WisDOT Makes ’Whiz-bang’ Job of U.S. 53 Rehab

Tue September 28, 2004 - Midwest Edition
Dick Rohland

Well into its third year of construction, a critical link in the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) Corridors 2020 highway network continues to make quick construction progress along a 7.5 mile (12 km) section of U.S. 53 in the east central portion of the state.

When the $94 million project is completed, WisDOT officials expect a 50 percent crash rate reduction by the year 2010 along this busy corridor, dubbed Hastings Way by WisDOT officials.

The Hastings Way corridor currently carries more than 40,000 vehicles daily. Crash rates on the existing highway are three and a half times the state average.

State funds will pay for two thirds of the construction costs with the rest coming from federal highway funds. The prime contractor for the project is Hoffman Construction of Black River Falls, WI.

Hoffman is primarily a road construction excavation company working mostly in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Its clients include the Wisconsin and Minnesota departments of transportation.

According to Frank Laufenberg, project superintendent, Hoffman expects to use more than 30 subcontractors by the time it finishes the six year project.

Hoffman snagged all six contracts to be let for the road project; a fete which is noteworthy in itself.

“It’s very unusual, being in our business, to be on a job for this length of time,” Laufenberg noted. Laufenberg has been the project’s superintendent since the excavation began in 2000.

The Corridors 2020 highway network is a 1,550 mile (2,494 km) backbone system of multi-lane and divided, improved and existing highways connecting all regions and major economic centers throughout the state, according to Ross Johnson, WisDOT project manager.

An additional 2,100 mile (3,379 km) system of two- and four-lane, high-quality connectors will link directly to the backbone system to connect other significant and tourism centers of the state, Johnson added.

“Together, these two components will create a 3,650 mile network linking Wisconsin communities to the nation’s interstate and multi-lane highway systems for improved access to the national and world markets,” Johnson explained.

Twenty years in the planning, the WisDOT has completed most of the backbone system and a good portion of the connector system to date.

The state purchased nearly 600 acres of land for the U.S. 53 corridor at a cost of $20 million. Most of the acreage was vacant woodland or open countryside. The state, however, did relocate some homes and businesses, including a local television station, Johnson said.

The U.S. 53 project begins at the southern limits of the city of Eau Claire, WI, and ends in the Village of Lake Hallie, nearly eight miles north.

Eau Claire is approximately 100 miles east of the St. Paul/Minneapolis metro area in Minnesota and is located on Interstate 94. Highway engineers shifted the new road alignment through Eau Claire approximately .5 to 1 mi east of the existing highway.

Along the way, interchanges featuring 25 bridges, a tunnel and 20 retaining walls will be constructed at six busy and dangerous intersections. They will provide safe and convenient access to several urban areas along the route. And, with an estimated 40 percent reduction in the vehicle hours of travel time, cleaner air will be another primary benefit.

Once this 7.5 mile (12 km) portion of U.S. 53 is completed, designers estimate that 4.3 million cu. yds. (3.3 million cu m) of earth will have been removed, another 814,000 cu. yds. (62,234 cu m) of rock excavated, 146,000 cu. yds. (111,625 cu m) of concrete poured with 4 million lbs. (1.6 million kg) of rebar placed. Another 1.2 million lbs. (544,310 kg) of structural steel will be hoisted for the bridges and 148,000 sq. ft. (13,750 sq m) of retaining walls will be built.

On a tour of the entire road construction site, it is clear that Laufenberg’s longevity on the job is an intangible asset for Hoffman.

While driving the site, he easily rattled off project details, quantities and equipment used on the job. Laufenberg quickly answered questions over the phone and radio that came in from his workers on the construction site.

Two dozen Cat 631E scrapers, approximately two dozen D9L, D8N and D6H Cat dozers and just under one dozen Cat backhoes have been on the construction site during the removal and base paving operations.

Along some areas of the new road alignment, the rock-stubborn landscape challenged workers and machines alike.

While the majority of the terrain features gently rolling hills through Wisconsin’s green, dairy land of farms, workers faced three abrupt, 110 ft. (33.5 m) rises along the alignment.

Because the hills consisted of sandstone, engineers decided to cut straight through them instead of going around or tunneling through them. It was cost effective, and the stability of the sandstone allowed engineers to specify that the walls of the hills could be cut almost vertically without the support of retaining walls.

The first hill workers cut through was located just north of Eau Claire. Known as the Nordic rock cut, workers began cutting away at the hill from the top.

Laufenberg said that to maintain a nearly vertical cut, the workers and their equipment had to maintain a .25/1 ft. (0.8/.3 m) ratio of slope.

“You had to be very accurate when you were coming down because once you’re committed, its pretty hard to go back,” Laufenberg explained. “We did a lot of measuring from side to side as we came down to make sure we had our correct width.

“The guys doing it have been with us for many years. They know what they’re doing and they did an excellent job,” Laufenberg added.

Hoffman crews mounted a D8 ripper tooth on a Cat backhoe to break away the rock. A D9 ripper tooth mounted to the outside edge of a Dozer blade ripped close to the rock to maintain the almost vertical slope of the hillside walls, Laufenberg said.

“There were just a couple of modifications we made to the equipment to get the job done. The equipment worked quite well for us,” Laufenberg said.

And what a job it became. When workers cut through all three hills, a total of 2.5 million cu. yds. (1.9 million cu m) were hauled away; or 96,000 scraper loads.

“The first cut we had 19 631 E Caterpillar Scrapers working and we took 800,000 yards out,” Laufenberg said matter of factly. “The second cut was a longer haul. We did that late fall into the winter. We had 23 scrapers hauling for that one.”

The haul for the second cut was three miles to another highway project where the scrapers dumped their material for fill. The cold, winter conditions actually worked to the advantage of the Hoffman crews.

Even though three miles is extremely long for a scraper, “They’ll go 30 to 35 miles per hour fully loaded and being winter conditions the road was frozen solid and they made good time,” Laufenberg remarked.

“Hoffman Construction Company uses all Cat equipment because of its reliability and parts availability,” Laufenberg explained. “Cat is number one in the industry and they help us to be number one in our business.”

Hoffman crews shaved thousands of dollars off the project cost by recycling the excavated material for use on other road projects.

Lunda Construction of Black River Falls, WI, and Zenith Tech of Waukasha, WI, are building the 25 bridges at the interchanges along the new highway. Lunda is now constructing what is commonly referred to by the contractor as a “butterfly” bridge because its deck geometry resembles a bow-tie.

In design terms, it is referred to as a Single Point Urban Interchange (SPUI) bridge. With a SPUI, turning movements are arranged around a single point with fewer conflict points resulting in safer and smoother traffic movement and more efficient signal timing.

Lunda iron workers are now placing steel girders for the bridge. The approach ramps for the bridge will be supported by long, adjacent continuous retaining walls that connect into each end of the bridge.

This bridge also features the one tunnel on the project which will carry southbound traffic onto WIS 93 from U.S. 53.

Hoffman crews also laid nearly a mile, more than 4,000 ft. (1,219 m) of 72 in. (183 cm) storm sewer pipe to drain the North Crossing corridor (County Rd. Q) and urban area into the Eau Claire River.

According to Laufenberg, the storm sewer system incorporates a holding pond and a huge, concrete energy dissipator before the storm water dumps into the Eau Claire River.

And the groundwater hampered the sewer construction.

“The energy dissipator is normally five feet below the river under normal conditions, so it was tough getting that built. We had a lot of groundwater problems,” Laufenberg explained. “We pounded sheeting into the ground and pumped the water.”

The spring and summer rains also vexed the work crews.

“At one time, the river came up so high that the whole energy dissipator was under water; 15 feet deep probably,” Laufenberg exclaimed.

Several interchanges are completed to date along with some portions of the road. Laufenberg and his crews will continue to work until the snow and cold shut the project down.

Hoffman crews will resume work in the spring and complete the butterfly bridge and continue to work on the remaining interchanges and road deck. The entire 7.5 miles will open in 2006.