TDOT’s Largest Highway Contract Starts in Knoxville

Tue August 02, 2005 - Southeast Edition
Jeff Cronin

Bruce Nicely is stressing the importance of Ray Bell Construction Co.’s deadline to his crew members like never before.

The Brentwood, TN, company started work this spring on an $85-million SmartFIX40 project in downtown Knoxville. It’s not only the largest contract amount in Tennessee Department of Transportation’s (TDOT) history, but it also brings promise of the largest incentive —$6 million if crews complete the two phases of work in the contract by Sept. 30, 2007.

To place a bid for the project, contractors had to be pre-qualified and have successfully completed a road project of more than $40 million.

If the work runs past the deadline, TDOT will fine Ray Bell Construction $25,000 a day.

Nicely, Ray Bell’s vice president, said the largest incentive he’s worked for before has been $2.5 million with a penalty of $10,000.

The contract is strict about the deadline — TDOT will not accept any excuse for missing the date.

“No matter what gets screwed up, it’s our fault,” Nicely said.

Time is of so much importance on this job because a half-mile stretch of James White Parkway will be completely closed for 10 months during phase two. Nicely said the parkway is a major connection between downtown Knoxville and the University of Tennessee area.

This is the first official SmartFIX project in Tennessee, although there have been a couple short-term closures in Nashville, TDOT spokesman Travis Brickey said.

During phase one, Hall of Fame Drive, a new roadway, will be constructed to connect Summit Hill Drive and Broadway. The Glenwood Avenue bridges over Hall of Fame will be replaced, along with the Summit Hill Bridge over First Creek and James White Parkway. Crews will also construct an interchange between Hall of Fame and I-40.

In phase two, James White Parkway will be closed, with traffic between I-40 and downtown detoured onto the new Hall of Fame Drive. Also, major bridges over a railroad, Jackson Avenue and Willow Street will be reconstructed and a ramp from I-40 eastbound to James White Parkway will be built.

In all, the contract called for the construction of 13 bridges and a tunnel structure.

Nicely said having free reign of the stretch of James White Parkway will “make [the job] a whole lot easier to do.”

The stretch of James White being reconstructed includes a 1,000-ft. bridge, a part of the project through which crews should be able to cruise without having to allow for traffic.

“It takes almost as long to build half a bridge as it takes to build the whole thing,” Nicely said.

At the peak of the contract, he expects 350 crew members to be at the job site, which includes workers from the 25 subcontractors.

While TDOT ceremoniously kicked off the project July 6 with the closure of the southbound North Fifth Avenue Bridge over I-40, crews had already been on the site for three months.

Pike Electric workers were moving overhead electric lines; crews from King Pipeline were relocating gas and water lines; and Curton-Hodges workers were taking care of sewer lines in the way of the new portion of Hall of Fame Drive. All the utilities are owned by the Knoxville Utilities Board. This part of the work cost approximately $8 million.

Nicely said the company purchased two new Link-Belt 60-ton hydraulic cranes to assist with the demolition and construction of all of the bridges. A fleet of 14 cranes are at the job site, including a Link-Belt 75-ton hydraulic crawler, two 50-ton Terex hydraulic cranes and a 100-ton American crane.

The 350-ft. long Fifth Avenue Bridge was to have been dismantled in two to three weeks. The northbound bridge will be demolished in August 2006.

Hall of Fame Drive should be open to traffic in December 2006, including the new “gateway” bridge over I-40 that will include torch lighting and a welcome sign.

“It’s going to be a nice little bridge,” Nicely said.

Under a separate contract, which will be awarded in mid-2006, I-40 will be widened to three lanes in each direction from I-275 to Cherry Street.

During this phase, the interstate will be closed for 14 months, with traffic being diverted to I-640.

Additionally, Fourth Avenue will be relocated to the west side of I-40 and interchanges with James White Parkway and Cherry Street will be completed.

This portion of I-40, which carries 103,000 vehicles per day, is known as a high accident rate corridor that doesn’t meet today’s traffic demands. It was first constructed in the 1960s.

“This stretch of interstate is too narrow and is extremely dangerous, especially for motorists trying to merge onto I-40 from James White Parkway,” said TDOT Region One Director Fred Corum. “It averages more than 150 accidents per year.”

Brickey said the project will correct “a couple of places that are hair-raising to say the least.”

In one area, traffic merges onto I-40 and crosses two lanes of traffic to exit onto James White.

But the worst part, Brickey said, is where traffic from downtown merges onto the left lane of I-40 westbound in a tight curve with very fast traffic.

This stretch of road has one of the highest accident rates in the country, Brickey said.

The planning process included an extensive amount of community input that resulted in additional noise walls, landscaping, lighting and other aesthetic aspects.

“We are seeing a lot of new growth in the downtown area. More and more people are working in, living in and coming downtown for entertainment. It is very important that access to downtown be maintained,” said Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam. “I-40 is the first impression visitors get when driving into downtown from the east. With all the visual improvements planned, I-40 will become a gateway into downtown and we are really excited about that.”

Brickey said the first plan for improvements to this area came to the table in the 1980s. Planners went through 11 different plans, both adjustment and complete overhauls, to come up with the current project. Approximately 30 different neighborhood groups formed to offer input into the project and fought for such things as the design of sound walls, no spillover lighting and the maintenance of trees along the highway.

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