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U.S. 34 Bypass Boo-Boo Gets Corrective Surgery in Iowa

Mon November 07, 2005 - Midwest Edition
Lori Lovely

As technology advances, construction deadlines grow increasingly tight, with jobs stacked up like airplanes at Thanksgiving.

Rising expectations and mounting pressure often obscure the concept of human error. The fact remains, however, that technology and tools are only as good as the input they receive, and, as always when people are involved, fallibility is a possibility.

The Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) was reminded of that fact recently when a mistake was discovered on the U.S. 34 bypass around Mt. Pleasant, necessitating that new roadway be removed and replaced –– to subsequent delay of the project and much public embarrassment.

The short story is that a 500-ft. section of the new four-lane highway, located along a westbound curve near the residential community of Westwood at the base of a massive concrete retaining wall, was not constructed according to the plans, which called for a “super elevated” curve that would allow vehicles to round the bank safely at higher speeds.

Prime contractor Fred Carlson Co., of Decorah, and principal subcontractor, consulting firm Snyder and Associates of Ankeny, quickly stepped up to assume full responsibility for the mistake and took measures to correct it.

The long story remains unfinished, as does the bypass and its financial settlement.

No Getting Around It

U.S 34 is a key regional east-west corridor linking I-74 and I-218, the “Avenue of the Saints.” The Mt. Pleasant bypass is part of the U.S. 34 Corridor project, which was initiated 36 years ago.

The Illinois Highway Study Commission prepared a highway needs and study plan during the late 1960s, with various stages of the corridor receiving approval through 1970. But it was 1997 before the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration allocated funding for the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement. It was the first of many delays in the project’s completion.

In 2003, The Burlington Hawkeye reported that just before work was scheduled to begin on a Danville bypass, engineers discovered the route had been drawn over high-pressure gas lines. Rather than relocate the gas lines, the highway plans underwent realignment. The original $38-million estimated cost for the 11-mi. stretch of road was expected to run higher by the time work completed.

Things went only slightly better in Mt. Pleasant, where rain delays in Spring and Fall 2004 pushed back the scheduled opening on the $8.5-million job to June 2005.

The notorious curve in question was poured, done and handling traffic at 55 mph in late 2004 when the discrepancy between the plans and the end results was discovered during work on the second lane.

Immediately upon realization that the curve was not properly banked … work proceeded as usual. Dena Gray-Fisher said Carlson decided to complete the entire project before coming back to make the correction. IDOT went along with the plan because at 55 mph motorists were not in danger.

However, because the speed limit was due to increase to 65 mph once construction was completed, the problem had to be addressed eventually. Jackson issued a statement saying, “The DOT’s No. 1 priority is to provide a roadway that is safe and meets the state’s high quality construction standards.”

Therefore, the June opening was postponed until the corrective work was completed, and traffic continued to be routed through Mt. Pleasant on the existing U.S. 34.

Another mistake was made: The media was not alerted –– an oversight, which the DOT has since rectified following the criticism and speculation expressed in print.

Larry Jackson, District 5 Construction Engineer, said the agency gained a better appreciation for its duty to keep the public informed about the progress of major construction work, adding,

“With the large volume of highway work being done in southeast Iowa, sometimes we take construction situations like these in stride. We need to remember that the public does not, and do a better job of communicating when work is not progressing according to schedule.”

Asked why the DOT failed to update the public about the problem, District 5 Construction Engineer Fred Bartos said it wasn’t appropriate for IDOT to disclose the contractor’s mistake.

The Big Question

IDOT considered the incident “simply a matter of human error,” and continues to regard both firms highly.

Bartos explained that other things happen to other contractors on other projects.

“For instance, sometimes pouring contractors don’t get a slab covered before it rains…” He said IDOT works with contractors to correct mistakes, but that ultimately, the contractor has responsibilities to uphold.

While spokesmen for both Carlson and Snyder issued official apologetic statements that simultaneously accepted responsibility, confirmed their commitment to properly complete the job –– at no additional cost to the tax payers –– and reaffirmed their reputations and track records, neither wanted to go into detail.

A Snyder spokesperson who asked not to be quoted declined to explain how the costly mistake happened, and said the company wanted to put it behind them and move forward. David Carlson, Fred Carlson president, prefers to “let sleeping dogs lie,” summing up the matter in one sentence: “Somebody made a mistake.”

So, how did it happen? One local newspaper stated that the mistake “apparently occurred during surveying, before construction had actually begun.”

The possible causes included an error in surveying; an error in staking; a technological discrepancy between relative dimensions and actual dimensions due to GPS coordinate-driven surveying and lack of reliance on cumulative measurements; an error in reading the survey; and lapses in communication between the survey crew and the construction crew. At least until the entire project is completed and the liquidated damages settled, the answers will remain unclear –– and may well never be openly discussed. IDOT possesses potentially revealing letters that it won’t disclose at least until the project is completed.

Calling a Mulligan

IDOT also possesses documents recording the options, choices, methods and potential solutions proposed by Carlson and Snyder. Bartos said IDOT was included in four meetings to discuss options, with the last meeting scheduled to approve the final design.

The original design called for a higher elevation, Gray-Fisher told reporters.

“When it was actually constructed, they made it flat.” Bartos explained that with a normal crown, each side of the pavement falls away from the center line at a 2-percent grade, but a super elevation calls for a 2.8-percent grade. As discovered, one side of the bypass registered a negative 2 percent, with the other side requiring only minimal corrections.

Work began July 11. Bartos said the task was divided into three stages: one lane was widened with asphalt and barrier rails were put up to maintain traffic; traffic was shifted to the inside lane while the westbound lane was removed.

Once pavement in that lane was replaced, traffic was switched. He said work extended 290 ft. on one lane, 630 ft. on the other. The granular sub-base was increased in thickness to meet the specified height. Bartos said that work was added: the shoulder was strengthened with asphalt for a 14-ft. width.

Due to Carlson’s work load, Bartos said the prime contractor believed “the work could get done quicker if Shipley [Contracting Corp.] did the work for them.”

IDOT project manager Jeff Johnson said it was Snyder that hired the Burlington asphalt company. He said it was a “straight-forward” fix of an “asphalt wedge problem.” Anticipated to last two months, the work was finished in three weeks, with IDOT closely monitoring progress.

Nevertheless, it delayed the scheduled opening of the four-lane bypass until August 15, and even then work wasn’t 100 percent complete.

A temporary cross-over ramp connection hasn’t been removed, and Bartos said other minor work and cleanup has yet to be done. If work isn’t finished by the adjusted completion date, according to the contract, Carlson is liable for a $600-per-day fee for liquidated damages.

Bartos expects that by winter four lanes of U.S. 34 will stretch from Burlington just west of Mt. Pleasant to Westwood, and that “probably sometime next spring” the second stage from Mt. Pleasant to Fairfield also will be complete.

Don Carmody, a Mt. Pleasant businessman and Iowa Transportation Commissioner who has been involved in the development of Iowa’s portion of the Avenue of the Saints and upgrade of U.S. 34, had two reasons to be pleased when the bypass finally opened.

He believes the drop in truck traffic through town will make Mt. Pleasant safer and thereby encourage more downtown shopping.

“The bypass is an important part of what people here have been counting on and planning for a lot of years,” he told the local paper.

On a broader scale, he called the accomplishment of this section of the Burlington-to-Des Moines corridor a “tremendous development.” CEG

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