The Kansas Department of Transportation turns to more than 200,000 square feet of precast concrete MSE wall panels to complete its first-ever design-build project.
By Mason Nichols
“Traffic” – it literally and figuratively carries a lot of baggage. It’s a term that tends to conjure up bad memories, denote extended periods of waiting and remind most of the world’s population just how difficult driving through a crowded corridor can be.
In the world of construction, traffic also represents an opportunity for improvement. In the case of the Johnson County Gateway project in Kansas, reducing traffic issues for the more than 230,000 vehicles that pass through the Interstate 435, I-35 and Kansas 10 interchange just outside of Kansas City each day was the goal. And thanks to more than 200,000 square feet of precast concrete MSE walls – along with close collaboration between the project’s joint-venture team, engineer and precaster – traffic is no longer a major issue for one of the most significant transportation hubs in Kansas.
Setting the stage
With plans calling for a project of sizable scale, the Kansas Department of Transportation turned to Gateway Interchange Constructors, a joint venture of Kansas City-based Clarkson Construction and Kiewit Infrastructure. According to Bryan Wilkerson, Clarkson’s senior project manager, the $300-million project was the first design-build job for KDOT and the largest Clarkson has ever completed with the DOT.
“We had several design companies to integrate into the project along with the owner, subcontractors and precaster,” he said. “To get everyone working together was the main challenge. But once we understood everyone’s roles and responsibilities and started trusting one another, we could work through everything without issue.”
Central to the success of the project was the ability of PRETECH Corporation, the project’s precast manufacturer, to efficiently produce 5,000 MSE wall panels needed to construct 22 new and five rehabilitated bridges across the interchange. Bill Bundschuh, owner and president of PRETECH, said that type of large-scale production required ingenuity.
Making it happen
Prior to the Gateway project, PRETECH considered a job with approximately 20,000 square feet of MSE panels a “large” project. This job was 10 times that size. As Bundschuh explained, considerable changes were needed at PRETECH’s plant to make it happen.
“We have quite a bit of land here, but there just wasn’t enough for this project,” he said. “We had to rent a few acres from the paving contractor across the street.”
In addition to all the extra space needed for storing inventory, Bundschuh had to facilitate changes to accommodate the heightened production, which on a typical day included anywhere from 12 to 24 panels.
“We reorganized our plant so that we could fit more forms in it, and also constructed a lean-to underneath one of our 50-ton cranes so that we could pour some panels outside,” he said.
PRETECH also maintained efficiency by developing and implementing a special tracking system. This allowed the team to quickly identify not only what shipment each panel was designated to go out on, but also where each panel would be installed upon arrival at the job site.
A Sine of teamwork
PRETECH’s established relationship with Inventure Civil, engineer for the Sine Wall system used on the project, was imperative in navigating the design-build work. The two companies had partnered together on smaller jobs in the past and relied on prior efficiencies and their previous experiences to scale to the larger size. Specifically, PRETECH made heavy use of Inventure Civil’s technology platform to track progress and monitor design changes on the fly.
“When we’d get on the system, we could easily tell which panels we had made and which we had delivered,” Bundschuh said. “This allowed all parties to continuously be in the know. We could also make changes based on what we had manufactured or shipped on any given day.”
Ed Austin, vice president of sales for Sine Wall, worked closely with Bundschuh on the project. In addition to the close collaboration between PRETECH and Inventure Civil, he stressed the involvement of Gateway Interchange Constructors as key to ensuring the project’s success.
About one-third of the way through the work, officials with Gateway identified a need to increase the rate of production. To quickly address the issue, the groups came together and discussed exactly what they needed to ramp up.
“Gateway told us what they needed, and PRETECH found a way to get it done,” Austin said. “That team environment – the three-legged stool – only worked so well because everyone worked together.”
Built to last
According to Austin, the MSE wall panels specified for the project’s bridges are designed to last 75 years, allowing drivers to work their way through the interchange with decreased traffic and increased safety for decades to come.
“Precast concrete MSE retaining walls are the most cost-effective solution among all retaining wall systems,” Austin said. “It’s a system that saves on cost, and precast offers both fantastic durability and appearance.”
Wilkerson echoed Austin’s assessment, pointing to safety as one of the key advantages of precast as the specified material for the project.
“What precast allowed us to do was save time on the schedule and reduce costs by eliminating a lot of field labor,” he said. “Using precast was also a safer way to construct the job because it minimized the amount of time that we were out building bridge substructures in the middle of traffic.”
Since the job was completed in 2016, it addressed more than 90% of the existing traffic problems in the area. And while additional work is planned for the corridor for the future, all parties involved enjoyed the benefits that only precast concrete can bring to a project as massive in importance as it was in scale.
Mason Nichols is a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based writer and editor who has covered the precast concrete industry since 2013.