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Oklahoma DOT Restores Bridges and Rehabs Pavement on I-44

by: Larry Bernstein
Workers for Sherwood Construction work on a barrier wall on a section of the I-44 rehabilitation in Oklahoma City.
Workers for Sherwood Construction work on a barrier wall on a section of the I-44 rehabilitation in Oklahoma City.
The population in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area has been rising and passed 1 million in 2021. Like in much of the country, the area’s infrastructure is aging. Combine these two facts and you have the basis for a project the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) is currently engaged in – I-44 bridge and pavement rehab in southwest Oklahoma City.

While new construction typically grabs the headlines, retrofits and rehab are just as valuable. In this vein, the project ODOT is working on is a 5-mile section of I-44. This section of the highway was built in the early 1970s. Along this section of the highway, 12 bridges are rated structurally deficient.

The average daily traffic count along the road just north of where the project is taking place is 135,000 vehicles – the highest traffic count in the state. It includes lots of truck traffic as well as commuter traffic. This area is also home to Oklahoma City’s airport, Will Rogers World, several Amazon warehouses, and other industrial sites.

Multiple Project Elements
The project involves two elements. The team is rehabbing 12 bridges that have various issues. These issues include replacing slabs and joints, substructure work, hydrodemolition, and removing and replacing asphalt. One bridge – which sits over the Oklahoma River – is undergoing particularly extensive rehab. The work includes replacing the beams, removing the old concrete bearings, and updating the bearings.

As for the road work component, the team is removing the existing concrete panels on I-44 and will replace them to create a smoother driving surface. “There’s extreme cracking in this area as water has gotten down in the subgrade,” says Chris Harlin, a Resident Engineer with ODOT, whose responsible for administering the contract. “We’ve been patching along this stretch where we could, but it needs more extensive rehab.”

The design calls for shaving off the top inch of the highway to make it smoother. Dowel bars are being installed in the concrete from one panel to the next to smooth out the ride. Dowel bars are designed to reduce joint deflection and stress in the approach and leave slab by increasing load transfer efficiency.

Traffic Challenges
Because of the immense amount of traffic on I-44, the team is not permitted to shut down the roadway. They were only allowed to close down one or two lanes on each side of the six-lane interstate nightly between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m.
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“This project was running 24/7 with six ODOT inspectors when it was at its peak,” Harlin says. “We did bridge work during the day and pavement rehab at night.”

Another challenge the team encountered is one that all rehab projects deal with regardless of design – you never really know what you will get until you get in there. One example of this challenge was on the Oklahoma River bridges. “We had to replace beam plates because they were rotten and worse than we thought they would be,” Harlin says. “At that point, the question becomes, ‘Now, what you want to do, and what’s the best way to handle this and stay within the constraints of the project and turn out a quality product?”

A Strong Partnership
Serving as the prime is Sherwood Construction, which is headquartered in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They have worked with ODOT on multiple projects and were selected based on their low bid. Harlin says of the contractor, “Sherwood is good to work with as they communicate well with us. We can have a good back and forth and talk out issues.” 

The construction contract for the project was $27.5 million. It was financed via an 60/40 split, with the federal government paying 60 percent and the state government paying the rest.

So far, the project is $400,000 over the original contract due to change orders. Harlin notes this is a reasonable amount for a project of this scope and size.

Because of the rapport between the contractor and ODOT, they have found ways to resolve issues on the project while staying within budget constraints. Harlin gives an example, “One portion of one of the bridges we are rehabbing is in better shape than we anticipated, so we moved the money around to apply it to those parts of the bridge where there is a greater need.”

Construction on the project began in September 2020 and was scheduled to be complete in the fall of 2021. However, the completion date was pushed back to this spring. Originally the shoulders were going to be asphalt, but they didn’t need as much work as originally anticipated. “We reallocated the money into the bridge and are putting down concrete, which lasts longer,” Harlin says. This impacted the time since laying concrete comes with temperature constraints.

Improving bridges and roadways has been a focus of ODOT. In the early 2000s, the state was ranked 49th in the country in terms of bridge conditions. In 2004, the state legislature approved additional funding to address bridges, and between then and 2020, the number of bridges in poor condition went from 1,168 to 67 in 2020. In addition, during that same period, ODOT has rehabbed 560 miles of the 673 miles of interstate pavement it maintains.

This project is a continuation of both of those initiatives. Drivers will experience a smooth ride along this stretch of I-44, and Oklahoma City will have the high-quality infrastructure to support its growth.

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