall facelift to a 12.8-kilometer (8 mi.) stretch of the interstate. Beatty said he’s been working on the project, “Six days a week for the past four years. My father was in this business and I was raised in this business. It’s in my blood.”

This stretch comprises only two sections of a six-section project for the interstate.

Safety and traffic volume were the critical forces for improvements to the overall I-4 expansion project, between Lakeland and Tampa, according to John McShaffrey, expansion project, public information officer. The entire construction — funded by both the Florida state Department of Transportation (DOT) and Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA), began in 1995 and stretches 38.6 kilometers (24 mi.) from 50th Street in Tampa (Hillsborough County) to just west of Memorial Boulevard in Lakeland (Polk County). Its immense size forced the project to be partitioned into five separate construction segments in DOT district 7, three of which have contracts to Granite Construction and another segment for revamping and construction in DOT district 1.

Ninety percent of the overall project, totaling $350 million, is funded through FHWA and the rest of the tab is being picked up by the DOT, McShaffrey said.

Beatty’s crew was responsible for sections three and four of the project. Section three was completed in December 1999 and section four is slated for this spring. Overall, the company was responsible for demolishing and replacing 10 bridges, adding lanes to both east and westbound traffic, replacing and extending storm drains and installing reinforced earth walls.

But it’s not over for Granite Construction; the company also has a $75-million state and federal contract to work on another I-4 segment of the same overall interstate expansion project, this one located just west of Tampa (section one). The latter project’s completion date is set for 2001.

Meeting traffic volume alone, one lane both east and westbound has and will be added to the formerly two-lane roadway on this multi-mile stretch. McShaffrey said that the overall improvements help minimize the traffic weaving conflicts and eliminate the “roller coaster” effect. Explaining, he said such an effect describes the steep interchange inclines where motorists quickly go up, then down, as intersecting roads are crossed. “Previously, drivers wouldn’t be able to see if traffic has stopped,” he said. “There had been a lot of rear-end accidents on this road.” The rebuilt I-4 features more gradual grades while increasing the distance that drivers can see the road ahead, he said.

Flooding was also a big concern for the roadway. In one highway construction segment, the heavy Florida rains would not properly drain, causing water to be backed up on the interstate. On a road that reaches volume up to 100,000 vehicles a day, that can result in major traffic problems. The installation of several retention ponds will now hold that excess water, preventing highway flooding, said Greg Martindale, grading superintendent for Granite Construction’s segment three and four projects. Another area that battles flooding is friction course on the asphalt, allowing the water to run off the highway and preventing hydroplaning.

An antiquated road, I-4 has been long overdue for a facelift. “It’s the oldest interstate in Florida,” McShaffrey said. “Before this expansion there was really nothing done to the road since the late 1950s.” This particular expansion also provides for future widening, McShaffrey said.

The construction has been a massive undertaking, so much so that the construction has its own informational Web site, highway advisory radio, weekly column in the Tampa Tribune and regular weekly updates farmed out the local media, explained McShaffrey. “We received calls and e-mails both criticizing and thanking us for the construction. Most motorists have been understanding.” The tourists are probably the most negatively impacted by the construction because they travel into the area not knowing about it, McShaffrey said.

Although Florida is known as The Sunshine State, bad weather also impacted the work. El Nino put Beatty’s crew on hold during the heavy rainfall that fell between late 1997 into early 1998. The project’s completion dates were backed up months due to this inclement storm patterns.

Maintaining traffic flow is also a considerable challenge. “We had to keep two lanes open at all times and closed down to one lane at night,” Beatty said.

In a strange twist, the great economy also factored into Beatty’s work. Keeping quality workers was a problem. “Our turnover was terrible,” he said. With safety a priority, Beatty said Granite Construction conducts random drug tests each month. Unfortunately, that factored in to the overall turnover rate. “Most contractors in the state don’t [conduct random testing] and are more post accident.” In the peak of this project, Beatty said roughly 140 workers were on site, not including the supervision staff, which adds another 15 to personnel numbers.

And it wouldn’t be Florida if workers didn’t come across an occasional southern reptile. “We would find gators in the box culverts,” Martindale said.

Interestingly enough, Beatty said he feels this project has improved Granite Construction’s relationship with the DOT. “They’re a more personable organization. Ten years ago [DOT] wouldn’t have been as responsive to our plights, such as the problems we had with El Nino.”

Granite Construction’s segment three involved moving 645.3 cubic meters (844 cu. yds.) of embankment, 210,907.2 square meters (252,243 sq. yds.) of stabilization Type B, 194,032.6 square meters (232,061 sq. yds.) of limerock base, 270,120.1 square meters (323,061 sq. yds.) of asphalt concrete, 3,344.2 cubic meters (4,375 cu. yds.) of box culverts. The project also demanded 2,346 lineal meters (7,700 lineal ft.) of storm drains, 720 square meters (8,000 sq. ft.) of sheet piling, 978.5 square meters (10,532 sq. ft.) of reinforced earth wall, 2,377 lineal meters (7,800 lineal ft.) of concrete piling and 306 metric tons (340 tons) of steel bridge girders.

The section 4 segment encompasses 1.2 million cubic meters (1.6 million cu. yds.) of embankment, 451,508.8 square meters (540,000 sq. yds.) of stabilization Type B, 398,832.8 square meters (477,000 sq. yds.) of limerock base, 728,266.9 square meters (871,000 sq. yds.) of asphalt concrete and 457.2 lineal meters (1,500 lineal ft.) of box culverts. The project also required 10,210.8 lineal meters (33,500 lineal ft.) of storm drains, 3,158.7 square meters (34,000 sq. ft.) of steel sheet piles, 2,787.1 square meters (30,000 sq. ft.) of barrier wall, 19,695.4 square meters (212,000 sq. ft.) of reinforced earth wall, 8,229 lineal meters (27,000 lineal ft.) of concrete piling and 1.1 million kilograms (2.4 million lbs.) of steel bridge girders and 2,926.1 lineal meters (9,600 lineal ft.) of concrete bridge girders.

Beatty noted that Granite Construction owns 90 percent of its equipment and rents the remaining 10 percent. Almost a dozen subcontractors worked or continue to work on Granite Construction’s section three and four of the I-4 site.

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