South Belt: A Long Road To Opening

November 12, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — When homebound commuters start rolling along the South Beltline for the first time Wednesday afternoon, Larry Brown and Mike Guter are going to be looking for work.

Guter and Brown are the two URS engineers who did the design and oversaw construction of M-6's cloverleaf at U.S. 131 just south of the Wyoming city limit.

The $145 million project included reconstruction of 4.5 miles of U.S. 131 from 36th to 86th treets, plus 2.5 miles of paving on M-6 and the interchange.

The interchange was the westernmost and probably most complex component of Phase II of the South Beltline, which cost $700 million to build and took almost a quarter-century.

Phase II extended from Broadmoor to U.S. 131 and work on it proceeded simultaneously with work by other contractors on Phase III, extending west from U.S. 131 to I-196.

And now Brown, Guter and their boss — Theresa Petko, vice president of surface transportation for URS — say that as they wind up the project's paperwork, they're seeking new highway construction projects … and perhaps a chance to catch up on some sleep.

The engineers' responsibility was to ensure that the contractors met MDOT's specifications through the three-year duration of the interchange project.

Like any major construction, Brown said, work on the interchange and its environs had its share of surprises, including discovery of large areas of unstable soil that began caving in and required buttressing with large vertical subterranean concrete shafts like those used in reconstruction of the S-Curve.

He said the interchange's design and construction both were particularly challenging in that the project involved building ramps that crossed other ramps and the highways at very tight angles.

The work also entailed bridging BuckCreek at three locations, the type of work that now requires tight controls to prevent erosion and runoff into the waterway, while contending with high water tables and some ill-timed downpours.

Perhaps the single biggest component of the project was the necessity of hauling in 3 million cubic meters of fill to form the bases for the cloverleaf's surface ramps.

"Some of it came from the job site," Brown said, "but some came from

100th Avenue
and some of it from the end of
68th Street
. It all had to be trucked in."

And that amount of truck traffic, Petko said, hints at some of the timing gymnastics in which Brown and Guter had to engage with the contractors and with MDOT.

For more than a decade, Brown explained, MDOT has built into highway construction contracts a very strong financial incentive to keep traffic lanes open to motorists.

The incentive is a daily $15,000 rental charge for lanes the contractor uses, thereby denying public use of those lanes.

"It makes the contractors more efficient," Brown explained.

"For the most part," he said, "they were able to maintain two lanes open. It saves a ton of money for them in a year and it makes them do a lot of good planning and very tight phasing by subcontractors so that somebody's working at all times.

"They know they're on the clock," he added.

The contract proposed maintaining one lane open in each direction on U.S. 131 in 2002 and 2003. Brown said, however, that three lanes were maintained in 2002 and four lanes were maintained all last year.

Petko noted that such phasing also entails nighttime paving and visits by the project engineers to make sure paving conforms to MDOT specifications.

Brown said the contracting was a joint venture of K&R Construction, CA Hull Inc. and Ajax Paving Co.

All told, construction of the interchange and its adjoining roadways involved 28 new bridges. The project also included 18 retaining walls and 13,500 square feet of sound walls on M-6 and U.S. 131 to reduce the impact of traffic noise on adjoining neighborhoods.

Brown said motorists might note that the project design also entailed painting earth tones on girders, retaining walls and sound walls.

"It's not just gray concrete," he said.

According to Brown, the early completion of the Beltline — originally scheduled for 2008, then expedited to 2005 and now possibly to be completed next month if weather permits work on one unfinished ramp — enabled the interchange contractors to earn the maximum amount of $1.5 million allowed in the lane rental portion of the special provision, plus an additional $600,000 as part of a value engineering change proposal.    

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