When the first phase of the Interstate 77 project in York County, SC, began two years ago, the traffic situation on the interstate was one step above deadlock, according to Phil Leazer, transportation manager for York County Engineering.
“We were sitting here with a level of service “E” on the interstate. We were fixing to be at a failure,” said Leazer, who credits the county’s taxpayers with getting the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) to fund the I-77 upgrade project.
The citizens of York County — a bedroom community for nearby Charlotte, NC— decided to tax themselves an additional 1 cent in sales tax to fund needed roadway improvements around the county, he explained.
Because of that action, the state stepped in to fund the severely needed improvements to the interstate, Leazer said.
The twofold project started with a widening of I-77 to eight lanes, which was completed approximately eight months ago, he said.
The second phase, which involves completely changing the sorely outdated interchange configurations at S.C. 161 and U.S. 21, is on target for its scheduled August 2004 completion, according to Sonny Silvers, project superintendent of W.C. English.
The Lynchburg, VA-based contractor came in with the low bid on the second part of the mammoth undertaking at just under $23 million, Silvers said.
He said he expects the construction price tag to end up between $23 million and $24 million because of an overrun on grading and changes to the project. But that’s well within reason on a project like this, he said.
SCDOT has the total cost of the interchange project, including engineering, right of way and construction, at $36.7 million.
The project involves combining the interchanges for S.C. 161 (Celanese Road) and U.S. 21 (Cherry Road) into one new interchange.
“What they’re building is what they call a collector-feeder,” Leazer said.
Growth was a major factor in why the two interchanges became outdated, Leazer said.
In the past decade or so, S.C. 161 has become a major east-west connector road, he said. Meanwhile, U.S. 21 has developed into a major business corridor.
Drivers couldn’t get on I-77 southbound from S.C. 161, and there was limited northbound access there as well, Leazer said.
The fact that a great number of the county’s citizens commute, many of them to nearby Charlotte, was causing serious traffic problems at both interchanges, he said.
The project entails building nine new collector-distributor ramps, four new bridges crossing S.C. 161 and U.S. 21 and nine retaining walls along the interstate and ramps, Silvers said.
It also includes widening an existing bridge over the Catawba River, he said.
W.C. English has had 25 to 30 employees and an army of Caterpillars working on the new the interchange since September 2002, Silvers said.
Equipment used has included three excavators –– a Cat 320 and 330 and a Kobelco 330; three Cat bulldozers –– two D6s and a D5; a Cat D8R ripper; a Cat 963 front-end loader; two motor graders –– a Cat 12 and a John Deere 670; and a Cat 416 rubber-tire backhoe.
W.C. English owns all of the equipment it has used on the job, Silvers said. He said the company purchased most of it from Carter Machinery Company Inc. in Lynchburg, VA.
The company has employed several subcontractors on the job, Silvers said.
The major ones are Boggs Paving of Monroe, NC, which is doing the paving; A.M. Tuck of Greenwood, SC, which is doing the barrier walls; Florida-based Bonn J., which is doing the MSE (mechanical stabilize earth) retaining walls; and Driggers Electrical Control Co. of Charlotte, which is doing the signs and signals.
A.M. Tuck has a large role in the project, employing approximately 20 people, Silvers said.
“There are a lot of barrier walls on this job,” he said.
Silvers said there have been two challenges on the job: bad dirt and incredible amounts of rain. The dirt problem was anticipated, he said.
“We’ve got some very poor soil conditions [at the site],” Leazer said.
There’s a mucky soil they refer to as blackjack and a clay that retains water and doesn’t compact very well, he said.
The project has involved excavating 50 cu. yds. (38 cu m) or better of muck as well as excavating roughly 180 cu. yds. (138 cu m) of “unclassified” dirt from different parts of the project, Silvers said.
It also includes excavating 150 cu. yds. (115 cu m) of earth off side, for the grading, he said.
Approximately 2,400 cu. yds. (1,835 cu m) of concrete is being used in the bridge construction, Silvers said. And nearly 100,000 tons (90,700 t) of asphalt is being used for paving, he said.
Despite having to deal with unrelenting wet weather for much of the past year, workers are surprisingly on target or even a little ahead of schedule with the work, Silvers said. Three of the bridges are finished, and most of the rough grading and some of the paving is done.
“The wet weather we’ve had for the past year has really made it tough,” he said. “We’ve worked most weekends when it was dry.”
The rain impacted all construction in South Carolina, Leazer said.
“We had the wettest summer here in York County that I can remember [in over a decade],” he said. “These guys on I-77 have done an awesome job of not getting off schedule.”
Leazer also commended the contractor and SCDOT for the little disruption to traffic the project has caused.
SCDOT provided incentives to the contractor for minimizing lane closure on the interstate, and the contractor found ways to accomplish the work with very few closures, he said.
It’s even managed to build a fifth lane on the bridge across the Catawba River without closing any of the other lanes, Leazer said.
That’s been especially helpful because the City of Rock Hill has a massive beautification project under way that is adding to traffic problems, he said.
The interstate was teetering on failure because of an explosion of growth in York county coupled with the high rate of commuting among residents, Leazer said.
U.S. Census Bureau figures show the county nearly doubling in population from 85,216 residents in 1970 to 164,614 residents in 2000, with huge increases in both the 1980s and 1990s.
The county is still experiencing steady, rapid growth, Leazer said. Census estimates have the county growing another 3.4 percent, to 170,259, between April 2000 and July 2001.
Leazer said the project will result in “a good roadway that will last us 15 to 20 years” before it gets to an E or F level of service again.