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Seventeen Cranes Hoist Big-I Sky High Above New Mexico

Sat October 21, 2000 - West Edition
Mark A. Horner

Progress, many locals will tell you, doesn’t always steamroll its way into New Mexico. No wonder there is widespread amazement with the rapidly changing landscape at Albuquerque’s “Big-I.” On any given day, up to 17 cranes stretch skyward. Their work began in June 2000, but they’ve already made quite an impression on Duke City residents.

The Big-I is where east/west Interstate-40 intersects north/ south Interstate-25. It was built in 1965 and designed for a traffic capacity of 40,000 vehicles a day. Fast-forward 35 years and you’ll find 300,000 vehicles passing through each day. “And commuters constitute nearly 90-percent of our traffic load during peak hours,” offered Pete Rahn, Secretary of the New Mexico State Highway and Transportation Department (NMSHTD).

Many of the commuters have come to consider the Big-I a necessary evil that must be tolerated while driving between work and home. They dread standstill traffic and no space to pull over in case of an accident or emergency. Eighteen-wheelers emerge from a nearby truck stop, with little time or space afforded to them, intent on entering the freeway and crossing all lanes in order to leave I-25 for I-40. But this $270 million reconstruction project is aimed at erasing those, and other, concerns.

Once the makeover is completed, the Big-I will accommodate 400,000 vehicles a day. Its projected life expectancy is 20 years. “When we talk about the Big I Reconstruction, most people think we are simply adding lanes. While we will add lanes in some areas, our major focus is on improving efficiency and safety,” explains Steve Harris, engineer, NMSHTD. Twin Mountain Construction II is charged with leading the way on that transformation until the job is completed in the summer of 2002.

Albuquerque-based Twin Mountain is the general contractor on the Big-I Reconstruction Project. This is the company’s biggest job ever in its home state.

At the Big-I, Twin Mountain has more than 150 major pieces of equipment, worth a combined $14 million. That includes two track-mounted Manitowoc 2250s with a 180-ft. (54.9 m) boom that can lift up to 300 tons (270 t).

It won’t get that kind of a workout here. Instead, each one is feasting on seemingly bite-sized segmental bridges. Each segment weighs 85 tons (76.5 t). The cranes will lift and place 663 of these segments during the two-year reconstruction project. Roads through the Big-I are closed at 9 p.m., allowing the huge cranes to swing concrete overhead.

The massive Manitowoc 2250s, purchased specifically for this project, are building eight segmental bridges totaling 1.6-miles (2.56 km) at the core of the eye. Twin Mountain entered the project hoping to erect between two and four segments each day. It’s hitting the high end of the goal, erecting four a day. That is what impresses motorists during their morning drive to work as they see the newly forming bridges.

“We’ve gone through the learning curve, no doubt. And I think we’ve got it figured out the way it’s supposed to go,” said Gray Kite, Deputy Project Manager of Twin Mountain. So, what exactly has Twin Mountain already learned? “Well, just the way the post tensioning goes together, what the cycle needs to be as far as getting the temporary post tensioning done. [And] at what time should we take truck deliveries to get our segment pieces out there,” answered Kite.

The segments don’t come from far away, either. A concrete plant is located on the job site. Trucks deliver the concrete to Twin Mountain’s precast yard, which is also located on-site. This is where a Peco Tower Crane takes over. It has 140-ft. (42.47 m) of stick in it and the cab sits about 80-ft. (24.27 m) off the ground. “[The operator] services all the rebar in the precast yard. He moves forms and he pours concrete every day,” explained Kite.

Typical bridge segments (standard one and two lane segments) are poured in three casting beds. “On the typical beds we pour one every day. And we’ve got two pier beds and we get one size pier per week,” said Kite. “In a five-day week, we cast 15 typicals and we cast two piers. We get 17 segments a week out of that casting yard.”

It’s a classic “match casting” system. “We use the previous casted [segment] as the bulkhead for the one we’re casting that day. If you started with segment number one and you cast it on Monday, segment number two would be cast on Tuesday and you would use segment number one as the bulkhead for that,” Kite explained.

The concrete paves the way for a growing trend: recycling. “The overwhelmingly majority of the existing asphalt and concrete pavement, including some of the bridge structures, are being crushed into recycled base course and/or aggregates that will be used in various locations throughout the job,” said Kite. “Most of what we’re going to use the recycled for is the base course section underneath the new asphalt paving.”

Familiar concrete. Familiar job. While the Big-I Reconstruction Project is the largest single highway construction project in the history of New Mexico, it looks familiar to Twin Mountain’s parent company, Peter Kiewit & Sons. Peter Kiewit & Sons is a primary contractor for the Interstate-15 Corridor Reconstruction Project already well underway in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Indeed, that $1.35 billion dollar project is many times larger than the Big-I effort, but a section of the I-15 job looks familiar to Twin Mountain.

“There’s a particular segment called the Jordan Segment, which is the intersection of I-15 and I-80, that is very similar to the Big-I Project,” said Kite. “In bidding this [the Big-I] project, a few of us involved with this estimate went up and spent some time on that job just to see how it was getting built, how the owner wanted things to happen and the way our construction forces were going after it. And it’s similar to this project in scope. As a total project, it’s much, much bigger in dollar volume. But the Jordan Segment is very similar to this [project] and was managed and built similar to what we’re doing here.”

However, Kite said there is one major difference. “The bridges on most of the I-15 Project are not precast segmental concrete bridges as we have here for the fly overs. They are made out of steel tub girders.”

Still, Salt Lake City won’t have to contend with some of the events that could have potentially disrupted the Big I project. For 27 consecutive years, October in Albuquerque has arrived with a celebration of balloons. The Kodak International Balloon Fiesta now attracts hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world. A world record 1,000 hot air balloons are expected to take part in a “mass ascension” this year. The world’s most photographed event is also known for generating traffic gridlock.

Kite doesn’t expect the Big-I Reconstruction Project to impact the Balloon Fiesta. “We’ve discussed that extensively with the owner. We haven’t actually adjusted our schedule around the Balloon Fiesta, it just so fits that it looks like most of the arterial streets and interstates will be open through that period of time. There will be a few interstate closures due to the night shift erection of the segments but it’s something we just can’t get around based on our schedule.”

However, on Sept. 29, 2000, a public relations firm for the Big-I Reconstruction Project issued a news release to modify parts of its schedule to accommodate traffic generated by nighttime events at the Balloon Fiesta, including the elimination of night closures on opening day and weekend nights.

Also in late September, Albuquerque received a dose of windy weather. Rides at the New Mexico State Fair were closed because of the wind, but Kite seemed to suggest that the powerful gusts are barely a hiccup for Twin Mountain. “It slowed us down a couple of afternoons just for a couple of hours. We had to actually park a couple of the cranes. We just waited until the wind died down and worked a little later those days. We didn’t miss any of our concrete pours and were able to get everything done.”

People are noticing. “We hear a lot of comments about the everyday changes that we have out here,” said Kite. “People say, ’I drove through the job the day before yesterday and that bridge wasn’t even there. And now I come to it and it’s hanging over the interstate.” It’s that obvious sign of progress that seems to have caught the fancy of many New Mexicans. Through wind, balloons, and closures, everyone knows the big payoff is well worth the wait.

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