It has been a little less than nine months since Interstate 540 through Fort Smith and Van Buren was reduced to one lane in both directions, causing traffic nightmares not normally seen in the area.
For commuters looking for a status update on the construction project, Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department District 4 Engineer Chad Adams has good news.
"We're still looking at them being on schedule," he said. "We still have an estimated completion of late spring 2014."
The nearly $79 million project, the largest single-project contract awarded in AHTD history, has seen the demolition of six bridges, with more to come as the months go on.
With many of the bridges nearing completion in the southbound lanes, Adams said commuters should expect to see a lane shift within the next month or two, taking all traffic to the southbound lanes while bridges and pavement work proceeds on much of the untouched northbound lanes that have been carrying traffic since the project started Jan. 28.
So how is a project that is replacing multiple bridges and repaving more than 15 miles of interstate lanes moving so fast?
"This is a very large company (Keweit), a national company out of Nebraska and they have the manpower and equipment to do these kinds of things. They have brought in additional crews. They are working around the clock, as you have seen, and that has allowed them to have progress that is non-stop where you may see other companies with long days. But it's difficult to employ enough people around the clock six days a week."
And Adams said while it is not typical to see much work being done on Sundays, the crews working on the highway are typically spending those days doing preparatory work for the upcoming week, keeping the project progressing at a fast pace. Adams said one way the project has kept moving at quick speed is due to the method used for resurfacing the roadways, which has included rubblization.
"If you think back about 10, or probably 12 or 13 years now, we did the same type of work on Interstate 40," he said. "What we've done is leave concrete in place using a base layer. The concrete was rubblized. Beaten. Smashed with a pneumatic hammer that just rubblizes that concrete in place. We use that as the base and build up with asphalt."
In the long run, Adams said it would be easier to resurface the roadway way by coming in and taking "off the top layer of asphalt when it reaches the end of its useful life. We can take off the top layer, resurface in a quick manner and restore the highway back to great condition. If it's done with concrete, it's a lot more difficult to maintain it that way."
AHTD also saw cost savings using asphalt instead of concrete, he added.
While many bridges along the interstate are being replaced, or in some cases raised to allow for higher clearances, one bridge that will not have much if any work done to it is the Arkansas River Bridge.
According to Adams, widening the bridge to conform with current federal highway standards, which is what the contractors are doing with many of the bridges along I-540, is not financially feasible, especially considering that the AHTD is attempting to secure funding for a river bridge along the I-49 route. He said rehab work on the Arkansas River Bridge on I-540 could total more than $100 million, which would then make it the largest single highway construction contract awarded in state history.
Adams took time to address concerns raised at a Tuesday study session of the Fort Smith Board of Directors meeting. At the conclusion of the meeting, City Director Mike Lorenz expressed disappointment in the appearance of the interstate's landscaping and saying that other cities, such as Little Rock, do not have problems getting the AHTD to maintain a regular mowing schedule.
"Mowing has been more difficult," Adams said. "There's a lot of stakes and just obstacles that the contractor may have in place to accomplish their construction work out in the grass area. It requires extra effort and we've tried to work with the contractor on getting that done as we can. We did go in and mow, I think it was the northbound side after our normal mowing cycle in July and I think we mowed that right around the time when school started."
Adams said a normal schedule will resume once construction is complete late next spring, adding that if safety issues are present due to higher grass, that would be addressed as need.