DOT will limit I-40 repair schedule

State transportation body hopes to ease crush in Durham County by keeping lanes open between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. on weekdays

Staff WriterDecember 7, 2006 

Repairs on Interstate 40 in Durham County will start again in April and could last until July 2008, but engineers say they will spare weekday commuters the endless traffic jams they endured when I-40 was widened a few years ago.

The construction, the lane closings and the suffering will be limited to nights and some weekends.

"It will be much different from the original project, where you had the concrete median barriers out there day and night," Wally Bowman, who oversees Department of Transportation work in Durham and six other counties, said Wednesday.

All lanes must be open between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. each weekday, according to specifications in DOT documents prepared for two contractors that will bid for the job.

If night and weekend repairs back up traffic four miles or more, the contractor will be required to halt work or find other ways to ease the congestion.

A four-mile limit on I-40 jams could pose a big challenge for road crews, even at night when traffic levels are reduced. Thousands of travelers were snagged by preliminary repairs that took place on several weekends this fall. Some motorists reported Sunday afternoon backups six to eight miles long.

The state Board of Transportation today will set aside $20 million to replace crumbling concrete with asphalt on four lanes of the six-lane, 10.6-mile I-40 project. After a plea Wednesday from Kenneth B. Spaulding, Durham's representative on the board, transportation officials agreed to postpone a decision on how to pay for the repairs.

"This is a new area we've never explored before," said J. Douglas Galyon of Greensboro, the board chairman.

If DOT treats the work as a cost overrun on the $51 million I-40 widening project, completed in 2004, the entire cost will be drawn from state and federal money now earmarked for other Triangle road improvements. Galyon said a study group will look for alternatives that might spare the Triangle from paying the full price.

Other board members have said the Triangle should absorb the fiscal setback, as is customary under the state's rules for sharing highway money. But Galyon agreed with Spaulding that there was no precedent for such costly repairs on bad concrete that should have been good for 30 years.

The repairs are needed because of mistakes in the original paving in 2003 and 2004. A 3-inch layer of new concrete on the two outer lanes began to buckle and break in 2005 because DOT engineers, who have not been identified, failed to specify the correct paving method.

DOT officials recently estimated that it would cost $18.6 million to remove the concrete layer from the two outer lanes in both directions and replace it with asphalt. The inner concrete lane is not damaged, but the repair plans include a final asphalt topping for all three lanes.

Calvin W. Leggett, DOT program development manager, said the exact cost will not be known until bids are opened in February and the contract is awarded in March. He said today's board action to put $20 million into an account for the repairs is basically "an accounting thing."

Most highway projects are designed in detail by DOT engineers before contractors are asked to bid on construction contracts. The I-40 repair job will be a "design-build" contract, with bidders expected to design the work before they build it.

In the bid documents, DOT engineers instruct the contractor to take great pains to finish the work on time while minimizing its impact on about 100,000 cars and trucks that travel I-40 each day.

I-40 traffic can be limited in places to one lane plus the shoulder at night and on some weekends, with new asphalt poured in place immediately after the old concrete is ripped out.

This part of the job can start April 2 and must be finished by Nov. 15. The final asphalt layer for all three lanes must be finished by July 1, 2008.

Daytime work on weekends will be limited, with no work permitted on holidays and after sporting events or other activities likely to generate heavy traffic.

Free motorist assistance patrols will be provided to help drivers with problems in the I-40 work zones and on alternate routes including N.C. 54, I-85, N.C. 147 and Fayetteville Road.

The contractor will be penalized as much as $20,000 a day for missing the completion date and as much as $10,000 an hour for exceeding limits on closing traffic lanes and exit ramps.

Len Sanderson, who oversees road construction as state highway administrator, announced his retirement last month after acknowledging responsibility for the failures of unnamed DOT subordinates involved in the original I-40 project.

Without referring to DOT's I-40 blunders, Transportation Secretary Lyndo Tippett lauded Sanderson at a board meeting Wednesday.

"We'll certainly miss Len," Tippett said. "His professionalism is unexcelled in this department."

Staff writer Bruce Siceloff can be reached at 829-4527 or bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com.

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