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Oklahoma DOT Reconstructs US 65/75 Commerce Connection to Improve Safety

by: Larry Bernstein
An aerial shot of work taking place on U.S. 69/75 from Calera to Durant, Oklahoma, in July 2020.
An aerial shot of work taking place on U.S. 69/75 from Calera to Durant, Oklahoma, in July 2020.
The Federal Government’s role in infrastructure can be traced back to the Constitution. According to Article 1, Section 8 of the constitution, Congress is empowered to “establish post offices and post roads.” Although state and even local governments play a major role in the funding of infrastructure these days, the federal government is a major player in terms of funding. It is due to a grant from the federal government that the U.S. 69/75 Commerce Connection in Bryan County, Oklahoma, is able to take place.

Bryan County is in southeast Oklahoma and is just north of the Texas border. U.S. 69/75 sees a significant amount of freight traffic. The average daily traffic count in the area where the project is taking place is approximately 30,000 vehicles per day. Of the traffic, 6,600 are vehicles carrying freight. The combination of local and freight traffic has made for dangerous conditions.

“It’s a hot spot and there have been many severe traffic collision in the area,” said Anthony Echelle, a Division II Engineer with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT). Echelle, who is responsible for oversight of the project from conception through to completion, adds “a goal of this project is to save lives.”

One reason the area is dangerous is that there are three signal lights. Traffic coming from Texas is not expecting to see signal lights. Surprises and driving are not a good mix.

A Safer Way to Cross
As part of the project, 4 miles of U.S. 69/75 will be modernized and resurfaced. The three signalized intersections noted above will be replaced with grade separations, which Echelle sees as the key to the project.

Another element of the project is to install frontage roads along the entire 4-mile stretch. Currently, there are frontage roads, but they do not go the entire length of the stretch.

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The frontage roads will provide access to adjacent landowners. “They’ll give local traffic a safe way to cross from one side to the other of the highway and allow through traffic to pass through this location without having to interact with lights,” said Echelle.

Another element of the project is the building of a rail crossing bridge. When traffic is backed up on U.S. 69/75, local commuters are impacted. Locals will be able to get from one side of town to the other by traveling over the highway.

Both elements will improve accessibility on and off the highway, protect key interchanges, alleviate traffic congestion, and improve safety.

Echelle notes that if traffic volumes require widening the road in the future, this project will accommodate that growth.

Access Challenges
As ODOT is completely rebuilding this stretch of highway, they are committed to maintaining traffic and access.

“This project has lots of phasing and traffic shifting,” said Echelle. He compared it to having your entire family over for holiday dinner at the same time you’re redoing your kitchen floor.

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Being able to juggle traffic has meant breaking the project into, “many individual pieces with very targeted windows of construction,” said Echelle. He credits the design team and gives them props for coming up with a plan that minimizes disruptions and lane closures during construction.

Because it’s a tight area, construction workers are close to traffic. ODOT is incorporating many concrete barriers to protect both workers and drivers. The barriers are being shifted from time to time to allow work to occur at various places.

“Construction keeps moving,” said Echelle, “and the traffic shifts from to one side while we work on the other. Then traffic shifts to the newly constructed road while we work on the other side.” This will play out many times during construction.

The contractor is also doing a significant amount of nightwork. The contract is structured so that if a lane closure is needed, it can occur at night without penalties to the contractor. There are financial disincentives if the contractor closes a lane during the day.

Another challenge is the number of stakeholders. There are two different municipalities and a tribal nation. Durant, which is part of Bryan County, is the capital city and headquarters of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

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The tribe has a major resort expansion underway and there’s a road that both crews often use. “We’re all pushing in the same direction,” said Echelle. “Our construction and the tribal staff have done and awesome job of staying in constant contact.”

Project Financing
The contract for the project is $152 million. The federal government paid $60 million and the state government paid $30 million. The remainder of the financing ($62 million) came from a FASTLANE grant. If ODOT had not received the grant, “the project would not have happened or at least not at this time,” said Echelle.

It was a very competitive grant process and Oklahoma’s application was one of only 18 projects selected out of more than 200 submissions nationwide. It was the third largest sum awarded.

The grant, which was project specific, required ODOT to submit a significant amount of data. “We had a team of people to put the application together,” said Echelle. “Because of the grant of this magnitude, the government wanted lots of facts, figures, and data.” The grant process took about six months from beginning to notification of the award.

The project is currently on budget. “Being on budget starts with a good quality design, and the design team knocked it out of the park,” said Echelle. “We also have a competent experienced contractor with whom we’ve worked with many times in the past.” He also noted the internal staff takes great pride in and ownership of the project.

Construction officially began in October 2019 and is projected to finish in 2023. So far, the project is on schedule. Echelle warned there are many variables related to the impact of the pandemic, including being able to get materials.

When the U.S. 69/75Commerce Connection is complete, travel in the area will be safer. Locals will be able to navigate through town easier and those who want to exit the highway and do business with the communities will have easy access. The project is an example of federal funds used wisely.

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