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U.S. 550 Comes With Guarantee

Sat November 18, 2000 - West Edition
Len Cox

Newly designated U.S. Highway 550, formerly New Mexico State Route 44, is a unique reconstruction project in progress. Snaking through the Upper Rio Puerco Valley and over the Continental Divide, it has been dubbed the “Four Lanes to the Four Corners.”

Previously, this road was one of the top 10 deadliest in the nation. Crosses or descansos, placed by family or friends, mark places where fatalities have occurred and are poignant reminders of this two-lane’s notoriety.

Now, people by the thousands are making this situation much better.

New Mexico State Highway and Transportation Department (NMSHTD) needed a way to reconstruct and expand the two-lane stretch of NM 44 into the four-lane U.S. 550 in a reasonable time period and at a reasonable cost.

Ideas began formulating in the mid-1990s. Using the standard approach of point-to-point construction would take as long as 27 years. In addition, New Mexico laws prohibit design/build by a state agency. After all of the head scratching details, negotiations, and bid lettings, NMSHTD’s normal procurement process has engendered four general contractors whose collective forces have U.S. 550 being simultaneously rebuilt in sections.

In July of 1998, NMSHTD awarded the developer contract to Mesa Project Development Contractor. Mesa is owned by Koch Materials Company of Wichita, KS, and provides professional services including overall project and quality management, bid package preparation, inspection, testing and measurement services and warranty. The warranty on U.S. 550, a 20-year agreement, is a first in the United States’ highway construction industry and it is precedence setting.

Many companies offer guarantees on their products to reassure customers they are buying a quality product. With the U.S. 550 project, Koch and Mesa are simply doing the same thing. European roads have had guarantees on performance for years, but in the United States the idea is revolutionary. Due to the low-bid system in the United States, there is no room for innovation, leaving no room for quality guarantees.

According to the company, Koch has developed a way to build a road, with a guarantee, in a much shorter time than traditional road construction because of the combination of materials, mix designs, and application techniques designed to make road construction and maintenance treatments last. If the rebuilding and expansion of New Mexico 44 highway continues to be successful, it is likely that more states will adopt the process.

Mesa is fiscally responsible for maintaining the long-term performance of U.S. 550 within predefined distress criteria. According to NMSHTD, the state will save approximately $89 million in maintenance and repair costs alone and will not have to use any of its crews for pavement or structure repairs for up to two decades.

The project is a 120-mile (192 km) stretch of highway. The duration of the project is set for three years, weather permitting, and the plan includes work on seven bridges and, give or take a few design changes, requires installation of about 700 new culverts and twice as many slope blankets.

Bill Zeiss, vice president and operations manager of Sundt Construction Inc., the contractor responsible for mile post 53.8 to 63.5 of the project, explained the importance of a hot-lap joint. At the same time, two staggered, lay-down paver crews apply the final lift, or the top layer of asphalt, while it is still hot. By doing this, the middle seam is hot-lapped making the entire driving lane smoother and better compared to cold lap-jointed road.

Zeiss commented that this overall approach to highway construction is a “trend of the future.” For some of the aggregate supply needs, existing highway is removed and milled en route then re-used in the new asphalt’s mix. Sundt Construction has spread about 200,000 tons (180,000 t) of asphalt.

Bill Meyer, project manager of E. L.Yeager Construction Company, which is constructing mile 23.7 to 53.8 of the highway, said, “These asphalt specifications were the toughest I’ve ever seen. But, the final product will be worth it.” E. L. Yeager has a new multi-million dollar batch plant, “Zia Aggregate Source,” mixing and dispensing semi-dump-truck sized lots. Yeager has five of the seven bridges slated for reconstruction.

Frank Riggins, Yeager’s project supervisor, explained that high-density polyethylene culverts instead of the standard zinc and metal design, were to be installed in this section because of the high sulfur content in the ground. Riggins said, “We are looking at 300,000 tons (27,000 t) of asphalt in the next two months.” Yeager’s projected asphalt total needs hover around 600,000 tons (540,000 t).

Melissa Leon, field engineer of Sundt Construction, enjoys the idea that Sundt is “playing a part in changing the face of the earth … making it better.” She remarked on talking about construction in some people’s front doors. In terms of special work — rebuilding turnouts, fences, and gates — she said, “All private property owners have really been understanding and helpful.”

In return, Sundt has found itself lending a hand to residents. When an intense storm threatened flooding of private property, Sundt’s people helped with sandbagging efforts. Traffic was stopped once so a rancher could move cattle across the road to other pastures. But the projects most understanding gesture was when Mesa, along with its construction manager, Flatiron Structures, and the projects worked together to ensure the crosses which symbolize the loss of life on NM 44, were protected during construction, and will be returned once construction is complete. “The crosses are part of New Mexico’s culture, and are revered by everyone. We feel it is important to respect and preserve them,” said Kathie Leyendecker, community relations director for the New Mexico State Highway and Transportation Department (NMSHTD).

The other contractors on the project include FNF, of AZ, a general contractor rebuilding the 47-mi. (75.6 km) section from milepost 67.78 to 115. Two bridges and approximately 1 million tons (900,000 t) of asphalt are on the menu for this section of the highway.

Western Mobil, Albuquerque, NM, is an aggregate supplier and the general contractor rebuilding milepost 115 to 143. This section requires the construction of one 535,000 tons (481,500 t) of asphalt.

Mesa also hired CH2MHill, an engineering and planning firm, for the design of U.S. 550.

A 20-year study called “Roadlife” will be conducted after the completion of the entire project. The program is championed by David Albright, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, and according to Barry Howard, audit and training manager of Flatiron Structures said, “The ’Roadlife’ study will be a validation of everyone’s hard work.” Howard also remarked that the project, “is a real partnership between public and private groups.”

The new four lane highway will increase safety and quicken the pulse of area commerce as the historical tapestry woven along its length, including Ziz Pueblo, Jemez Pueblo, Jicarilla Apache Reservation, Nageezi and Bloomfield, NM, remains a possibility of discovery for its travelers. U.S. 550 is unique highway reconstruction in progress and its ingenuity and partnerships have many people watching.

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