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Work on U.S. 17 Alternate Overcomes Many Issues

Tue August 23, 2011 - Southeast Edition
Lori Lovely

Plans to widen U.S. 17 Alternate have been considered for 20 to 30 years, said Steve Ulery, project manager for U.S. Group, Inc.

Ulery, who has lived in the area a long time, believes “it should have been widened years ago,” particularly since the housing boom has added a lot of fast-moving traffic to the two-lane road. “There are lots of people living here now, but nobody thought about the road,” he lamented.

They’re thinking about it now, and Ulery’s helping to bring about the much-needed and long-awaited change.

U.S. 17 Alt was created in the early 1950s as an alternate route for mainline U.S. 17, but for years, traffic jams have resulted from a housing boom in the area, flooding an overloaded rural two-lane highway.

“It’s a high-volume road,” said John Paulus, resident construction engineer, S.C. Department of Transportation (SCDOT). He quotes figures that indicate an average daily traffic (ADT) of 16,100 in 2006 and project an ADT of 25,300 in 2025.

“It’s largely business and truck traffic,” he said. “The northern section goes into Moncks Corner, the largest city in the county,” Paulas said.

The project involves widening an 8 mi. (12.9 km) stretch in Berkeley County from Cypress Garden Road to Moncks Corner from the existing two-lane roadway to four lanes with a center turn lane. In addition, several intersections will be realigned, with a major realignment planned to connect Gaillard and Black Tom Roads at a four-way intersection with a traffic signal at U.S. 17-A.

The addition of the turning lane, traffic signals, realigned intersections and passing areas will increase safety, provide opportunity for economic development and enhance access to local businesses by improving traffic flow.

Dates and Delays

According to Paulus, the budget for the U.S. 17-A widening project is $22.2 million. Of that, one million comes from the 2009 American Recovery & Reinvestment Act. The rest comes from a one-cent sales tax levied by Berkeley County and up to $150 million in bonds designated for road work.

The contract was awarded to U.S. Group in Oct 2009, the design-build specialist and site and roadway developer based in Columbia, S.C., that previously built two of the three projects to widen this highway between Summerville and Moncks Corner — work that included a major interchange and urban boulevard rebuild. Work initially started Nov. 16, 2009, but permit issues delayed progress. A revised completion date of Dec. 8, 2012 has been set.

Despite the delay in getting started, Ulery said work is on schedule, thanks in part to good weather. While a severely cold winter engendered some challenging working conditions, a dry, hot spring and summer have allowed crews to make up time. In fact, Ulery points out, this year saw the second driest May on record in South Carolina, followed by a very hot summer. Joking to his crew that a camel can go three days without water, Ulery takes precautions to ensure they are all properly hydrated by providing ice machine and plenty of water jugs.

Crews are working a Monday-Friday schedule, with some night work for drainage installation and some weekend work on the box culverts, Paulus explained.

“We worked around the clock to finish [box culvert] number two,” Ulery recalled.

Ordinarily, because of heavy truck traffic, he said his crews aren’t allowed to start work until 9 p.m., and have to be off the road by 6 a.m. They’re working around traffic, Paulus explained, while they widen the northbound lane. Once that’s complete, they can shift lanes if necessary in order to make working conditions safer.

“We’re working up to the edge of the existing road,” Ulery said. “Traffic is so fast along here. The fire chief told me that since the speed limit was lowered to 45 for construction, traffic accidents are down 75 percent — but we still see a lot.”

Other delays have been caused by right-of-way acquisition and utility relocation. The total right of way was taken, Paulus said, but a lot of work had to be done before construction could begin.

“There were about 250 demo items. It was a fairly clean site, but we found several old abandoned gas stations,” he said.

Those gas stations raised environmental concerns. An environmental engineering firm was called in to perform an environmental site assessment. Despite having taken that precaution, Paulus said the utility contractor found a contaminated area not on the assessment. Having already removed other underground storage tanks and surrounding contaminated material, crews had to remove the additional small underground tank discovered by accident in order to complete permitting and comply with the Dept. of Health codes.

Utility work on Phase 1 has a six-month window, Paulus explained. Once trees, buildings, fences, private signs and other structures were removed, utility work began at the south end of the project between Cypress Garden and Oakley roads. Paulus reported that half the project site has been cleared. Clearing and grubbing was completed on both phases in April 2010.

“Grading depends on the weather,” Paulus said. “The weather has cooperated and as of the end of July, grading is completed on one-third of the project, with the use of several rollers, two dozers and a motorgrader.

Draining Work

The storm drain system is expected to be complete by mid-August. Approximately 24,000 to 25,000 ft. (7,315 to 7,620 m) of pipe is being laid for storm water runoff.

“We’re laying about 19 miles of pipe and installing 500 catch basins,” Ulery counted.

Drainage is a big issue on this project, Ulery stated. Revisions were made to the drainage plans after the project was let, Paulus added. “It’s common. It’s the result of unforeseen site conditions.”

Mountain Creek Contractors is using two cranes to install four new box culverts, one of which is a double at 8 by 8 ft.; the others are 6 by 8 ft, and one culvert extension. Paulus estimated they’ll be laying 75,000 linear ft. (22,860 m) of pipe, ranging from 18 to 60 in. (45 to 152 cm) in diameter. The area is mostly flat, but the soil is swampy in some spots, with a lot of sand in other spots and areas of clay. Paulus doesn’t consider it a big problem because he believes issues can be overcome by using material from the existing borrow pit. An estimated 250,000 yd. (228,600 m) of dirt is projected to be used on this project.

However, Ulery said the soil conditions make it difficult for the two pipe crews using two track hoes to put in pipe or make pipe trench improvements.

“We set up a pump, then lay fabric and rock,” he explained. “We laid pipe on Sunday — 60-inch pipe that weighs 12,000 pounds spanning 72 feet across the road. Since we were in wet dirt, the pipe would settle unless we made the foundation better by adding 57 granite and filter fabric to make a 16-inch foundation for stability.”

In addition, although Ulery intended to “build as we go,” using borrow dirt for the box culverts, complications involving the 11 water quality structures — storm scepters or oil-water separators — changed plans once again, causing crews to temporarily skip box culverts number 3 and number 4, due to water quality structures. “It moved our guys into Phase 2,” he said, where they are working on box culvert number 5.

Countdown to Completion

Curb and gutter installation is slated to begin on Phase 1 the first week of August. Later the same month, Palmetto Paving Corporation will begin the cement stabilization of the base. Plans call for a 7-in. (18 cm) cement stabilization aggregate base, based on anticipated soil conditions, Paulus explained.

“We submitted soil samples to the state lab so we know what we’re dealing with.” Mixed in a hopper on-site, Ulery indicated that it’s less expensive than using the standard black mix.

Soil is brought up to grade where crews are widening, from the edge of the existing road to the curb and gutter. It is then compacted and re-graded. Sanders Brothers will spread approximately 104,000 tons (9,435 t) of asphalt surface, making sure to create the proper asphalt build-up to assist drainage.

Paulus estimated that work is “close to 30 percent complete — that’s contract amount,” adding that if progress appears slow, it’s because most of the work to date has been sub-surface preparation and is not visible. But he promises that visible progress will occur soon … although perhaps none too soon for local residents who have been waiting decades, as well as construction crews. Ulery, who has been working anywhere from 75 to 120 hours a week, looks forward to finishing this job. CEG

Lori Lovely

Lori Lovely is an award-winning journalist, editor and author of the children's book Isadora's Dance. She has worked for newspapers, magazines and niche publications, covering a wide-ranging list of topics that includes motor sports, construction, MSW, energy, environmental issues, water, animal rights and issues, history, Native American issues and people, real estate and home decor, farming and more. Her degrees in History taught this dedicated professional to research thoroughly and ask detailed questions in order to winnow interesting facts that convey the essence of the story. As a seasoned writer and compassionate storyteller, she accurately portrays the subject in a manner that entrances the reader.

When she's not working on assignment, Lori is tending to her historic Indiana farm, where she raises alpacas. An inveterate animal lover, this vegetarian enjoys spending time with her animals and working in her garden.

Read more from Lori Lovely here.

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