By Kirk Stelsel
Have you ever gone on a once-in-a-lifetime road trip with friends? Do you have a favorite childhood memory of a family vacation that started with everyone piling in the car?
It’s easy to get nostalgic thinking about memories that include friends or family, a vehicle and the open road. Some highways, like Route 66 and the Pacific Coast Highway, are so iconic that they have become an important part of American culture.
But there’s another side to highways … the stressful side. A lot has changed since the Lincoln Highway became the first transcontinental highway more than a century ago. Populations have grown and overall traffic has increased tremendously. Some once-efficient roadways – the same open roads memories are made of – have become burdened with traffic far exceeding the confines of their original design parameters.
However, one stretch of highway in Indiana is receiving new life. The Indiana Department of Transportation has infused U.S. 31, which connects traffic from Alabama to Michigan, with a $350 million upgrade to bring it to freeway standards north of Indianapolis. It’s no surprise that the backbone of the project is precast concrete.
A roadway revived
The primary goals of the U.S. 31 project, which was first covered in the Winter 2013 issue of Precast Solutions, are to maintain traffic flow and improve safety. The highway shoots north out of Indianapolis through Hamilton County. There, it cuts through suburban hubs that were once small communities surrounded by farmland. The city of Carmel, for example, had a population of 6,691 in 1970, which has now swelled to an estimated 85,927 (1). The overall project stretches all the way to South Bend in northern Indiana.
In Hamilton County, precast concrete manufacturers delivered countless manholes, catch basins, three- and four-sided structures, underground utility structures and pipe sections. This underground infrastructure creates the skeleton for the roadway. Above grade, work continues but traffic signals are now gone, replaced by modern interchanges. Automobiles sweep safely and seamlessly on and off the highway onto ramps designed to mimic Indiana’s famous limestone outcroppings. The look comes from a formliner finish on precast mechanically stabilized earth panels manufactured by Sanders Pre-Cast Concrete Systems in Whitestown, Ind.
Bridges carrying traffic east and west over the highway have been largely constructed using precast/prestressed beams. Stress-Con Industries of Shelby Township, Mich., supplied 134 beams for 10 bridges, with the largest beam weighing 130,000 pounds. The beams achieved 7,000 psi compressive strength in 28 days and provided the DOT with faster installation, cost savings and reduced lifetime maintenance. These bridges, along with the ramps, eliminate long lines that in the past would accumulate during rush hour for east-west traffic, separating those vehicles completely from the heavy north-south traffic. When all sections of the project are completed, the estimated travel time between Indianapolis and South Bend will decrease by 30 minutes.
According to Jason Rowley, project manager at CHA and design manager of the U.S. 31 project for the past six years, workers completed a tremendous amount in 2014. Seven interchanges are now open, three are 50% complete and the remaining two are at 15%. The interchanges have kick-started the heart of a roadway that once beat proudly but over time has slowed to a near halt during high-traffic hours.
“Hundreds of designers and contractors have contributed to this very successful project,” Rowley said. “It’s impossible to mention everyone and every company. This was an amazing team effort.”
Complementing the major work on the interchanges, smaller projects such as roundabouts and road extensions are in progress or have been completed to the east and west of the highway. At one site, an extension of Illinois Street – which parallels U.S. 31 to the west – the work included installation of a sound wall. The Verti-Crete wall, manufactured by Norwalk Concrete Industries in Norwalk, Ohio, features a stone finish. It provides an aesthetically pleasing way to reduce road noise for an existing neighborhood. Overall, workers installed 2,300 linear feet of sound wall posts, panels and caps in just eight days. To the east of the highway, construction crews are widening Main Street, which leads to Carmel’s Arts & Design District. The work includes installing new underground infrastructure such as precast pipe, inlets, catch basins and manholes.
The combination of durability, ease of installation and beauty of precast concrete products met the wide range of needs the engineers and planners faced. Rowley has seen a tremendous amount of precast concrete products delivered and installed on the roadway over the years.
“Without precast products, this project would have been much more expensive and it could not have been built as quickly,” he said. “Having the precast industry experts designing their products also increases quality and adds efficiencies into the construction process. Construction time savings also reduce the impacts to businesses, the traveling public and the environment, resulting in improved air and water quality.”
Kirk Stelsel is NPCA’s director of communication and marketing.
(1) New population estimate according to the latest Census data available at http://census.gov.