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Improving Safety is Paramount on US 69/75 Commerce Connection in Oklahoma

by: Debra Wood
The U.S. 69/75 Commerce Connection project in Oklahoma includes several different decorative mechanically stabilized earth walls.
The U.S. 69/75 Commerce Connection project in Oklahoma includes several different decorative mechanically stabilized earth walls.
Construction work included building an overpass at Choctaw Road.
Construction work included building an overpass at Choctaw Road.
Crews work on rebar for a bridge foundation.
Crews work on rebar for a bridge foundation.
Two lanes of traffic have been kept open on U.S. 69.
Two lanes of traffic have been kept open on U.S. 69.
Crews build a bridge at Washington Avenue.
Crews build a bridge at Washington Avenue.
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation’s (ODOT) $152 million U.S. 69/75 Commerce Connection project though Bryan County aims to improve access and safety on this heavily traveled route.

“This was one of the most challenging areas we had, in terms of the type of traffic we had, a lot of freight moving north and south, and we had some troubling signalized intersections,” says Anthony Echelle, District Engineer with ODOT. “Safety was paramount.”

Echelle explains that freight traffic regularly uses the road, which previously had not been brought up to current standards. This project will improve the level of service. The four-lane highway had cross streets at 90 degrees to U.S. 69/75. After the completion of this project, vehicles will travel on overpasses, eliminating intersection conflicts, which have led to increased crash rates along the route.

“This is a critical step forward in Oklahoma’s transportation future,” said Tim Gatz, Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation and Executive Director of ODOT, in a statement. “This modernization of U.S. 69/75 means the highway will continue to grow as a major freight and travel corridor, especially as Texas continues its expansion south of the Red River.”

Avoiding Cross Traffic
The project reconstructs the road from U.S. 70 in Durant south to Chickasaw Road in Calera, just north of Texas. The work converts a 4-mile-long divided four-lane roadway, two lanes in each direction, with signalized 90-degree intersections to a highway with overpasses to avoid cross traffic to the main route. The project also rebuilds one-way frontage roads along the highway, so local traffic can easily access businesses along the corridor, and full interchanges with on and off ramps at Choctaw Road and Main Street, so vehicles can easily enter and exit U.S. 69/75. The project also replaces an at-grade railroad crossing.

“This project will bring a higher level of service in a safer way,” Echelle says.

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ODOT contracted with engineering firms CEC, EST, and Triad Design Group – all of Oklahoma City – to design the project.

The department has been planning these upgrades for years. In 2016, the project received a $62 million federal FASTLANE grant, which are awarded to improve safety, efficiency and reliability of nationally and regionally significant freight and highway corridors. The program aims to increase global economic competitiveness, reduce congestion, enhance connectivity between modes of transportation, and improve roads vital to national energy security.

That year, the Federal Highway Administration awarded $800 million to 18 projects. The Oklahoma project was the third largest nationally in that competitive grant cycle and the department’s largest federal grant.

The FASTLANE grant enabled ODOT to speed construction of the U.S. 69/75 Commerce Connection project by years.

Partnership is Key
The Oklahoma Transportation Commission awarded the construction contract to Duit Construction Co. of Edmond, Oklahoma. The company, established in 1969, specializes in road and bridge construction and began work on this project in fall of 2019.

“It’s one of the largest projects that ODOT has done,” says Mike Lipps, Senior Vice President with Duit.

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The contract includes financial incentives for meeting certain milestones and an early completion. The company is working toward achieving those goals and receiving the incentives. “Duit has completed a lot of work,” Echelle reports.

By mid-October, $100 million worth of work had been finished, something Duit’s Lipps attributes to good planning, coordinating with ODOT and the various crews on the job, and placing a a strong emphasis on safety.

“We do a lot of scheduling and partnering with ODOT to work on issues, keeping up with supply chain issues,” Lipps says. “We plan out the most critical areas of work. There is constant communication and collaboration.”

Echelle adds that the partnership and working toward common goals have helped achieve success on this complex project.

“The turnaround time on this project is not typical,” Echelle says. “This project came together quickly.”

Embracing Technology
The U.S. 69/75 Commerce Connection project contains an extensive amount of architectural and decorative mechanically stabilized earth walls in many different patterns and colors.
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“It’s going to be quite the beautiful project when it’s all said and done,” Lipps says. “Getting all of those pieces in the right place has been challenging on the construction side.”

Duit is paving with concrete. The department selected concrete as the best fit for a number of reasons, including life cycle cost and durability. The contractor is using a stringless paving system on its Guntert & Zimmerman pavers and Leica stringless robotics equipment, which increases crew efficiencies.

“We’ve adopted all of the new technology,” Lipps says. “It’s going well. A lot of our crews are happy with the performance of it.”

The stringless paving makes the concrete pavers more agile and able to fit into tight spots more easily, Lipps explains.

Maintaining Traffic Flow
One of the biggest challenges to the project was constructing it while 50,000 vehicles a day drive through the work zone, Echelle says. Crews maintained traffic on two lanes in each direction for the majority of the time, using phasing and traffic shifting as the project progressed.

Duit built the east side frontage road first and shifted traffic to it while rebuilding the two northbound lanes. Then the company shifted traffic back on the northbound lanes to reconstruct the southbound lanes. The phasing and keeping a good flow through the project increased safety during construction.

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“Our hope was drivers would not be inconvenienced too terribly,” says Mills Leslie, Strategic Communications Officer with ODOT.

For the most part, lane closures occurred only during nonpeak times, primarily at night. Weekends are busy in this tourism region of the state.

The project is on track for a 2023 completion. Duit worked through the winter, although some weeks that was not possible.

“Through all of the challenges that sprung up in spring of 2020, the project has kept going and the crews kept working,” Echelle says. “It’s a testament to our industry, which stayed strong through the COVID-19 challenges we all faced…The amount of work and effort that has gone into this project is amazing.”

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