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Expressway Opens on Time Despite Obstacles

By Scott A. Lovell, P.E., Senior Project Manager, Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas

On May 23, 2001, after years of frustrating, several mile long traffic jams on Battlefield Boulevard, the long-awaited improvements to State Route 168 in Chesapeake, VA, were opened to traffic. Designed by Parsons Brinckerhoff in Norfolk, VA, the Chesapeake Expressway is a 10.1-mile long, four-lane divided highway that includes nine bridges, three interchanges, two at grade intersections, and a high-tech, eight-lane toll plaza. The project is the final link of a limited-access highway that connects Interstate 64 to the North Carolina state line. The highway allows vacationers headed for North Carolina's Outer Banks to reach their destinations without using Battlefield Boulevard, a two lane local road that was not intended to carry the heavy volumes of traffic that had been clogging it on summer weekends for years.

The grand opening ceremony, which was held on the morning of May 23, was the culmination of efforts by city officials, politicians, planners, engineers, contractors and dedicated city employees who persevered through numerous challenges to bring the project to fruition. These challenges included innovative funding, fast-track engineering, right-of-way acquisition and possibly the biggest challenge of all, the construction effort itself. Despite the intense coordination required among three construction contracts, delays caused by three hurricanes that occurred early in the construction effort, and bankruptcy of the contractor responsible for the largest portion of the project, construction was completed within the aggressive 24-month schedule. To meet this schedule, the project had to be broken into three sections. Although these sections were all part of the same construction effort, each contained uniquely different elements.

The northern section, built by Maryland-based Driggs Construction Corporation, is approximately six miles long and includes three interchanges containing eight bridges. Included in these bridges is a curved steel flyover with a skew angle that pushed the limits of conventional bridge construction practices. All but two of the bridges in this section incorporate mechanically stabilized earth (MSE) retaining walls into the abutments. These types of walls have not been used prevalently in the Hampton Roads region because of problems caused by the compressibility of the underlying native soils. However, using an innovative construction sequence developed by the design engineers, the abutments could be constructed at a significant savings over conventional types. The sequence involved constructing the walls with sleeves placed within the reinforced soil backfill to reserve space for piles to be driven later. By using this sequence, the MSE walls acted as a surcharge, similar to conventional abutment construction, that allowed settlement to occur prior to pile driving.

The Toll Plaza contract, completed by Chesapeake-based Mid-Eastern Builders, included construction of a 6,700 square foot administration building, the toll plaza canopy and tollbooths, and 400 feet of concrete pavement. With its tall steel framework towering above the canopy roof, the toll plaza gives somewhat of a "space-age" feel to approaching motorists. This feeling is justified by the presence of the high-tech electronic toll-collection system that allows motorists using transponders to pay their tolls without stopping. Antennas extending above each travel lane can detect the presence of a transponder within a vehicle traveling as fast as 100 mph. Computer terminals located within each tollbooth allow administrators to keep track of the thousands of transactions occurring in each of the lanes every day. Violation Enforcement System (VES) cameras located at the end of each toll island can digitally photograph the license plates of motorists attempting to pass through the lanes without paying their toll. The miles of wire needed to connect these systems to the sophisticated computers in the administration building pass through the reinforced concrete access tunnel located beneath the roadway.

The southern section of the road, built by Norfolk-based Suburban Grading and Utilities, is approximately four miles long and included construction of a new 700-foot long bridge over the Northwest River. Construction of the bridge and approach roadways required an impressive earth-moving operation. Organic material, up to 17 feet thick, had to be removed from the banks of the river and replaced with acceptable embankment material. As this material was being placed and compacted, instrumentation was installed to monitor the amount of settlement experienced by the underlying native soils. The contractor was not allowed to drive piles for the new bridge abutments until the settlement had diminished to acceptable levels. The actual amount of settlement experienced was very close to the predicted amount, and the contractor was released to drive piles approximately one month sooner than expected. Once the word was given, construction of the bridge and approach roadways was completed quickly. In fact, the new bridge and approaches were the first portions of the new roadway to be opened to traffic.

The significant differences between the characters each of the three sections of the new Chesapeake Expressway made management of the construction effort a daunting task. Using their in-house construction inspection staff and construction management team, along with design consultants, Parsons Brinckerhoff, the City of Chesapeake was able to pull off the construction of this long-awaited roadway in near record time. This was despite the many obstacles that, at times, threatened to derail the project.

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