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Maryland DOT SHA Reconstructs I-270/MD 85 Interchange for Easier Commute to and from the Nation’s Capital

by: Larry Bernstein
Contractor Joseph B. Fay Company uses a Komatsu excavator to work on a section of the I-270/MD 85 interchange project in Frederick, Maryland.
Contractor Joseph B. Fay Company uses a Komatsu excavator to work on a section of the I-270/MD 85 interchange project in Frederick, Maryland.
Frederick, Maryland is located north of Washington, DC, and is about a one-hour drive from the capital. The city is a bedroom community for DC and like others in that category, it has experienced strong growth. To keep traffic in the area flowing smoothly, the Maryland Department of Transportation’s State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA) is working on a project at the I-270 (Washington National Pike) and MD 85 (Buckeystown Pike) Interchange.

The population growth in and around the area has led to growing traffic. The average daily traffic count on MD 85 is 43,000 vehicles as of 2019 and is projected to reach 52,000 vehicles by 2030, while the average daily traffic count on I-270 is 90,000 vehicles as of 2019 and is projected to reach 130,000 vehicles by the 2030. Southbound traffic is congested in the morning, and northbound traffic faces similar issues in the evening.

“Transportation has been a hot topic in the area for many years due to its growth,” says Elizabeth Harris, a Community Relations Manager for MDOT SHA.

Among the project's elements is the replacement of two poorly rated bridges on I-270. The bridges were constructed in 1950, and MDOT has serviced them in the past. However, they decided to replace them to better handle the increased volume. The new bridge on I-270 over MD 85 will have four lanes in each direction, including new exit lanes and wider shoulders. Over a one-mile stretch of MD 85, the team is constructing an additional travel lane in each direction. Lastly, the project includes the construction of a new median and partial diverging diamond interchange (DDI) on MD 85 to improve traffic flow and access to and from I-270. 

The interchange was the driving element of the project. “The previous interchange and signals were starting to fail due to traffic volumes,” says Bruce Cain, an Assistant District Engineer for MDOT’s District 7 Construction, “so we decided to upgrade the interchange and bridge as it was becoming structurally deficient.”

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Pedestrians will also benefit from the project. The team is installing a new sidewalk, pedestrian signals, and bike lanes.

A Challenging Work Area
In addition to the heavy traffic volume on the roads, the area has many businesses nearby. The team has only a small area to work in. According to Ross Clingan – an Area Engineer for MDOT SHA District 7 who is supervising the construction team and negotiating with the contractor on changes – the project has nine traffic phases. “Between working in a small area and the partial DDI being so different than what was there before, shifting traffic and work in the area was pretty complicated.”

Cain adds, “MDOT SHA’s policy is to minimize traffic issues and maintain as many lanes as possible during construction, so we have to build in smaller pieces to keep traffic moving and continue the existing pattern.”

Communicating with the driving public and the community about traffic shifts is done via social media, newsletters, radio stations, websites, and local municipal websites. Once the shift is within seven days, it is communicated on electric message boards along the roads.

There’s a substantial amount of limestone underground in Frederick County. When this is the case, sinkholes are common. Therefore, sinkhole mitigation is a significant element of the project.

To try and prevent future sinkholes, the team identifies grout areas. Before construction, nine grout areas were identified by the geology team and a tenth was added during construction, according to Mark Allen the MDOT SHA District 7 Project Engineer, who runs the day-to-day operations on the project.

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These areas are considered potentially dangerous, and the aim is to prevent sinkholes from occurring there. In these areas, the rock is not flat, but instead, it is like fingers and sinkholes form as groundwater seeps beneath the surface and fills in the voids. This can cause the road to cave in.

The team drills holes in the trouble spots and pumps grout in at low pressure to fill in the voids and prevent future sinkholes.

Complex Project Takes Solid Coordination
The Joseph B. Fay Company is serving as the prime contractor on the project. They have worked on state projects in the past and won the contract based on their low bid and work certifications. “They are a large heavy construction firm, their onsite crews are detail-oriented, and they do a good job,” Clingan says.

There have been times during the project that Fay has had four different subcontractors working, as well as 30 to 40 of their own people working simultaneously. “Making that many parts work well takes organization, which is required for a complex project like this one,” Clingan says.

Cain notes that Fay looks at means and methods and presents alternative ideas to increase productivity. He cites an example, “We’ve run into some issues with unknown utilities, and the contractor has partnered with us to find workarounds, including rearranging phases to mitigate delays and avoid others.”

The total project cost is $87.7 million, of which $66 million are construction costs. The project is being funded by the traditional 80/20 split, with the federal government paying the larger percentage and the state government paying the lower percentage. Frederick County is contributing a small amount to upgrade water lines. They decided to upgrade the waterline simultaneously as the team would already be on site.

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Since construction began in fall 2017, the project has gone over budget due to delays related to the utilities and design plan revisions. Cain is hopeful there will be some underrun to enable the team to be under the revised budget. The main source of hope comes from an adjustment to a stormwater management system.

The project was originally scheduled to be complete in 2021. However, due to the issues that impacted the budget as well as COVID-19, the new expected completion date is spring of 2023.

When the project is finished, the area will have increased capacity and enhanced safety. “The partial DDI is a significant upgrade to the old interchange, and will allow traffic flow faster and more smoothly,” Clingan says. “The dedicated merging lanes will reduce accidents at the interchange.”

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