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The Day Traffic Stopped

Wed May 21, 2008 - Southeast Edition
Matthew Willett

Road construction projects, though as varied as the roads themselves, have a few things in common: tight deadlines, tight spaces and traffic.

But when the Tennessee Department of Transportation saw the scope of the job to improve I-40 in downtown Knoxville, planners knew they had a problem. So they found a fix — a SmartFIX.

Instead of partially closing the roadway, the fix called for closing the whole thing, not just for a day or a few hours, but for 14 months.

It’s almost unheard of. Indiana roadway planners tried it once. Beyond that, they say in Knoxville, it was uncharted territory when the traffic stopped coming.

“The main reason for closing the interstate was three words: time, time and time,” TDOT Communications and Community Relations Officer Travis Brickey said. “If we looked at the constructability of this, the issue with this project is twofold: there’s a historic neighborhood on both sides that we can’t touch — the existing right of way makes for a very limited footprint — and the other factor is that this will shave two to three years off the project.”

Ray Bell Construction Co. of Brentwood, Tenn., and Blalock and Son Construction of Sevierville, Tenn., formed a joint venture especially for the $106 million job. Ray Bell’s transportation division Senior Vice President Bruce Nicely said the closed highway gives the job a different feel. He said the unusual circumstances made the companies, sometimes competitors and sometimes co-constructors, work together fast.

“We closed traffic down at midnight on the first of May, and we worked that night just to take advantage of that first day we had without traffic,” Nicely said. “We tore down a bunch of bridges and milled out a bunch of asphalt and started major excavation for one of the bridges. It makes it more like building a new road out in the country. It’s really great to not have cars out there that could run you over.”

Site Superintendent Jeff Walker wishes he could do every job this way.

“Obviously, safety is the most important thing to us, the workers out here, and not having the motoring public right there with us is definitely a safety advantage,” he said. “And with that, obviously, productivity has increased since we’re not having to make provisions for traffic control in a closed area.

“It’s almost like new work,” he laughed. “I mean, we’ve got to do demolition but we just don’t have to worry about traffic control. I most definitely wish we could do every job like this.”

Compressing the job into a 14-month timeframe is a feat unto itself. TDOT’s Brickey rattles off the numbers as if the gargantuan project is just another day at the office.

“Within that 14 months we’ll do the entire project. Here are the stats: the entire project consists of 25 bridges, one tunnel, 31 retaining walls and 7,530 linear feet of noise barriers,” he said. “The average daily traffic in this section of I-40 is 103,000 cars and trucks per day. This section of I-40, prior to our construction, had a dangerous left-hand entrance ramp, two dangerous weaving sections and the worst safety record of an interstate in Tennessee, and one of the worst safety records on I-40 in the country.”

One of the retaining walls, No. 7, was specially designed by TDOT engineers Saieb Haddad and Henry Pate.

Construction of conventional retaining walls, Haddad said, is often difficult in urban settings because of right of way restraints or cost restrictions. This new design is built from the top down, which greatly reduces the easement required behind the wall.

“It consists of battered and vertical piles as the structural frame of the wall and vertical anchors to provide additional stability against overturning,” Haddad said.

The new wall design was first implemented on I-40 in western Knox County in 2003 to 2005. The University of Tennessee developed an instrumentation system to measure the pressures and forces acting on the retaining wall. The data collected at the SmartFIX site will eventually lead to a standard design procedure for future walls of this type, Haddad said.

The SmartFIX project, Brickey said, is broken up into three phases, the first two preparing for the last.

“We’ve been under construction on this section of I-40 through downtown Knoxville since summer 2005, and, to date, this is the largest single project in the history of this section of I-40,” Brickey said. “Phases I and II included the construction of Hall of Fame Drive and a new interchange and reconstruction of James White Parkway, which leads to the University of Tennessee and is a main thoroughfare through downtown. That project was completed last September by Ray Bell Construction.”

The Phase I contract was let for $85 million, Brickey said. Early completion won contractors a bonus for the $105 million Phase II job, so it’s no surprise that Ray Bell’s super is happy to put the manpower and equipment to work on a conveniently empty site. Combined, Ray Bell and Blalock have approximately 150 men on site six or seven days per week for 55 to 60 hours per week, Walker said.

The joint venture is working six Link-Belt cranes including a 75-ton, an LS118 and an LS118 crawler, two RTC 8060s and an LRT-230E. In addition, the venture is running a Terex 50-ton RT 450, a JLG boom lift and three Genie manlifts, he said. A Terex TB60 boom lift rounds out the job’s lifting equipment. Three Cat trackhoes, including two 322Cs and a 325, move debris created by among others, an MKT vibratory hammer.

Nicely noted the lack of interruption helps speed along construction.

“Because you get to build a complete bridge rather than building it in phases when traffic’s out there — that takes longer. Instead of building it in phases, you can do all the work in a little more than half the time.”

A mini trackhoe, a Bobcat 753; a Bobcat T300; and two Cat telehandlers — a TH 560B and a TH 83 — keep things moving at the strangely untraveled site, and two Case backhoes — a 580 and a 580 Super L — complete the set of the loudest vehicles on the most peaceful highway construction site in Tennessee’s history.

“We had, really, five existing bridges demolished, and all of those were done nine days into the closure,” Brickey said. “All of the bridges but one are already gone, and it’s only still up because they’re using it as a hauling road. In the job they’ll use 3.5 million pounds of bridge reinforcing steel, 17,000 cubic yards of bridge concrete, and about 345,000 cubic yards of material will have to be moved.”

Brickey said the TDOT has had a positive reaction from the Knoxville driving public, despite the lengthy detours involved in the 14-month closure. It didn’t hurt having a native daughter, no less than the legendary Dolly Parton, touting the project on a widely televised public service announcement.

“To finish the work, traffic going through Knoxville on I-40 will be re-routed onto I-640,” she declared. “Construction crews will be working faster than my Tennessee Tornado to finish up,” the hard-hatted and traffic vested country music icon said, referring to the roller coaster at Dollywood, just 35 miles down the interstate.

It also didn’t hurt that TDOT considered the project from Knoxville’s point of view.

“What we were doing, we said, with Phases I and II, was really focusing on Hall of Fame Drive and James White and those streets’ importance. It was critical that we maintain access in and out of downtown Knoxville at all times, and by phasing the project, we were able to provide access in and out of downtown either by Hall of Fame or the new construction, James White, but all that had to be completed prior to the closure.”

And it didn’t hurt that the finished project will be a showpiece for the city.

“One of the things we talked about with this project was being aesthetically minded,” Brickey said. “One of the bridges over I-40 was designed by an architect and has unique lighting and features a retaining wall that says ’Knoxville.’ There are a lot of aesthetic features in this project in addition to the massive landscaping project.”

Brickey said Parton wasn’t joshin’ about the pace onsite. The project is on schedule for completion in June 2009, maybe slightly ahead. He said it’s not just the taxpayers in Tennessee who are saving money.

“[With] the traditional way [of road construction] we’re trying to get the weather to get it done, and meanwhile there’s a lot of user cost involved in people sitting in traffic,” he said. “Knoxville is a crossroads city with I-40 and I-75 going all the way from Canada to Florida and I-81, a northeast corridor. We have a very heavy freight load on the interstate system here, and whether you’re a family traveling to Knoxville or a trucker trying to get the load in at a certain time, that costs a lot of money, and we felt like this was the best bargain, to be able to halve the amount of time construction will take.”

For contractors, though, it’s still a job like no other, and Ray Bell’s Nicely said the project’s ambiance, and it’s convenience, isn’t wasted on the builders.

“We’ve been working on this project for two years,” he said, “getting ready, preparing for this shutdown. We’ve been working with traffic there for two years waiting for this point, waiting for the traffic to stop.” CEG

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