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Highway Work Stalled By Weather

July 6, 2008

By Elisa Crouch, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Jul. 6–By Elisa Crouch

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

07/06/2008

The storm moving toward St. Louis was only a passing rain shower, but it was a potential calamity for Bob Kile.

As the man who oversees roadway construction for the Highway 40 (Interstate 64) rebuild, Kile cringed at the thought of losing more paving time to weather. On a recent Tuesday, he’d been up since 3:30 a.m. checking weather radar, first on his home computer, then at the New I-64 offices in Vinita Park. When the rain gets too close, he orders paving to stop. “Sometimes it will fizzle,” Kile, 47, said of the approaching storm. “Sometimes.”

One of the wettest springs in recent memory has increased pressure on those choreographing the largest highway project in Missouri history. No matter how the weather behaves, the project’s completion deadlines won’t budge, and there’s $2 million in incentives at stake for the team of contractors on the job, Gateway Constructors.

Some bridge building is ahead of schedule. Paving, however, started about a month late because the ground was too wet.

Officials say they’re still on target to reopen the highway by the end of the year but could have finished much earlier with a drier spring. An early finish would give them a head start rebuilding five miles between Interstate 170 and Kingshighway, which shuts down the day the stretch between I-170 and Ballas Road reopens.

No one knows what the rest of the year will bring.

“You can still build a bridge after it rains,” Kile said. “You can’t pave a road.”

Rebuilding the first five miles of Highway 40 involves hundreds of moving parts — from the approximately 375 construction and administrative workers to the dozens of suppliers throughout the region and beyond. And no matter how much they plan, weather can throw them off.

By 6 a.m., the worksite between Spoede Road and Interstate 170 is buzzing with dump trucks, bulldozers and wrecking equipment. For 10 hours a day, six days a week, laborers, carpenters, operators and others perform hundreds of tasks. Remains of old overpasses must be excavated from deep in the ground. Support beams must be set on new bridges. There are sound walls to install, utilities lines to move and ground to prepare for new ramps.

And, there are eight lanes of highway to pave.

‘KEEP PUSHING’

As rain moved across central Missouri, Kile received a call on his Nextel. His paving superintendent was checking in and noted that the storm seemed to be slowing. This bought them an extra hour or two. Paving crews were already inching along west of McKnight Road, leaving a 24-foot-wide wet trail of gray concrete behind them. They hoped to finish 1,800 feet before the rain.

“Let’s just keep pushing what we can get,” Kile told his superintendent. “I’ll talk to you in about a half-hour.”

The pressure to finish on time is enormous.

In addition to losing $2 million in extra pay, finishing the first phase late could cost Gateway $2,200 a day if it extends beyond Jan. 25. On May 31, the penalty rises to $24,300 a day, according to its contract with the Missouri Department of Transportation.

Gateway must reopen the second section of Highway 40 by Dec. 31, 2009, or face similar penalties.

As the morning storm approached, a crew of 10 construction workers in bright yellow vests gathered around Kevin O’Keefe, their foreman, at Highway 40 and Lindbergh Boulevard. Some of them would resume filling a dip in the old highway with rock and dirt — a process that involves several months of work.

“Keep in mind, we’re going to get another boatload of rain this afternoon,” O’Keefe told them. On dry days, crews finish about 4:30 p.m. On this day, the storm might cut them short.

“With this weather we’ve been having, we’ll keep one or two on to seal everything up,” O’Keefe said.

80 WET DAYS

There have been 80 days of rain or snow in the St. Louis area so far this year, according to the National Weather Service. The precipitation has forced Gateway to shift gears on 44 work days, rescheduling work such as dirt moving, paving or bridge work.

It all adds up.

From an office cubicle, Rob Cheeseman, 33, tracks everything involved with the New I-64 project. At 6 a.m., as construction starts, he’s in the office poring through invoices, making sure suppliers are charging correct amounts. He tracks labor costs, the amount of material being used and whether Gateway is meeting or exceeding its cost estimates.

Cheeseman, an engineer, moved to St. Louis from Minneapolis to work on the project.

“If things change, if fuel prices go up, we lose money,” he said. “If the quantity of concrete for the job goes up, we put it in anyway. It comes out of our pocket.”

Weather also has taken its toll. “It’s hurt our schedule,” Cheeseman said. “We’d be a lot further along right now.”

Gateway recently hired additional workers to accelerate paving.

When the state selected the contracting team in 2006, it set the New I-64 budget at $535 million. Of that, Gateway is paid $420 million.

So far, the contracting team has not requested additional money nor time extensions for the work, says Michael Castro, a construction manager for MoDOT.

THE ROAD AHEAD

At 2 p.m., 22 superintendents and construction managers crowded into a construction trailer off of Eager Road, near I-170, to go over the next day’s schedule. Crews that day had laid 1,943 feet of paving before Kile stopped them and ordered them to prepare for rain.

Crews laid plastic over 600 feet of concrete that had not yet dried, being careful not to drag the plastic and smear the surface. And then the raindrops started to fall.

The superintendents went around the room listing the tasks their crews would tackle the next day. Weather wouldn’t be an issue. The forecast called for sunshine.

They’d resume getting ground ready for paving crews. They’d continue filling in the dip near Lindbergh, putting up sound walls and doing bridge work at dozens of locations. And dozens of other tasks along the highway.

For the first time all week, paving crews would be able to pour a full day’s worth of concrete. Even though the previous day had been dry, they hadn’t put down one inch of new highway. The paver was out of commission because of an electrical problem.

The reason: Over the weekend, it had been struck by lightning.

ecrouch@post-dispatch.com — 314-340-8119

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Copyright (c) 2008, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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