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Work Wraps Up Along 20-Mile Stretch of I-35 in Owatonna

The work featured bridge demolition and construction along with nearly 20 mi. (32 km) of road improvements.

Fri December 04, 2015 - Midwest Edition
Dick Rohland

To the relief of local residents and interstate travelers, a two-year road improvement project sprawling the length and width of a small southern Minnesota town recently ended. The work featured bridge demolition and construction along with nearly 20 mi. (32 km) of road improvements on a system of interstate, state and county highways.

Made up of four separate road projects, the work took place in Owatonna, Minn., located on I-35, 70 mi. (112 km) south of Minneapolis.

There is no doubt that residents are pleased that construction crews and equipment left and the dust has settled. A city map shows the highways are major connections to this rural town of 25,000 residents. Statistics show that they carry high volumes of traffic.

The combined ADT on I-35 and TH 14 alone is estimated by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to be more than 48,000, almost twice Owatonna’s population.

Deteriorating pavement on the state and county road system and safety, ramp and geometric improvements along this stretch of I-35 set the project in motion according to the (MnDOT) project Web site.

MnDOT awarded the four contracts to two prime contractors.

Mathiowetz Construction Company took on three of the contracts and most extensive of the road work while Ulland Brothers Incorporated took on a lengthy mill and overlay project.

Under the first Mathiowetz contract, 2.4 mi. (3.8 km) of I-35 running along the west side of town was reconstructed. Included in this work was the complete renovation of the County Road 2 interchange at the north end of the freeway work and at the Bridge Street interchange just 3,500 ft. (1,050 m) farther to the south.

Both interchanges are heavily used by the area residents, said Dan Pirkl, MnDOT project engineer.

Complimentary to the interstate rebuild, a third auxiliary lane in each direction between the two interchanges was built to make merging safer and easier onto the mainline freeway.

Crews demolished and reconstructed four bridges as part of the interstate project. Two bridges crossing over County Road 2 at that interchange were replaced. And just another 900 ft. (270 m) to the south, two bridges spanning a set of railroad tracks also were rebuilt, making coordination with the railroad a priority.

At the same time, a section of County Road 2, running along the north side of Owatonna was part of this puzzle of road improvements. Approximately 1.75 mi. (2.8 km) of pavement underwent a mill and overlay west of the interstate. Another 3,500 ft. (1,050 m) of this road heading east of the interstate was reconstructed to make up the second Mathiowetz contract.

Hanging out there alone and separate from the interstate and county road construction activities on the north side of town, crews expanded from two to four lanes nearly 3 mi. (4.8 km) of TH 14 on the far southern side of town to make up the third Mathiowetz contract.

Making coordination and cooperation between two separate contractors imperative, Ulland Brothers managed the mill and overlay of another 13.1 mi. (21 km) of TH 14.

The bid estimate for all four projects came to $52 million.

Dan Pirkl, MnDOT project engineer, is pleased with the work and the coordination between the two contractors and four subcontractors.

“With all these projects so close together and some tied together but with separate contracts, it’s a coordinated effort to have everybody work together to get the project built. Construction crews have been challenged to meet time frames and milestone dates,” Pirkl said. “Dave Domm, construction superintendent for Mathiowetz, has been integral in making all of it happen and he is a great contracting manager to partner with.”

“Ulland Brothers did good work and it was beneficial to all parties that they suspended work on a section of TH 14 to allow Mathiowetz to complete their four lane expansion,” Pirkl said.

Domm, vice president/project manager of Mathiowetz said it has been an uphill battle this season to keep the momentum moving forward.

“This year has been a little bit more of a struggle than last year just because of the rainfall we’ve had this year. It seems like we get at least one good rain every week. It’s been tough keeping everyone on schedule around the rain,” Domm said. “It’s just typical construction in southern Minnesota.”

Both contractors have more than 90 years of experience each behind them and specialize in similar construction activities.

The home office of Mathiowetz Construction is located in Sleepy Eye, Minn. Founded in 1924 by Martin Mathiowetz, it grew from providing grading services to local farmers to a 160-employee company.

The company now specializes in road, grading, demolition, site work, underground drainage and utilities services throughout Minnesota, and is into its fourth generation of family leadership.

Ulland Brothers is an employee owned company with offices in Albert Lea, Virginia and Cloquet, Minn. It grew from a small wood cutting business and is now a state wide general contractor providing large scale grading, paving, aggregate and utility services.

Mathiowetz crews hit the site in the spring of 2014, starting work on the southbound lanes of the interstate. During that season, the company routed traffic one lane each direction to the northbound lanes. They ripped away the concrete pavement, built two new through lanes and added the third auxiliary lane between the County Road 2 and Bridge Street interchanges. Work crews also began work on the County Road 2 improvements.

This year, Mathiowetz had a jump start on the construction season because of an early and mild spring. Frequent rains, though energizing the lush, southern Minnesota corn fields, began to eat into the construction schedule.

“We were up to about five weeks behind schedule earlier this year,” Domm said.

By making adjustments to the phasing of the work and putting in 60 hours a week, crews were nearly back on schedule by early September.

“Working the northbound lanes of I-35 this season we changed some things up because of the delays this year. We brought the pavers in a little earlier and tried to chop the schedule up so it wasn’t so linear,” Domm said. “We had the pavers do the south half and then they left. Then we brought them in again when the north half was ready.

“In making these adjustments and doing some work out of order we were able to bring the project back to within a week,” Domm said.

The early spring start also bought some time for Mathiowetz and its crews to start the work between the bridges before the bridge contractor mobilized.

Within the 900 ft. (270 m) stretch separating the bridges “we were able to do all of our removals and complete all of our work through the granular borrow. This allowed the bridge sub-contractor to complete its work with little or no interference from the grading operation,” Domm said.

“Traffic is always tough,” Domm said. “You have people driving around barricades, following construction traffic onto the grade. And then you’re working so close to traffic. Even though the speeds are reduced, people get on the interstate still running 70 mph (112 km/h).”

Working literally within feet of interstate and highway traffic Domm said, “safety is a priority. So whatever we can do to help the traveling public and get our work done is the most important part of any project.”

Detours, lane closures, ramp closures, building and removing traffic switchovers were plentiful on the freeway, TH 14 and County Road 2 projects, and at times local traffic mixed heavily with construction equipment. Yet, there were no accidents, Domm said.

Tearing down the interstate bridges over County Road 2 required the bridge contractor to shut down the road each season for one weekend. Crews worked around traffic though, to build the piers and set the beams without any major delays or problems, Domm said.

During the demolition of the bridges spanning the tracks, bridge crews worked around an active, yet low volume railroad schedule and high voltage overhead power lines.

“The railroad has been real good to work with. They figured about five trains a day. There was a flagger out here all the time and he had the train schedule. So, when a train approached, he would clear the tracks. Everything went well.”

“The same can be said for the power company in de-energizing the lines so the cranes could get close enough to the bridge to do the work,” Domm continued.

At the TH 14 expansion project, the area has a more rural, agricultural character. Though paving crews and their equipment blazed two new traffic lanes through the virgin ground and corn fields of southern Minnesota and did not mix much with highway traffic, traffic safety was still a priority.

The highway is an east/west connection between I-35 and the city of Rochester, home of the Mayo Clinic. It is primarily a two lane highway and carries approximately 14,000 vehicles per day according to MnDOT statistics.

“Gawker slow-downs” on the active lanes caused minor problems at times but there were no serious accidents, Domm said.

To save trucking costs and better control and coordinate its concrete paving schedule, C.S. McCrossan, a Mathiowetz concrete paving sub-contractor brought in a portable concrete plant.

It sat alongside the TH 14 road work and rose above a lush, green corn field sharing the flat horizon with the grain silos of southern Minnesota. McCrossan negotiated a lease with the owner of the land to place the plant there and received a permit from the county to drill a well for a water source, Pirkl said.

Mathiowetz crews also rigged a Mack tractor trailer to act as a ’test roller’ for recently placed sub base on the TH 14 project. By placing three Cat excavator counter weights on the back of the truck, “giving us a GVW of 50,000 lb (22,500 kg) allowed our crews to measure the deflection factor of the newly installed material, Domm said.

Along with the Mack ’test roller’ there was a good representation of heavy construction equipment on site for all four contracts. Cat 345 excavators, Cat rollers, Cat 627 scrapers, Sakai rollers, Lull forklifts, John Deere excavators and dozers shared some very tight space at times around the work zone.

The bridge contractor C.S. McCrossan Incorporated based in Maple Grove, Minn., brought in Tadano Mantis and Manitowoc cranes for its lifting operations.

Equipment dug and hauled out approximately 80,000 cu. yd. (60,800 cu m) of dirt alone on the I35 project. In total, work crews and equipment placed an estimated 196,000 sq. yd. (156,800 sq m) of concrete pavement throughout the three Mathiowetz projects.

Pavers laid another 55,018 tons (49,516 t) of bituminous mix on the Ulland Brothers TH 14 mill and overlay project.

Ulland’s crews were on the fast track with this project. Starting in July, Ulland crews and subs completed the 13.1 mi (21 km) mill and overlay along with ramp reconstruction at a connecting county road by early October. They completed the work on schedule despite the rain and suspending their work for nearly four weeks on a section of the highway to allow Mathiowetz crews to drive it for their hauling operations on the TH 14 expansion work.

Andy Erichson, vice president and project manager of Ulland Brothers echoed Dave Domm’s comment on the weather by saying “it has been a little bit of a challenge with the rain but otherwise it’s gone pretty well.”

Despite the traffic disruptions in and around Owatonna over the last two years, MnDOT had already received some positive feedback from Owatonna residents and the traveling public by July this year.

Prior to the construction of the southbound auxiliary lane between the two interchanges “there was limited merging length onto the mainline pavement,” Pirkl explained. “With the third lane, we’ve had a lot of compliments from the local drivers because they don’t feel pinched in as they merge.”

In the past, many of the local drivers avoided using that interchange and drove to the Bridge Street interchange to access the southbound lanes of the freeway Pirkl added.

By November 6th, Mathiowetz Construction crews met their completion date and had all three highways opened to full lane capacity along with completing the landscaping and other miscellaneous work.

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