A bold plan to repair a crumbling section of I-295 pays off, thanks to MaineDOT planning, contractors’ hard work, lucky timing and the cooperation of neighboring towns, the Turnpike and the driving public.
By Kathryn Buxton
At first mention, the idea seems unimaginable. Shut down an 18-mile southbound section of interstate three months when Maine’s tourism season and summer traffic is at its peak. Then reroute the interstate traffic to the Maine Turnpike and U.S. Route 201, a sleepy two-lane highway.
This summer, that was just what MaineDOT did to launch the first phase of much needed repairs to a crumbling section of I-295 between Gardiner and Brunswick. And now, at project’s end, what seemed like a big gamble is being hailed as a major construction success story, thanks to Pike Industries and the team of contractors the firm assembled for the project. Crews put in 16-hour days and worked through weekends and holidays. They also coped with a seemingly endless progression of rain-soaked days in July that threatened to throw the project off schedule.
MaineDOT Commissioner David Cole had high praise for the company that pulled the project off and finished well ahead of schedule. “They worked long hours, because we knew the public was depending on us to get in and get out of this corridor and do the job right,” said Cole when he announced the section of I-295 was reopening 20 days early.
The idea to shut down the section of I-295 was first posed in December 2007 as MaineDOT looked ahead to the construction season and a vexing problem: how to repair the crumbling concrete surface of I-295.
The section of highway between Gardiner and Topsham, first built in the early 1970s of concrete, looked and drove okay. But just below the surface, the concrete was disintegrating. Under normal circumstances, it would take three years to reconstruct those two travel lanes, but the condition of the highway made the situation dire. In a public meeting to discuss concerns about the closure with towns in the corridor, MaineDOT’s Joyce Taylor was blunt.
“At the rate the concrete is falling apart, we may be in a situation where we have to close it down anyway,” said Taylor, assistant bureau director of project development, speaking to about 100 concerned residents from Richmond, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham in mid-March. In other words, something had to be done and soon.
The plan to reconstruct the 18-mile section of southbound section of I-295 began to take full shape in early 2008. That was when a team of MaineDOT personnel led by Jamie Andrews, the department’s project manager, sat down to “see if it would be possible . . . if all of the stars would align to give us the opportunity,” according to Taylor.
By the time MaineDOT started meeting with town officials, emergency personnel and local residents a few months later, the stars had begun to align. The department had funding – an estimated $30 million of mostly federal money. It also has a project design that would allow the work to be done quickly – in less than three months rather than the typical nine months required for a job of this size. The timeline was an ambitious one, but speed was essential.
“Money is so tight right now,” said Taylor who explained that the speed of the project would save the department millions of additional dollars needed if the reconstruction extended over years instead of months. It was, as Taylor describes it, a “one-shot chance.”
Helping to make sure the stars did align and the department could embark on the ambitious reconstruction project required the cooperation of everyone involved.
Brad Foley, director of MaineDOT’s safety office, coordinated the design of the detour. Of the estimated 1,800 vehicles an hour using southbound I-295, MaineDOT estimated that at least 30 percent – those traveling through to the Portland area – would opt to travel on the Maine Turnpike. MaineDOT believed the remaining vehicles would opt to travel on Route 201, a two-lane state highway that runs almost parallel to I-295 through Gardiner, Richmond, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham.
For its part, the Maine Turnpike Authority reworked its summer bridge construction schedules to accommodate the anticipated increase in traffic.
The Authority had both bridge construction and paving projects planned, but quickly took steps to rearrange project schedules to reduce the chance of traffic delays. The Authority also offered detoured drivers E-ZPass devices on a short-term loan to give them the opportunity to pay tolls electronically.
Preparing Route 201 for the detour also required considerable work. MaineDOT’s Foley, a resident of Bowdoinham, knows Route 201 well. He recognized the challenge was going to be one of avoiding the clash of two driving cultures – the fast-moving drivers used to high speed travel on I-295 and local residents who were used to a slower pace. Those big differences in speed, said Foley, had the potential to cause big backups.
Signage was key: MaineDOT beefed up informational signs along the detour route to more clearly identify cross streets and remind drivers that they were in a work zone. One idea that came out of the meetings with local emergency responders was to have signs counting down the mileage to help reduce driver frustration. Lighting at key intersections also was enhanced. MaineDOT’s Maintenance and Operations Office led by David Allen completed all of the prep work on a tight schedule during the days leading up to the closure.
Local law agencies also were enlisted to make sure detour speed limits were enforced. That kept traffic moving smoothly.
“Law enforcement was very present,” said Foley. Those patrols not only kept detoured traffic from speeding, they also helped keep local traffic up to speed.
While work preparing the project detours – including repaving a major section of I-295 just south of the project area – began more than a month earlier, reconstruction of the highway began in earnest at midnight on June 15.
That was when project contractor Pike Industries set up barricades closing off the highway. Crews set to work almost immediately, breaking up the old concrete surface and rubblizing the concrete underneath. The project design called for Pike to recycle 100 percent of the old concrete in the building of the new road. The three-inch top layer was milled and used in the shoulders. The remaining six inches of concrete pavement was rubblized and used as the base for the new asphalt surface.
Jim Hanley of Pike Industries said that by recycling the old concrete, Pike was able to eliminate hundreds of truck trips on local roads that would have been required to haul away the old concrete and bring in base materials for the new road. That saved wear and tear on local roads, and reduced project costs at a time when fuel prices were skyrocketing.
Without traffic to contend with, work proceeded at a blistering pace. Crews from Pike and project subcontractors worked long days, holidays and weekends to get the job done by the end of August. The rubblizing and concrete milling were completed by July 4. As paving got underway, Pike closely coordinated the work of crews and subcontractors to make sure that daylight hours were used to their fullest. Working efficiently was particularly important because heavy rains hampered production during much of the summer.
Hanley said that as soon as Pike’s paving crews finished a section of highway and Shaw Bros. finished work on the shoulder, Maine Line Fence was there installing the new guardrail.
“We literally pushed each other right up through and out the end of the project,” said Hanley, who had nothing but praise for everyone who worked on the project.
“Cianbro and Shaw Bros. were excellent as far as the progression and Maine Line Fence was right on our heels the whole way,” said Hanley. He had high praise for Pike crews, as well, and the small army of independent truckers who hauled asphalt for the job.
In all, Pike crews and subcontractors put down 181,000 tons of asphalt, rebuilt five bridges and installed seven miles of guardrail over the course of the project. They completed the job 20 days ahead of schedule on August 9. (The contract included a $2 million incentive for Pike for completing the job ahead of schedule.)
Most of all, Hanley said everyone involved played a role in keeping the job safe. “I just can’t say enough about the men and the women working on this job. Everyone went the extra mile and kept up the quality and worked safely throughout,” said Hanley. He noted that there were “virtually no safety problems” – despite the long hours required by the expedited construction schedule.
Safety on the Route 201 detour was also a major concern for MaineDOT. And at project’s end they were able to announce that thanks to the planning and cooperation from local law enforcement and the public, Route 201 had experienced the safest summer since 2003. Project planners also credit the Maine Turnpike with helping to provide a safe and efficient alternative. At the outset of the project, approximately 30 percent of the traffic was expected to use the turnpike; by the end, that number had climbed to 50 percent.
Taylor and Foley said the timing of the project couldn’t have been better in many ways, despite the rain and local concerns about safety. For one, Taylor said an early start to the project meant MaineDOT was able to avoid the worst of the dramatically increasing asphalt prices that have plagued many other paving projects this summer and led to the postponement of projects throughout the state. On the other hand, traffic on the detours may have benefited from the sharp decrease in driving witnessed across the country as a result of high gas prices. Still, MaineDOT Commissioner David Cole gave credit to the cooperation of the driving public and the municipalities within the corridor.
“In an era where we have shrinking resources, working with communities and impacted parties to accelerate projects means we can get it done cheaper, faster and safer,” said Cole. He said that is “good for communities” and reduces the disruption of people’s daily lives.
The project even received kudos from Representative Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham), who in the spring had questioned the safety of the MaineDOT plan. “I want to congratulate Commissioner David Cole and his entire crew (Brad Foley, Joyce Taylor and every department employee involved) for their hard and effective work,” wrote Berry in a letter to the Kennebec Journal a few days after I-295 reopened. He also recognized Pike Industries, local citizens and emergency personnel for their roles in the successful completion of the project.
With the southbound section of I-295 complete, MaineDOT has turned its focus to the northbound lanes within the same corridor, another 20-mile stretch of two-lane concrete highway badly in need of replacement. Officials are mulling their options. Will they again shut down the highway and divert traffic to Route 201 and the Maine Turnpike? Or will they shift northbound traffic to one lane of the newly rebuilt southbound section of highway?
Both options have different issues in regard to safety and project design, said MaineDOT’s Foley. Traffic is heavier northbound, and access to good detour routes like U.S. Route 201 is not as easy. MaineDOT will tackle these and other issues in the coming year, because reconstruction of the highway would not likely begin until 2010 or later.
“The good news is that we’ve built up some good will,” said Foley. He noted that good will could help as the department continues to work with local officials to determine the best, most efficient and safest plan for the northbound I-295 reconstruction.
Cast and crew
Pike Industries won the bid for the $28.5 million project. The Westbrook-based contractor oversaw the entire project that included rubblizing of the 18-mile stretch of two-lane highway, reconstruction of five bridges, rebuilding and paving of the highway and installation of new guardrail. While Pike managed the project and Pike crews paved the highway, several subcontractors also contributed to the project, including:
- Cianbro Corporation: bridge deck reconstruction
- Shaw Bros. Construction Inc.: shoulder grading and drainage
- Castonguay Logging: clearing
- Dirigo Slipform: curb resetting
- Fine Line Paving & Grading: bridge deck sealing
- L & D Safety Marking Corporation: striping
- Maine Line Fence Co. Inc.: guardrail
- Nicom Coatings Corp.: crack and joint sealing
- A. D. Rossi Corporation: waterproof membranes (bridges)