Commuters using Interstate 540 in Fort Smith and Van Buren should prepare for lane shifts starting Wednesday (March 12), a sign that the more than $78 million rehabilitation project is inching closer to completion later this summer.
According to District 4 Engineer Chad Adams of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, project construction manager Kiewit Corporation will begin the process of moving northbound traffic to the outside, northbound lane of the interstate between Rogers Avenue and the I-40/I-540 interchange on that day. But just because northbound traffic is moving back to the northbound lanes does not mean the project is done, he said.
"I would say it is still on schedule," he said. "That is a statement I really want to get out there. Switching traffic doesn't mean ... we're not a week or two from opening the (remaining closed traffic) lanes. But we're getting closer."
He equated the transition to home construction.
"It's like when you see a house being built and you see walls go up and the roof go up. You (still) have a couple more months of inside work. So yeah, there's progress, but there's still stuff that has to be done before we can open it up to two lanes both directions. But there is good news. It's a positive thing."
Adams said the work that still needs to be completed will require more work in the median, thus the requirement that traffic patterns adjust. The work includes installing cable barriers in the median to prevent crossover accidents, as well as installing guard rails and adding an additional layer of asphalt to the southbound lanes.
With the movement of traffic and the transition of workers to the median, drivers will notice construction workers more often than before, Adams said.
"Right now, people have been separated from the workers," he said. "Now (the workers) are going to be in the middle. Traffic's going to be on the outside lanes of both directions. Contractors will be somewhat more exposed to the traffic. So we ask people to be aware and on the lookout for those things. Workers will be in a different place then they are used to seeing them. (Drivers should) consider that they are coming from different places, too. You're always used to them coming from the right side, where now they'll be coming from the middle."
The risk to workers and drivers could increase due to the lack of concrete barriers separating the two, though he said drivers should actually find the lanes roomier than before, allowing them to have a shoulder to use should an accident occur or a car break down, an option that has not been available since construction started in late January 2013.
Having the wider lanes, Adams said travel times should be reduced between the region's two largest cities.
"(Instead of a concrete barrier), the drums are set up to block the other lane. Now there is a way to get vehicles around or out of the way. It will feel wider. People will feel like they have more room. They'll move more quickly. With that barrier wall, people pucker up and slow down. People will now drive closer to the speed limit."
The original completion of Summer 2014 still appears to be on track, Adams said, even in spite of winter weather.
While weather has not slowed the project, other unforeseen obstacles have slowed the project slightly.
"It's just things that you encounter when you get into the construction. There was a column that was, I believe, on the bridge for Highway 64 (in Van Buren). One of the columns, there was a bald area where concrete popped out. We had to repair that," he said, adding that other bridge decks had to be repaired at the I-40/I-540 interchange.
"The bridge is taking more traffic than it's used to. And sort of weak areas are exposed quickly then. So we've made arrangements to get those repaired while the bridges are closed to traffic. It's just somewhat routine things that you expect to happen when you go through a project."
Adams said the project, which officially kicked off Jan. 28 of last year, may be a nuisance to many commuters, but he said the project is being completed in double the time most other projects of comparable size would be due to a special bidding process, emphasizing project completion by mid-Summer 2014.
"The project had what we called A+C Bidding. It's basically a method for us to consider time and the cost — road user costs — that are in the way when we are doing construction. We let the contractor tell us how fast they think they can do it. It's considered in the contract. Kiewit bid 153 working days. I don't remember how many other bidders there were, but every other bidder bid 300 working days. So you're talking about half the time (compared to what) the other contractors will do."