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Tollway Links Future to Ecological Heritage

Mon November 19, 2007 - Midwest Edition
Lori Lovely

The 12.5-mi. (20 km) six-lane extension of the North-South Tollway from where Interstate 355 ends at Interstate 55 (the Stevenson Expressway) through Will County to Interstate 80 opened to bicycle traffic on Veteran’s Day Nov. 11 to considerable fanfare as communities along the route staged local festivals to coincide with opening ceremonies. Vehicular traffic started rolling on the newly named Veterans Memorial Tollway during the next day’s morning rush hour.

The one-time 5K Run-Walk-Roll event raised money for preliminary engineering of a 20-ft.-wide (6 m) permanent bike and hiking trail the length of the corridor adjacent to the tollway (expected to cost between $8 and $10 million, according to tollway estimates) and also to benefit military families.

Jan Kemp, assistant press secretary with the Illinois Tollway, indicated that a low-level bridge built during the project for equipment movement will be turned over to the Will County Forest Preserve for use in connecting trails once the punch list is completed.

Located in the western suburbs of Chicago, the $730 million roadway, which is part of the larger $5.3 billion Congestion-Relief Program to reduce travel times, passes through 14 communities in Will County, one of the fastest-growing in Illinois. The first toll road built in Illinois in nearly 20 years, it is expected to reduce travel times between interstates 55 and 80 by 20 percent. Reducing travel times in the Chicago area is critical; Chicago has been rated the third most congested area in the country.

The project also will serve as an engine of economic development along the corridor, providing Will County residents and businesses easier access to jobs and markets in the Chicago area, creating new jobs and generating $20 billion in economic benefits.

The Will County Center for Economic Development estimated that the extension will lead to the creation of 150,000 jobs by the year 2030. It also will create 36,000 jobs in the construction industry and in industries that support the trades, according to a U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure report in 2003.

Planned since the 1960s, the project suffered delays caused by a lack of funding and environmental issues. Plans stalled in 1995 when it was discovered that the Hine’s Emerald Dragonfly, an endangered species, lived near the river wetlands. Special training for construction crews and the development of separate habitats near the Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve alleviated the problem. Construction workers were required to undergo special training about what to do if they encountered an endangered species, either the dragonfly or Blanding’s turtles.

“One day workers had to stop while some turtles went by,” said John Wagner, tollway department project manager and construction project manager.

“About 50 percent of the area is wetlands, with a lot of restrictions about the amount of area that could be disturbed by construction. There’s a forest preserve on the northern side of the roadway, so this is a passage area for deer and other animals. There was much concern. We worked with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Fish and Wildlife people.”

Because of the prevalence of wildlife and due to other environmental concerns, a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club in 1996 stopped work before it even began. After a 2000 Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement considered various alternatives, such as changing traffic signal sequencing and adding lanes to existing routes, the judge ruled that the proposed tollway extension provided better congestion relief. The extension passes through prairies, forests, farms and wetlands in areas where residential, commercial, office and warehouse developments are quickly springing up.

Initially, that growth led to other concerns along the corridor. Many residents feared that the new superhighway would not only accelerate the commute to Chicago, but would also speed growth and sprawl. However, opponents were either won over or relocated, leaving work to begin in the fall of 2004.

Big Picture, Many Packages

The much-anticipated program contained several projects in addition to the extension, with the intent of converting 20 mainline toll plazas to barrier-free, non-stop open-road tolls, rebuild and restore 90 percent of the now-deteriorating system, and widen and add lanes.

The extension contained 16 construction contracts, which grouped work into logical, manageable sections. There were three main drain contracts, a crossroad bridge contract, the Des Plaines River Valley Bridge contract (the largest single contract at $125 million), three contracts just for the I-55 interchange, and other geographically based contracts.

Several contracts related to grading work, while assorted other individual contracts covered the toll collection facility, communications towers and fiber optics, and paving, Wagner indicated. Breaking up the contracts allowed for more competition from local and minority contractors.

Many contracts translated into many people working on the extension. Kemp estimated that 3,800 full- and part-time professional staff were involved at some point during the project, from engineers and consultants to welders, carpenters, laborers and equipment operators.

Those people put in many hours of hard work. Crews worked 50-hour weeks, 6 days a week. Shift work was rare, although there was some night work scheduled, particularly when working on the interchanges and when beams were erected at the I-55 interchange.

Step by Step

The very first contract for earthmoving and grading was awarded to T. J. Lambrecht Construction in November 2004 to clear the lane for the new road. Major earthwork on the south end of the project followed in 2005. Kemp said crews performed major cut and fill work on the main line, moving 5 million cu. yds. (3.8 million cu m) of dirt.

By the project’s completion, crews had moved approximately 10.2 million cu. yds. (7.7 cu m) of dirt, using up to a dozen D6 dozers, nearly two dozen D8 dozers, 17 Caterpillar 345 backhoes, a dozen Caterpillar 815 and 825 compactors, a dozen Caterpillar 623 and 632 scrapers, 200 trucks and assorted other loaders, backhoes and other equipment. Through implementation of careful planning, a minimal amount of excess remained. Except for roughly 1 million cu. yds. (764.555 cu m), most of the dirt was stockpiled for future projects or used to create berms.

In 2005 crews also began embankment work and completed 95 percent of the drainage work.

“It took a long time just to put in the drainage,” Wagner said. “That’s the challenge of new road building. We crossed many streams and flood plains. Our goal was not to disrupt any natural drainage. Part of our design included providing drainage retention and improving drainage, not to cut off the natural flow and create flood conditions.”

He noted that every time they came in contact with a stream, they had to get a permit, and that they relied on the Corps of Engineers for assistance with permitting. Project managers met monthly with the EPA and other entities.

Work in 2006 focused on bridge and interchange construction, such as grading and building up for three flyover ramp bridges, and building retaining walls and constructing new bridge piers to support eight flyover ramps at the new interchange at the terminus of I-355 and I-55.

Traffic on I-355 was closed at night while a Manitowoc 999 274-ton (248 t) crane was used for overhead beam detail work and deck, approach and parapet concrete pours. Traffic also was shifted while workers widened the road.

A new interchange at I-80 and Cedar Road also featured flyover ramp bridges. Wagner said the structures there, with steel girder bridges featuring long, sweeping curves, were just as impressive as the Des Plaines River Valley Bridge.

“It was difficult to erect,” he noted. It required “all types of equipment,” he said, because the work was done at night over live traffic on major highways.

Bridge decks were framed over the winter and concrete was poured in 2007 to complete bridges and interchanges. Kemp estimated the south extension required approximately 410,000 cu. yds. (313,400 cu m) of concrete and 270,000 tons (244,000 t) of steel to complete the six interchanges, bridges and noise abatement walls at six locations for developments that were platted before April 1999 when the extension became public knowledge.

Des Plaines River Valley Bridge

The biggest contract on the project covered the biggest feature on the tollway: the Des Plaines River Valley Bridge, a 6,600-ft.-long (2,000 m) six-lane bridge that crosses over every type of condition found along the way: wetland, canal, river and road.

The bridge, with three lanes in each direction, will run north of Bluff Road to south of New Avenue, spanning the I&M Canal, the Sanitary & Ship Canal, several railroad lines, the river and the Forest Preserve. At 1.3 mi. (2 km), it is the longest on the tollway system, the second longest in Illinois. Kemp called it the centerpiece of the project.

The pre-cast, post-tensioned girder-design concrete bridge rises 90 ft. (27 m) above ground at its highest point. Wagner explained that it was raised 10 ft. (3 m) to keep it out of the flight pattern of the mating Hine’s Emerald Dragonflies.

“We crossed one of the limited number of habitats,” he explained. “That influenced the elevation of the bridge. We had to put it at a height to accommodate their flight pattern.”

He added that the bridge spanning the valley from bluff to bluff over varying topography was a big determination in its height, as it was necessary to maintain a certain elevation in order to connect the spans.

Because the bridge was so high, electric lines had to be raised to 160 ft. (48 m) Thomas Edison assisted in the $5 million project of moving approximately 345 AV lines and 128 KB existing regional transmission lines.

While Wagner said that the 13-mi.-long (20 km) bridge spans “a little bit of everything,” requiring different types of foundations, the Des Plaines bridge had even more requirements. The bridge contract included specific requirements regarding the maximum number of piers and the number of columns within each pier, based on environmental issues. Some structures were on piles, some on conventional foundations and some caissons were drilled into rock, but all piers had to be located away from dragonfly breeding grounds.

The contract called for 34 piers. The five piers north of Bluff Road will be 10 to 20 ft. (3 to 6 m) tall, but due to the sudden drop in elevation to the valley 75 to 100 ft. (22 to 30 m) below, the 29 piers south of Bluff Road will have an average height of 75 ft. (22 m).

Beams were 100 in. (254 cm) deep and weighed 200,000 lbs. (90,700 kg), most of which were set in place with two cranes. Erection of some beams required one crane on the bluff and one in the valley.

A 300-ton (272 t) Manitowoc 2250 was put together specifically for work on this bridge.

“Crews had to put up massive post-tension concrete girders up to 10 feet deep 80 to 100 feet above ground,” Wagner said.

Time on Its Side

The project came in on budget and on schedule, due in part to mild weather and continuing favorable conditions through much of 2007.

“We had a wet period in August this year,” Wagner recalled, during which work was halted because “we had to deal with flood conditions.”

It rained north of the Des Plaines bridge, causing the river to flood over the staging area where equipment was stored. Crews couldn’t get to the cranes for girder erection. However, Wagner pointed out, beautiful weather in September and October “saved us. We had perfect conditions and took full advantage of it. We didn’t miss a day.”

Some innovative techniques speeded work. Wagner indicated that one contractor poured 50 percent of the paving, using a brand-new paver with a bar inserter never before used in Illinois.

“Normally, you have to place a reinforcer prior to the paver,” he explained. “This inserts bars with reinforcers as you’re pouring the concrete. It’s a much more efficient method of paving.”

Another important aspect that kept the job rolling was the addition of a corridor manager to facilitate communications and interfacing between all the sub-contractors and contracts.

Keeping within budget was not always easy. The rising cost of materials was pushing the total $80 million to $100 million over its $730 million budget at one point. Because much of the over-run was associated with the Des Plaines bridge, V3 Companies of Illinois, the project’s construction and corridor manager, staged a competition for a redesign of the bridge. Walsh Construction Co. won with a low bid, coming in with a design and build plan at $125 million.

Another money-saving measure was not initiated as a means of cost-cutting. The original plan called for two toll plazas. However, through input from committees in the local communities along the corridor, the tollway was made aware of the preference for just one toll plaza. Kemp said the idea came from an earlier section of toll road that opened in 1989. That 12.5 mi. stretch features only one toll plaza. She said the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority agreed and adjusted rates to accommodate the change.

Long-term savings came from predictions that the pavement would not require major repairs for 30 years. Contributing to that theory were some of the experiments incorporated into the project. Wagner counted 14 different surface treatments the tollway used, in cooperation with various firms conducting studies.

Those studies later will be used to evaluate the performance according to specific parameters for sound, drainage, friction and other factors.

“We took on a lot of new initiatives on this project,” Wagner continued. “There was an IT aspect, with surveillance cameras, variable message signs and weigh-in-motion testing, with sensors embedded in the pavement to detect load size. It shows some of the opportunities tollways offer over tax-based highways.”

In addition to testing surface treatments, the tollway authority, which maintains and operates 274 mi. (440 km) of interstate tollways in 12 counties in northern Illinois, looked to the future when designing the new roadway. An average of 199,310 vehicles traveled daily on the existing I-355 in 2005, according to the toll authority — up from 116,106 in 1990, a year after I-355 opened. Planners estimated that developed lands in the corridor had increased by 30 percent in the last decade.

Daily traffic projections indicate that 125,000 vehicles will use the extension every day. Estimates report that the tollway can accommodate the addition of more than 120,000 residents over the previous decade and provide for future growth of two percent.

Wagner said the projected traffic numbers could have been accommodated on a four-lane road, but because “the numbers are tight and the opportunity was there — we could financially afford it — we proceeded with the six-lane road. There are several crossroads; this provides for the future.” CEG

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