WSDOT Tackles State’s Largest Project in History

Thu September 03, 2009 - Midwest Edition
Kathie Sutin

Crews mill an asphalt overlay on southbound I-94.
Crews mill an asphalt overlay on southbound I-94.



Wisconsin Dept. of Transportation’s I-94 North-South Freeway Project will go down in the annals of the department’s history for setting milestones — it’s the state’s biggest transportation project to date and it’s among the first to utilize some time-saving, cutting edge equipment.

The nine-year, $1.9 billion project stretches some 35 mi. (56 km) from the Wisconsin-Illinois state border to the Mitchell interchange in southern Milwaukee. The Interstate is the main route heading north from Chicago and sees a lot of traffic, especially during the summer vacation season, said Ryan Luck, chief of construction for the Southeast Freeways of the Wisconsin Dept. of Transportation.

Luck has had some experience with large projects. He was project manager for the Marquette Interchange project that included complete demolition and reconstruction of a five-level interchange in downtown Milwaukee. The $810 million project, completed in early 2008, was at the time Wisconsin’s biggest transportation project. The construction was completed two and a half months early and under budget. “Now we are currently underway with a larger project,” Luck said. In fact, the I-94 project now becomes the largest road construction project the state has ever done.

Crews will reconstruct the highway and expand it from six to eight lanes. Completion is slated for 2016.

In addition to its size, the project is distinct because of some features like its three tunnels.

“We’re doing more tunneling than we’ve typically done on projects,” Luck said.

“They are unusual maybe from Wisconsin’s perspective for typical infrastructure. We’re going to build some tunnels in the Mitchell interchange which is on the very northern end of the project.”

Crews will drill shafts that are 3 and 4 ft. (.9 and 1.2 m) diameter and filled with concrete to provide support for the retaining walls that will support the tunnels. They will do some storm sewer tunneling utilizing 60-in. (152 cm) diameter boring machines, Luck added.

“We’ve been utilizing shaft construction more in Wisconsin,” he said. “The Marquette interchange utilized it extensively and now we’re seeing it on all the other projects. Drilling equipment is something we’re seeing a lot more of.

“Those things may be common practice in some other states but there are some pieces of equipment we’re seeing which we haven’t typically seen before on our projects. Some contractors just recently brought in resonant breakers to break up the concrete pavement. Typically, we’ve seen less advanced type of equipment brought in such as a multi-head hammer or cruder methods of just using a drop hammer.”

GPS-guided equipment is also being used for grading on the project. “It’s been kind of an interesting summer so far getting some of the latest technologically advanced equipment coming up here and doing the work efficiently for us,” Luck said.

The original design for the Mitchell interchange was on a footprint with “a lot of dirt and a lot of structures to get the ramps going to the different directions,” he said. “We found that by looking at another design of a tunnel with shaft construction, the cost and amount of structures was reduced significantly and actually improved our staging of the intersection as far as construction goes.” In the final design three short, 400- to 600-ft. (121 to 182 m) tunnels come in on grade.

“That was a way to efficiently build the interchange and eliminate the high-cost structures,” he added.

Keeping the traffic flowing is “definitely something that’s going to create a challenge for the project,” Luck said. “A good portion of the I-94 corridor is residential. There’s farm land with frontage road and pockets of high-density development. We do have some very much exploding areas of development in Racine and Kenosha counties, the two counties north of Chicago. And, as we approach Milwaukee, the traffic volume picks up considerably but it also becomes residential as you enter Milwaukee County.”

Noise barriers — demoing existing barriers and adding new ones — add another interesting facet to the project.

“There are portions of the Milwaukee County freeway system that are extensively lined with noise barriers,” Luck said.

So the challenge will be to remove and replace the noise barriers and then adding additional barriers along the corridor as crews reconstruct the interstate and expand it from three lanes to four in each direction.

Luck summed the challenges up this way:

“We’re moving a lot of dirt, trying to keep the noise to a minimum while we remove, replace and supplement the noise wall while keeping dust and noise down. And, nighttime work will create some impact. That’s where the challenges lie as we move into the residential areas.”

But, he added, the process will be helped with lessons learned on the Marquette project.

“We did have a lot of practice doing that on the Marquette interchange where we worked in an urban environment,” he said. “We used a lot of techniques like utilizing a lot of sweeping and watering of grades. We used a lot of noise restrictions when we did key demo. We do a lot of partnering with the communities and public outreach to kind of minimize those impacts. We invest a lot in our P-I (public information) component where we do a lot of outreach with the community and residents. We’re very sensitive to that and realize a good partnership helps the project be successful.

The Marquette project was “kind of a national success model for Wisconsin, and we’re taking a lot of those practices to the I-94 project. But, he added: “We do realize the I-94 project is a different challenge because it’s a long project that’s stretched out.”

The I-94 project has “many different construction packages,” Luck said. “We have some very small contracts, medium, large and big contracts all kind of interspersed within that 35-mile corridor. All those project will be coordinated together to get it done within the eight-year window.”

Projects underway this year total $150 million and include:

• Reconstruction of the 27th Street roadway and bridges between Layton Avenue and Bolivar Avenue

• Reconstruction of the Grange Avenue Bridge over the freeway

• Reconstruction of the westbound Airport Spur Bridge over the freeway and ramps to I-94

• Reconstruction of the College Avenue bridge ramps and Park and Ride lots

• Reconstruction of the freeway and County G interchange and frontage roads

• Reconstruction of County Route E ramps and frontage roads

• Reconstruction of Wisconsin Route 158 ramps and frontage roads

• Reconstruction of County Route C frontage roads

• Reconstruction of I-94 from the Illinois state line to south of Wisconsin Route 50 and County Route C interchange

The Wisconsin Dept. of Transportation received approximately $82 million in federal stimulus funds allowing it to pull two projects—the 4 mi. (6.4 km) stretch north of the Illinois state line and interchange work in Milwaukee County up from the 2011 schedule and do them this year.

Walsh Construction of Chicago and Zignego Co. Inc. of West Allis, Wis., have the contracts for the stimulus fund projects.

Two large packages are coming up for bid in 2010 —a $100 million contract and a $200 million contract for the Mitchell interchange work.

Breaking the project into packages makes sense because of financial and logistical restraints, Luck said.

“The amount of let value of the program is about one and a half billion in letting,” he said. “And that ends up being about $200 million in let contracts per year which is considered a pretty good size amount of work to get done in a year. It also has to do with how much capacity we have to build the projects. That’s pretty much what we found to be a reasonable size of work to get done.

Luck pointed to the Marquette interchange project as an example. “It was done in four years at $810 million which was about $200 million per year,” he said.

One of the project’s biggest challenges is keeping the traffic flowing on the popular route during construction.

“For the construction staging, we will take the three lanes (in each direction) down to two in the summer construction season between April and approximately December,” Luck said. That’s what crews are doing on the segment of the project already underway near the Illinois state line, he said.

“The traffic’s been flowing pretty smoothly,” Luck said. “We do see some backups during the peak hours northbound out of Chicago on Fridays and southbound on Sundays but it’s been generally pretty easy going. There have been some delays but it’s not too bad.”

Again he points to the Marquette project as a guide. “With the Marquette, we kept lanes open at all times and kept things kind of flowing. That’s the plan that we have here — to keep traffic open and flowing and keep the tourists and the businesses flourishing while we rebuild the expressway.”

Luck recently showed off a model of the project at the Wisconsin State Fair to fair attendees.

“It’s a big hit with a lot of the residents,” he said. “We have a 3D model about 10 feet wide and we have a complete rendering of the final design of the interchange and some computer graphics that simulate what it will be like when it’s completed and you’re driving it.” The display usually generates questions so Luck and other DOT employees are on hand to answer them.

“It’s a good opportunity to kind of see what the public thinks of the project and you get some good feedback on things,” he added.

The DOT has long had a presence at the fair but since it began building mega-projects with the Marquette Interchange project in 2004, “we’ve gotten in the practice of having the 3D model there and handing out project information,” Luck said. “People have started to get used to it and we get a lot of people coming back to look at it.” CEG