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Paving signals progress as I-69 creeps north

The entire highway from Evansville to its intersection with Ind. 37 north of Victor Pike near Bloomington is expected to open to traffic by the end of 2014.

By BILL STROTHER
The Associated Press

9/26/2012

WASHINGTON, Ind. — Parallel concrete strips stretched to the horizon in front and behind, recently laid by a "paving train," the huge pieces of linked equipment that continuously pour, settle and smooth a two-lane strip of roadway at a time.

Workers in hard hats and yellow safety vests, construction equipment, trucks, and sundry other evidence of a work in progress dotted the landscape.

This was I-69 in Daviess County, where much of the task of building the highway many thought they'd never see is close to wrapping up — at least for the stretch from Evansville northeast to Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center.

Indiana Department of Transportation project manager Brian Malone, an engineer whose assignments have included several of the bridges and overpasses along the route, told The Herald-Times last week that about 13 days of paving remained before both north- and southbound lanes are finished from Evansville to the I-69/U.S. 231 interchange in southern Greene County, just west of Crane. The big machines can lay between 2,000 and 3,000 feet of concrete in a 10-hour day, with the length varying by the distance between the site and the concrete mix plant that fills the stream of dump trucks supplying the train.

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Malone was one of several transportation department officials and I-69 supporters who led an I-69 press tour to perhaps 15 miles south of the still-under-construction interchange into Daviess County, showing off the job and providing their perspective on the work.

The two-vehicle caravan, a 15-passenger van and an SUV, slowed where work was under way and where gaps in the paving required caution, switching lane directions depending on which side was more finished.

Approaches to most bridges were still unfinished. The machines that lay the concrete can't do that work, and such short stretches must be hand poured.

This summer's drought, which has withered so much of the corn standing stunted in adjacent farm fields, has been good for the project and for its contractors, said Cher Elliot, spokeswoman for the transportation department's Vincennes district, in which this stretch of the interstate lies.

The extended lack of rain meant there were no wet weather delays to slow things down, she said. "It's allowed the contractors up and down the corridor to work each and every day. ... We were probably the only industry to capitalize on the drought."

Will Wingfield, the department's director of media relations, added that another irony has been that the recession also has helped the project.

With so many companies looking for work, competition to win a slice of the job has been stiff. "We've seen bids come in roughly 22 percent below estimates," he said.

The first three sections of the project — 65 miles from Evansville to the U.S. 231 interchange — will cost about $600 million, he said.

The fourth section, 27 miles of roadway from the U.S. 231 interchange to Ind. 37 just south of Bloomington, is expected to cost about $600 million, the differential largely explained by differences in land and geology, as the route goes from relatively flat, easy-to-build-on terrain to hilly, karst areas that are more challenging in Greene and Monroe counties.

Three of six contracts for the Section 4 portion of the road have been let, and the final three are expected to be awarded by the end of the year.

The entire highway from Evansville to its intersection with Ind. 37 north of Victor Pike near Bloomington is expected to open to traffic by the end of 2014, Wingfield said.

Preliminary planning for Section 5, which will follow 37 through Bloomington to just south of Martinsville, is proceeding, with the draft environmental impact statement for that section due by the end of the year, state officials said.

Elliot said the state will continue its research and have public hearings on the draft statement for incorporation into the final environmental impact statement, which should go to the Federal Highway Administration by the end of the second quarter of 2013.

The federal agency would then issue a Record of Decision for Section 5, required before any detailed design work can begin.

Elliot said the state must show how the work will be paid for, something critics have said will prove very difficult, before the federal government issues its Record of Decision.

But if all goes according to plan, Elliot said, initial contracts for work on Section 5 could be awarded by the end of next year.

The first contracts would target parts of the plan that would ease traffic conditions made worse along Ind. 37 by the influx of additional traffic from I-69 after it connects with Ind. 37.

"Everybody seems very positive that everything will continue and make it through on these time lines," Elliot said. "We continue to move forward with the Section 5 process."

Kevin Jones of The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at kevinj@thetrucker.com.