This article originally appeared in the 2023 Q3 edition of Precast Today.
By Mason Nichols
What does a $3.9 billion roadway project look like?
Significant manpower, high levels of planning and a dedicated team all are baked into the recipe.
But for the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel (HRBT) Expansion, which represents the largest highway construction project in Virginia’s history, there’s another critical component involved in seemingly every facet of the effort.
“Precast concrete is being used on everything we’re touching,” said Ryan Banas, associate vice president for HNTB Corporation and project director for the Virginia Department of Transportation.
“You can’t go 100 yards without running into some type of precast on our project.”
A TRANSFORMATIVE ENDEAVOR
The HRBT Expansion project will widen nearly 10 miles of Interstate 64 between Hampton and Norfolk on Virginia’s eastern coast. Work includes the construction of two new twin-lane tunnels along with the replacement or widening of 28 bridges in an area that consistently experiences heavy roadway congestion.
VDOT owns the project with Hampton Roads Connector Partners, a joint venture consisting of several large-scale firms, serving as the design-build team
According to Banas, the HRBT has long been one of the region’s biggest chokepoints. Traffic exceeds 100,000 vehicles per day during peak summer months. This high level of congestion results from a combination of factors.
The world’s largest naval station, Naval Station Norfolk, is immediately adjacent to the project. In addition to supporting 75 ships and more than 130 aircraft, Naval Station Norfolk houses the largest concentration of U.S. Navy forces, bringing ample traffic into the area.
Additionally, summer brings heightened tourism to Hampton Roads as travelers visit beaches dotting the coastline.
Ed Plucinski, south Mid-Atlantic sales manager for Concrete Pipe & Precast, a precast supplier on the project, has lived in the area for more than 30 years.
“People that live on the peninsula don’t go to the south side, and the people that live on the south side don’t go to the peninsula – unless you have to,” he said. “The roadway is basically a parking lot in its current state.”
Construction is underway on the project, which will generate wide-ranging benefits in Hampton Roads upon its completion.
According to Banas, in addition to increasing capacity and reducing congestion, the HRBT expansion will enhance travel time reliability, support emergency evacuation readiness and boost regional tourism.
The HRBT Expansion also is anticipated to generate $4.6 billion in economic benefit and create 28,000 jobs over the life of the work.
“This project is going to be absolutely transformative,” he said. “With the additional four lanes total, two in each direction, we are doubling our capacity. That’s a massive improvement to daily lives.”
A major focal point of the project involves the construction of twin two-lane tunnels adjacent to the existing Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. To build the tunnels, the project team has deployed a massive, 46-foot-tall tunnel boring machine provided from Germany. The machine, which is longer than a football field, uses its rotating face to bore through the ground, then installs the precast concrete segments that make up the tunnel’s structure.
To help preserve the integrity of the original tunnels, take advantage of the best possible ground structure and keep the project team out of the navigable channel, the new tunnels will be constructed 50 feet deeper than the existing tunnels on the site.
According to Banas, the tunnel segments, which are being manufactured by Alexandria, Va.-based supplier Technopref Industries, measure 15 feet wide by 6 feet, 8 inches long. Each segment is 18 inches thick and weighs 12 tons.
The HRBT Expansion project represents VDOT’s first-ever use of a bored tunnel with precast concrete segments. And while the twin tunnels cover only 3 miles of the project’s 10-mile span, they require a massive amount of precast.
Louis Charette, general manager for Technopref, noted that nine precast segments make up one ring and that 2,400 rings will be required to complete the work. In total, Technopref will manufacture 21,600 segments containing about 120,000 cubic yards of concrete.
“It’s a huge tunnel,” Charette said. “Worldwide, it’s among the largest in terms of diameter. Because of the length and size, it’s the single largest precast tunnel manufacturing job in the history of the U.S.”
To meet VDOT’s stringent standards, which specified a 100-year service life for the tunnels and other components on the project, Technopref is producing the precast segments using high-performance concrete with a low water-cement ratio, low permeability and high-range water reducer.
The company also is manufacturing its products within extremely strict tolerances to ensure watertightness across both tunnels.
Banas has been impressed with Technopref’s quality of work and the technology being leveraged.
“The work that they’ve done on the testing, the new methodology and the steel fiber reinforcement they are using are all cutting-edge for the U.S.,” he said.
MUCH MORE THAN A TUNNEL
While the tunnels have taken the spotlight on project work to date, a wide variety of additional precast products are key to making the HRBT Expansion possible.
“This is an immense amount of roadway widening taking place through a highly urban area, which presents inherent challenges,” Banas said. “Precast helps us out significantly with that.”
Coastal Precast Systems of Chesapeake, Va., is a major supplier on the job, providing approximately 1,000 54-inch outside diameter cylinder piles and 200 24-inch outside diameter square piles for the marine portion of the project.
The company also is manufacturing more than 1,000 precast beams for the extensive bridge work taking place.
According to Paul Ogorchock, CPS president and CEO, the beams and piles are being made with carbon fiber strand, which extends the already considerable service life of each product.
Beyond the large number of precast being supplied, CPS also is helping Technopref on its portion of the project work. Technopref is using CPS property to manufacture and stage the project’s tunnel segments. When the work is completed, around 120 barge-loads of the precast segments will ship to the tunnel site.
Elsewhere, Smith-Midland of Midland, Va., is producing approximately 170,000 square feet of absorptive sound wall.
The wall, which uses Smith-Midland’s SoftSound system, is being installed along about 1.5 miles of the project, primarily to reduce noise pollution in areas with higher concentrations of homes and businesses. The panels feature a Virginia dry stack stone finish with starfish and warship imprints.
The Smith-Midland team used a special formliner to make the wall’s unique design possible.
Smith-Midland also is providing 55,000 linear feet of J-J Hooks Barriers, the company’s specialized precast concrete safety barrier solution, to help manage traffic flow throughout construction on the project.
Additionally, the company is manufacturing 114,000 square feet of precast MSE retaining wall that features a stone finish along with ChromX, a corrosion-resistant rebar.
Matthew Smith, vice president of sales and marketing at Smith-Midland, is proud of the contributions his team is providing to the HRBT Expansion.
“Working on this project means a lot, especially when I think about all the people who get stuck in traffic every day commuting back and forth to work in the Hampton Roads area,” he said. “Being part of the effort to reduce congestion at the tunnel is truly gratifying.”
Concrete Pipe & Precast will supply more than 33,000 linear feet of reinforced concrete pipe ranging anywhere from 12-inch inside diameter to 60-inch inside diameter. CP&P also is producing roughly 4,000 linear feet of precast trench drain – more than 600 percast structures in all.
The company is leveraging four of its locations throughout the region to manufacture and deliver all the products to the project site.
And, like Smith-Midland, CP&P is manufacturing some of its products using special methods. The RCP being installed on the project contains an epoxy coating on the interior of the pipe. The intent is to ensure longevity due to the pipe’s location within a tidal area.
“Knowing that our products are under and adjacent to the major corridors of Hampton Roads is incredibly important,” Plucinski said. “It brings our employees a sense of pride being involved in a project of this scope – the generational importance of the work means a lot to them.”
Thanks in large part to the use of a wide assortment of precast concrete products, the HRBT Expansion project is slated to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of travelers in the region when work is completed. From MSE walls to RCP, sound walls, piles, beams, girders and tunnel segments, precast is everywhere within the work taking place, along with impressive technology that makes the project a historic one for both Virginia and the U.S.
“VDOT’s mission is to ‘Keep Virginia Moving,’” Banas said. “Every single one of us uses this facility, so we are acutely aware of the challenges it currently faces. To know that we are going to make the lives of our neighbors and others throughout the commonwealth better is an amazing feeling.
“It puts a smile on my face to know that we have the opportunity to do this.”
Mason Nichols is a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based writer and editor who has covered the precast concrete industry since 2013.