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West Virginia DOT Refreshes I-70 Corridor With Extensive Bridge Reconstruction Program

by: Larry Bernstein
Swank Construction Company lifts a section of rebar during reconstruction of one of the 26 bridges on the I-70 Corridor project in West Virginia.
Swank Construction Company lifts a section of rebar during reconstruction of one of the 26 bridges on the I-70 Corridor project in West Virginia.
Interstate 70, a major east-west highway, runs from Maryland to Utah. It goes through or near multiple major cities, including Wheeling, West Virginia. The city is in the northern part of the state that separates Ohio and Pennsylvania. The West Virginia Department of Transportation (WVDOT) is in the middle of the I-70 Corridor project, which includes Wheeling.

In 2017, WVDOT initiated a study of the I-70 Corridor to understand the current bridge conditions and necessary repairs from the Ohio state line to the Pennsylvania state line. The study found that major repairs were necessary to keep the corridor functional. Other studies have been conducted over the years, but the project did not proceed till funding was secured.

Twenty six bridges are being renovated or replaced along the nearly 7-mile-long project area. The bridges, which were built in the 1960s, have needed repair for some time. Although none of the bridges are weight restricted, the primary goal of the project is to improve the load ratings of each structure to meet the criteria set forth by the federal government.

Some work was done on every structure. The steel superstructure of each bridge was cleaned and painted, all deteriorated concrete was repaired, cracks were sealed, and then followed by application of concrete protective coating. The bearings on every bridge – approximately 1,500 – were replaced. The team modified existing abutments and converted them to semi-integral abutments, which consists of complete replacement of the upper portion of each abutment and installing a reinforced backfill.

One of the major goals of the project was to eliminate as many bridge deck expansion joints as possible and replace the joints with Link Slabs to preserve the life of the steel and substructure. The link slabs were designed using ultra-high performance concrete (UHPC) to provide a link between spans transferring compressive, tensile, and shear stresses due to horizontal loads. UHPC link slabs are proving to be a very efficient, long-term solution for the elimination of joints.

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Two bridges – the east and westbound I-70 Fulton Bridges – were torn down and replaced. The 1200-foot-long structures are over Wheeling Creek – a tributary of the nearby Ohio River.

Moving Right Along
The WVDOT was committed to constructing the project quickly. Part of the reason for the desire to move the project along swiftly was the amount of daily traffic. It is approximately 40,000 vehicles in the western part of the project area and close to 60,000 vehicles in the eastern part of the project, where I-70 merges with I-470.

Because WVDOT recognized the impact the project would have on the area, they put great efforts into public outreach and traffic control. They held many stakeholder meetings and received feedback from businesses and worked with them to best minimize impact.

Traffic control is about safety and flow. CCTV was installed to monitor traffic and get traffic directors near queues to help with flow. A towing service was on site 24/7 to respond to accidents and ultimately keep traffic moving.

“We looked at the best way to deliver the project and minimize the impact on the traveling public,” said Michael Witherow, a Construction Engineer with WVDOT, responsible for project oversite. “We decided to do it all at once rather than drag it out, which could have led to a decade long project.”

The project was initially a design-build project. However, the bids came in over budget due to the scope of work and potential unknowns associated with structure renovation. The team decided to change the project delivery method to design-bid-build. The method would expedite the design to speed up the process and minimize the risk to potential bidders. Stantec designed the project in just six months.

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With the magnitude and complexity of the I-70 Corridor project, nearly 500 submittals and nearly 300 RFIs were developed by the contractor and reviewed and responded to by WVDOT. To keep the project moving, the WVDOT team had to quickly review the submittals. “It requires a great deal of communication between us and the contractor,” Witherow says.

An Accelerated Schedule
The team had nine months to tear down and replace each of the Fulton Bridge structures. The nine-month duration was determined to be a reasonable amount of time to complete the work with an accelerated schedule. It also coordinated with a big local tourist event – the Oglebay Festival of Lights, a large Christmas light display.

“The festival draws a high volume of traffic between mid-November and January, and we were committed to lessening the traffic impacts during that time period,” says Tony Clark, a WVDOT Engineer, who oversees the district where the project is taking place.

The westbound Fulton bridge was shut down first, and all the through traffic was diverted to I-470 and local traffic detour via U.S. 40, National Road.

“The contractor tore out the structure in late February 2020 and then the world shut down,” Clark says. He worried if the crew would be able to move forward due to delays. The early days of the pandemic led to depressed traffic. “The contractor did not have any real delays and the low traffic counts helped us with closures.”

East of the eastbound bridge is the biggest hospital in the area, which maintains the only Level IV Trauma Center in the tri-state area. The second biggest one in the area closed before the pandemic emerged. “We came up with a detailed route to ensure ambulances could get to the hospital in a timely manner,” Clark says.

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The team utilized the same window of time in 2021 to handle the eastbound Fulton bridge.

Swank Construction Company, of New Kensington, Pennsylvania, served as the contractor on the project. To keep the project moving at a pace needed to meet the deadline, there were periods when they had 300 employees on the ground at once.

Witherow says this, among other things, is why Swank was able to successfully deliver the project. “They are very organized and prepared to tackle a project of this magnitude and could put in the resources necessary to meet the goals of this fast-paced contract.”

A Successful Initiative
The $215 million contract is being funded entirely by state funds. It’s part of the Roads to Prosperity initiative that Governor Jim Justice developed. Funding has come from multiple sources, including a gas tax, vehicle sales tax, and general obligation bonds.

The initiative has led to over 600 projects in every county in the state. This project is the biggest of the 600.

While the team encountered overruns, they managed to stay on budget. “We’ve been able to be innovative in areas and save money with the help of the contractor and offset overruns,” Witherow says.

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The plan was for the project to be complete in October 2023 after three construction seasons. However, the project will likely extend into the next year due to overrun of quantities for the concrete patching work on piers and abutments. This type of work is typically accessed from beneath the bridges, which will pose minimal impact to traffic next year.

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