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Wishes Finally Come True With $340M Pocahontas Parkway

Wed February 09, 2000 - Southeast Edition
Kristen Caldwell

For more than a year now, drivers along Interstate 95 in Richmond, VA, have watched massive concrete pillars stake their claim on what little land surrounds the I-95/Chippenham Parkway interchange.

Soaring 85 feet above the interstate, these columns of concrete will soon support 14.2 kilometers (8.8 mi.) of highway stretching from Chesterfield County to Interstate 295 south of Richmond International Airport. When complete, the Route 895 Connector, officially named the Pocahontas Parkway, will provide a shorter, quicker and easier route between major portions of the greater Richmond area.

The Pocahontas Parkway has been at the top of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT) wish list for more than l 5 years, but at a cost of more than $340 million, the state couldn’t fund the project for at least another decade.

“Route 895 has been a top priority for a very long time ... not only by VDOT, but the counties of Henrico and Chesterfield, the city of Richmond, the chamber of commerce and the airport as well,” said Tarnara Neale, public relations coordinator for VDOT. “All of these organizations have come together and realized the importance of having a vital connection to better serve industries in eastern Henrico, to provide another access across the James River and to provide an alternate for commuters who would otherwise be traveling on the already congested 64 and 95 interstates.”

Although an important link for the Richmond community, it wasn’t financially viable for the state to build the road on its own. The price tag associated with the Pocahontas Parkway is more than the combined cost of 80 projects on VDOT’s plate last November.

What finally paved the way for the parkway was the Public-Private Transportation Act of l995 (PPTA), legislation that allows for both private and public funding to meet the growing transportation needs of the state.

Under this innovative funding initiative, in June 1998 VDOT hired the private firm of FD/MK, a joint venture of Fluor Daniel and Morrison Knudsen, two global engineering and construction firms, to manage and develop the highway for the state.

“We have a contract with VDOT,” said Herb Morgan, P.E., project director for FD/MK. “We’ve hired everybody to design and construct the project, and when we’re finished, VDOT will operate and maintain the highway.”

With their partnership in place, VDOT and FD/MK then created a nonprofit corporation, the Pocahontas Parkway Association, to sell tax-free bonds to finance the project. Private investors generated most of the funding for the project with only $27 million coming from state coffers. Investors will recoup their money from a $1.50 toll paid by the estimated 20,000 vehicles that will travel along the parkway each day.

“Our infrastructure is always looking at design-build opportunities,” Morgan said of FD/MK’s decision to take on the massive project, which began with the ground breaking in October 1998. “Normally, the state would design it and then build it. With 895, we have all that responsibility ... we acquired environmental permits, utility relocations, contracted for all the design and now we’re constructing it.”

Acting as the “master builder,” FD/MK contracted with nearly a dozen companies to construct the highway, including: Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Quade & Douglas, Site Blauvelt Engineers, and Sverdrup, the three main design engineering firms; URS Greiner, which is designing and constructing the toll plaza; Wilbur Smith Associates, the designer for the electronic toll collection systems; and English Construction, which is building stretches of highway and several small bridges.

“I-895 is unique from the standpoint that it is a composite structure,” Morgan said. “You have precast segmental approaches which will cross 95. Then you have cast-in-place segments, which allow for a clear span over the river while the eastern part is more conventional highway construction.”

The most noticeable construction to Richmond-area drivers, however, is the work being done by a joint venture of Recchi America Inc. and McClean Contracting, which includes parallel bridges measuring nearly 1,463 meters (4,800 ft.) in length that cross I-95, two existing I-95 ramps and the James River.

When complete, the clear span of the main river crossing will measure 204.8 meters (672 ft.) or more than two football fields in length, making it the third longest cast-in-place segmental bridge in North America. At its highest point, the bridge will rise 44.2 meters (145 ft.) above the river so that ocean-going ships will have access to the Port of Richmond’s Deepwater Terminal. It’s no wonder then that each foundation for the piers contains 5,887 cubic meters (7,700 cu. yds.) or 800 trucks of concrete and 720 metric tons (800 tons) of reinforcing steel.

While it was taxing for local concrete companies to keep up with the high-volume demand and serve their existing clientele, Morgan said it also was a challenge to maintain the quality of the ready mix when doing 5,351-cubic- meter (7,000 cu. yd.) pours.

In addition to the James River crossing, Recchi America/McClean Contracting also is designing and constructing the west approach, the east approach and the ramps leading up to the bridge.

Explaining in further detail what’s involved in constructing a high-level bridge over land, water and a busy interstate, Brian Quinlan, project manager for Recchi America, said this is one of the largest projects in the United States for his company.

The substructure for the main river crossing includes the construction of seven piers supported by 1.8- and 2.4-meter (6 and 8 ft.) diameter caissons, the latter of which was subcontracted out to Boston-based Trevi Icos. The superstructure, which includes three eastbound and four westbound spans, one of which crosses I-95, is being cast in place with travelers, leased from VSL, using the balanced cantilever method. The crossing culminates, of course, with the two parallel main spans that hover above the river.

On the westbound approach, a launching gantry manufactured by Italy-based Paolo de Nicola and modified by Recchi on-site is being used to erect precast concrete segments using the balanced cantilever method.

“We had to modify the launching gantry so it would move to the next span and move laterally,” Quinlan said of the westbound approach construction.

The eastbound approach consists of piers and the bridge deck, including five eastbound and five westbound spans. Also using the balanced cantilever method to erect the precast concrete segments, this portion of the project required the use of 360-metric-ton (400 ton) capacity American l1320 cranes leased from Moody in Jacksonville, FL.

On the three ramps, Recchi America/McClean Contracting is using an underwing truss with modifications designed and fabricated by Paolo de Nicola, to erect precast concrete segments over 27 spans using the span-by-span method.

While making equipment modifications and building North America’s third-longest clear span bridge is impressive, the real show — constructing a highway across six lanes of moving traffic on I-95 — is yet to come.

“The biggest challenge is the maintenance of traffic and safety of travelers at 95-Chippenham, a major thoroughfare, and there’s not a lot of real estate in that area to work on,” FD/MK’s Morgan said.

Lane closures are a sure bet as the 27-metric-ton (30 ton) precast concrete segments are laid in place. And while the construction has been inconvenient during rush hour traffic and provided one more visual to distract motorists, when the Pocahontas Parkway opens in the first half of 2002, it will be a monument to the success of meeting state transportation needs with private funds.

“Route 895 is a good example of how a PPTA works,” VDOT’s Neale said. “Rather than taking 15 years, it’s taking two to three years.”

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