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Massive I-85 Widening Project Increases Capacity in Northwest South Carolina

by: Larry Bernstein
Crews pile drive footings for a railroad bridge as part of the I-85 widening in northwest South Carolina.
Crews pile drive footings for a railroad bridge as part of the I-85 widening in northwest South Carolina.
A massive road widening project is taking place in South Carolina. The I-85 widening project stretches 29 miles from Spartanburg County in northwest South Carolina to the North Carolina border.

The heavily trafficked interstate, which runs from Virginia to Alabama, is particularly congested in the area where the widening is taking place. Currently, the average daily traffic along I-85 in northwest South Carolina is anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 cars per day with it expected to increase to 80,000 to 90,000 in the next 10 years. Trucks account for approximately 40 percent of the traffic.

Currently, I-85 is four lanes and when the project is complete the entire length of the highway will be six lanes. As part of the widening, the existing asphalt is being replaced by concrete.

Increasing Project Size
Since construction on the project began in 2017, it has grown in scope. “We’ve let an additional contract all the way to North Carolina,” said Shane Parris, the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) District 4 Design-Build Engineer, who is serving as the Project Manager for SCDOT. Parris notes that SCDOT always planned to widen I-85 all the way up to the North Carolina border and was able to do so once the funding became available.

In addition to adding 8 miles of road to be widened, the second contract also means an additional four interchanges that are being completely reconstructed and the replacement of a second railroad bridge. The original contract included four interchanges and one railroad bridge.

Both elements will be welcomed. “The widening of I-85 will relieve congestion along the corridor while the reconstruction of the exchanges will bring them up to current federal regulations regarding safety,” said Parris.

Regulations Add to Timeline
Originally, the project was scheduled to be complete in October 2022, but the new completion date is early 2025. Parris pointed to a couple of reasons for the delayed completion. “We have had to change Maintenance of Traffic Design to accommodate significant grade changes. There is minimal room for construction,” said Parris. 
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Another reason for the delay is related to a change in a state law. The law requires SCDOT to assist with wet utilities – water and sewer – that occur on their projects if the local entities are unable to do so for financial and technical reasons.

The law has not only added time to the project, but it has also added to the budget. Parris estimates the project will come in 5 percent over budget. The addition to the budget was because of the wet utilities, as well as SCDOT’s decision to hire off duty law enforcement to slow traffic for safety purposes.

The project was budgeted for $480 million. Parris notes that a percentage of the funding was made possible by the 2017 South Carolina roads bill. The federal government is funding the remaining 80 percent.

Choosing Design-Build
This project is being built via the design-build method. “We decided to go design-build on this project because it enables each step of the process – from pre-construction all the way to construction – to proceed more quickly,” said Parris. “And from a personnel stance, we simply don’t have the personnel to get a project done for a project of this size.” There are days when 300-plus people are actively involved in the construction of the project.

SCDOT is working with two contractors on this project: a Joint Venture of Blythe Construction, Inc. and Zachry Construction Corp. (BZJV) and Lane Construction. While SCDOT has worked with both contractors in the past, they were selected based on a statement of qualifications. “After the contractors submitted their bid, we scored them based on their past experience on personnel,” said Parris.

As part of this project, BJZV and Lane are required to design, obtain permits, acquire right-of-way, coordinate utility relocation, and construct the 29 miles of interstate – all under the oversight of the SCDOT and the Federal Highway Administration.

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Parris has bi-weekly meetings with the contractors to ensure the project is being built according to the plans. “Some members of SCDOT are having weekly and even daily meetings with the contractors and their guys,” says Parris. “We’ve worked well with the contractors and have a good relationship with them, which allows us to communicate and work out disagreements.”

The Biggest Challenge
“Imagine trying to build the Empire State Building with the offices already filled,” said Parris about what it is like to reconstruct and widen an interstate with existing traffic. Parris noted the traffic is the main obstacle the construction team has to overcome. “Keeping motorists and our workers safe is a challenge.”

To meet that challenge, additional signage has been posted, speeds have been reduced, and an off-duty law enforcement team has been put into action. The goal, according to Parris, is focused on getting commuters to slow down and not text while driving.

When SCDOT and its contractor partners complete the widening of I-85, commuters will enjoy a significant reduction in congestion and improved safety. It’s hoped that these conditions will bring business to the area and provide a boost to the local economy.

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