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Widening Project on I-85 Takes Shape, Preparing Northwest South Carolina for Projected Growth

by: Larry Bernstein
Each day an average of 60,000 vehicles travel through I-85, with that number expected to reach 85,000 by 2027. SCDOT’s I-85 Widening Project will help alleviate congestion for the growing area.
Each day an average of 60,000 vehicles travel through I-85, with that number expected to reach 85,000 by 2027. SCDOT’s I-85 Widening Project will help alleviate congestion for the growing area.
The team prepares the road to perform concrete paving work.
The team prepares the road to perform concrete paving work.
A skid steer moves dirt in Cherokee County.
A skid steer moves dirt in Cherokee County.
A trackhoe moves dirt to prepare the area for an additional lane.
A trackhoe moves dirt to prepare the area for an additional lane.
Maintaining traffic is more challenging on I-85 due to significant grade changes.
Maintaining traffic is more challenging on I-85 due to significant grade changes.
Crews haul dirt into a truck to move it offsite.
Crews haul dirt into a truck to move it offsite.
The project involves widening 29 miles of I-89, including repaving current lanes.
The project involves widening 29 miles of I-89, including repaving current lanes.
New lanes are being constructed using 13 inches of concrete.
New lanes are being constructed using 13 inches of concrete.
In an effort to alleviate traffic congestion and improve connectivity, the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) is progressing on the back half of the I-85 Widening Project, which extends across 29 miles of Interstate 85 from the North Carolina border to Spartanburg County in northwest South Carolina.

Construction began in 2017, and the eight-year project is expected to conclude by the end of 2025. Aiming to address the growing demands of the transportation corridor spanning from Montgomery, Alabama, to Petersburg, Virginia, the project involves widening the four-lane northern section of I-85. The existing I-85 in Spartanburg to the south is already six lanes.

The average daily traffic on this section of I-85 is approximately 60,000, with that number expected to reach 85,000 by 2027. Truck traffic accounts for approximately 40 percent of the vehicles. Since the project area is already experiencing congestion, SCDOT determined that the expansion was necessary.

After the expansion, I-85 will be a six-lane highway. Besides widening the interstate from four to six lanes, the team is replacing the existing asphalt on the current lanes. The project also involves the construction of eight interchanges and replacing two railroad bridges.

Two-Team Approach
The design-build contract includes two separate teams, a decision made when the state added 8 miles to the project after construction had already begun. Those final 8 miles would lead to the North Carolina border, completing the project. SCDOT had always intended to widen I-85 to the border, but the funding only became available during the widening of the first 21 miles.

In response to this development, SCDOT created a second contract and hired a separate team. The state determined that having a second team, along with the employment of the design-build method, would help the project progress more quickly.

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District 4 Design-Build Engineer Shane Parris has been with the project since the beginning and is serving as the Project Manager for SCDOT. “We’ve gotten to the point where we know each other and what to expect when we move down the road,” Parris said. “We appreciate the ability of the contractors to maintain key personnel throughout the duration of this project. That has helped support the success of the planning, scheduling, and staging of the project.”  

The general contractor for the first team is a joint venture between Blythe Construction, Inc., and Zachry Construction Corp. (BZJV). Lane Construction is serving as the contractor for the second team.

All of the contractors have worked with SCDOT previously. "They were selected based on their statement of qualifications and were scored on their experience with personnel,” Parris said. The general contracting teams have a range of responsibilities beyond construction and design, including obtaining permits, acquiring right-of-way, and coordinating utility relocation. SCDOT and the Federal Highway Administration are conducting oversight.

BZJV is working from mile marker 77 to mile marker 98. Their scope includes the reconstruction of four interchanges and the rehabilitation of four existing ramps for exits at mile markers 78, 80, 90, and 92. Their purview also includes construction of a new CSX railroad bridge.

Lane’s portion of the project begins at mile marker 98 and runs to the North Carolina state line, an 8-mile stretch. Similar to BZJV, they are responsible for reconstructing four interchanges. There are no existing ramps that require work. The team is replacing the Norfolk Southern railroad bridge.

To ensure the partnership continues to flourish, SCDOT is in regular contact with the general contractor and the other key stakeholders. “We have regular bi-weekly construction meetings and bi-yearly executive meetings to make sure everyone is on the same path,” Parris said. These meetings include discussions about safety, utility relocations, construction submittals, scheduling, and quality control.

Traffic Management Tactics
Keeping traffic flowing while working on large projects is a challenge that Parris knows well. “The work would be a lot easier if there was no traffic in the lanes when you are trying to build,” Parris joked. “Building this offline would be simple.”

Maintaining traffic is more challenging than typical highway traffic on I-85 due to significant grade changes, according to Parris. New lanes are being constructed using 13 inches of concrete, and traffic must be protected from this significant change in grade. There is also minimal room for construction.

The team has moved traffic according to the standard, shifting it from side to side depending on where construction was occurring. The contractors are responsible for keeping the general public informed about the progress of the project as well as the lane switches. SCDOT also announces traffic shifts on its website and social media.

Lane shifts tend to lead to an increase in accidents. To maintain safety, the team has posted additional signage in the area, reduced speed limits, and employed an off-duty law enforcement team. The purpose is to get drivers to slow down and stay away from texting while driving.

Investing in Connectivity
The project area includes Spartanburg County, which has the fifth largest population in South Carolina, at just over 325,000. The other county impacted is Cherokee County. It is one of the smallest in the state in terms of land area and population (approximately 56,000).

Improving interstate connectivity is one of SCDOT’s priorities. “SCDOT has a 10-year plan to improve connectivity, and we’re in year seven," said Kelly Moore, Director of Public Engagement and Senior Advisor to the Secretary for SCDOT. “One of the focuses of the 10-year plan includes connectivity in the more rural parts of the state. We want to improve economic prosperity for all, and we are seeing good progress overall on the plan.”

The construction budget for the project is $480 million. Utility work was added to the project scope due to state law, and it is expected to be the main culprit in driving up the costs by 5 percent. SCDOT’s decision to hire off-duty law enforcement to slow traffic is another added expense.

The project is being funded by the federal and state governments via the traditional 80/20 split. The state raised part of its share through the passage of the 2017 South Carolina roads bill.

Lane, which began construction in 2019, completed the widening of their portion of I-85 in December 2022. “It was huge to open the eight miles of I-95 up north,” Parris said. He added that the widening has enabled traffic to flow more efficiently and safely. The completed section is also drawing positive responses from commuters.

The next milestone the team is focused on is opening 11 miles between mile marker 80 in Spartanburg and mile marker 90 in Gaffney in the summer of 2024. Parris said he is confident that the team is up to the challenge as the contractor is on schedule. When the entire project is complete, commuters will have a safer and more reliable commute and I-85 will be able to handle the projected growth in traffic.

Project Partners
  • Owner: South Carolina Department of Transportation
  • General Contractors: Blythe Construction, Inc., Charlotte, North Carolina; Zachry Construction Corp., San Antonio, Texas; Lane Construction, Cheshire, Connecticut
  • Engineer: Michael Baker International, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
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