SHA explains why big projects take years, not months
A reader had a question that I've heard many times and asked myself when I first began covering transportation: Why do big road projects take so long to complete?The reader, named Chris, was particularly interested in the wiidening of Maryland 295 in northern Anne Arundel County. Here's what he had to say:
The SHA has been messing around for like 2 years putting 1.5 miles of extra lane in each direction between 695 and 195 on the MD295. It looks like it is nearing completion, but they don't appear to be working very fast. I'd really like to know when it will be open and done.
Also I'd love to know why the heck it took 2 years to build a total of 3 miles of extra lanes. It seems to me that this could have been done in a couple months at most.
I'd love to know, if for nothing else, just out of pure curiosity.
Getting There turned to Dave Buck, spokesman for the State Highway Administration, for an explanation and answers to the question. His detailed reply explains much more than the delays in a single project. Here's what he had to say:
The MD 295 widening between I-695 and I-195 began October 2008. The contract was for a 1,151 calendar day project (basically three years and two months). Our estimated completion is mid to late November so we are right on schedule.
Of course, our being "on schedule" from a contractual perspective is different (than) the motorists perspective of "why does it take three years, not three months, to add one lane on each side of MD 295 from the Beltway to I-195." I will do my best to explain both in terms of overall big picture and specifics to the MD 295 project.
You are correct that most do not fully understand the challenges or time required to widen a road, especially four miles along a busy freeway all the while under existing traffic.
There is absolutely no doubt every highway construction project could be done much more quickly - if we lived in Florida. In reality, we live in a state where we have to shut down most major projects during the winter and from spring til fall we deal not only with rain (not only the rain itself but frequently we can not work until the work area is completely dry), but also events (Ravens, Grand Prix, Orioles) as well many other factors (BWI in this instance).
Secondly, the amount of hours we are permitted to work on a road like MD 295, which carries about 90,000 vehicles per day near I-695, is limited at best. In an absolutely perfect world we could close lanes 24 hours a day, detour traffic when we need to pave but we all know that just is not possible. We must manage the existing traffic while creating a safe workplace for both the workers and the motorists the travel our roads.
While most of the work to add the lane was done behind barrier, we did still have a significant amount of work on MD 295 itself (concrete patching, paving, tie-in work). When the new lane is ready to open, the entire three lanes must be ready, not just the new lane.
Widening any road is extremely difficult on highways due to high speeds, accel/decel lanes and ramps. For the MD 295 project, we had to take into account maintenance of traffic and work hours on this job, which were complicated by concerns for BWI traffic, Orioles, Ravens, Gran Prix, etc.
Soil compaction is critical when widening a road because of traffic weight and volume and we cannot grade in wet weather. Record rains in 2011 certainly did not help.
Paving is seasonal, weather-dependent and done in several "lifts." We can't do base paving until the grade is compacted to specification then we can't do final surface until the base is done AND existing travel lanes are milled and patched. This is very time consuming on a road w/ 90,000+ ADT (average daily traffic).
Full-depth concrete patching of existing lanes MUST be done weekends ONLY to avoid heavy commuter traffic. But, it can't be done during events either. Concrete patches need minimum 12 hours cure. It was very difficult to find the right weekends with good weather and no events.
This project included a "foamed asphalt" base on part of the NB lane. Foamed asphalt is a recycled low-temperature base material. This is not a new product but new for SHA so we needed to adopt appropriate testing standards.
We can't stress this enough -sequencing, any major issues or bad weather can cause a setback of several weeks or months.
And there you have it: Building a road isn't as easy as it looks.