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Why Do Road Projects Take So Long?

Among the most frequently asked questions submitted by simmering drivers is, "Why can't they finish this project faster?" These are among the many variations: Why aren't there more people working? Why can't they close the road and just get it over with? Why can't they work day and night, seven days a week?

And is there a driver among us who -- either stuck in congestion on a hot day or rattling over a rough road -- hasn't wanted to take charge of a construction project?

This summer, the Maryland State Highway Administration began a year-long resurfacing project on the western side of the Beltway, and that provoked this question and comment during my weekly online discussion Monday.

Tysons Corner, Va.: I was reading about the Maryland SHA's project to resurface the Beltway between I-270 and the American Legion Bridge. I definitely agree that the stretch of road could use a new coat of asphalt, but the story stated that this project was going to take a year to complete. Is that correct?

If it is, since when does it take one full year to mill and repave a 4-mile stretch of road, which will include nightly lane closures and other delays? Shouldn't this work take about one month?

David Buck, a spokesman for the SHA, had some answers. He noted that this project includes 40 lane miles of paving, replacing drainage inlets and jersey barrier and resurfacing eight ramps.

Big job: He explained the "40 lane miles" this way: There are four lanes and one full shoulder on each side of I-495. The project will resurface four miles of the Interstate in both directions. That is 20 lane miles of milling and resurfacing on both sides of I-495 for a total of approximately 40 lane miles.

All of it will be done without closing a vital link for commuters and long-distance travelers. That means the crews must safely work around 225,000 vehicles a day. The work hours are limited to avoid lane closures during peak travel times.

Safety: "Beltway resurfacing and improvements are very dangerous and they tend to take a fair amount of time," Buck said. "We all want our workers to get home safely every night and to keep the delays to the traveling public to an absolute minimum."

Other factors: Thunderstorms, such as those we may see later today, can force a temporary halt to work. Over the winter, the asphalt plants shut down during the months when it's too cold to pave.

For those reasons, Buck said, this job is likely to last till late next spring or early summer.

By the way, he noted, this project is possible now because of the federal stimulus money. The western part of the Beltway probably would not have been resurfaced for two or three more years without the federal payment.

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By Robert Thomson  |  August 5, 2009; 9:08 AM ET
Categories:  highways  | Tags: Beltway, Dr. Gridlock, FAQ, Maryland State Highway Administration, paving  
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The explainantion still doesn't make sense why this job will take nearly a year to complete. In two nights, they have already completed the milling of the left shoulders of the beltway. Even with a day or two of weather delays, the complete milling of both loops of the beltway should be done sometime by next weekend.

I was not aware of the jersey wall repairs that were going to occur, but there's no reason that project should hold up the repaving of the highway, which could start shortly after Labor Day. By my count, there are 16 storm drains along that stretch of the beltway, which wouldn't take more than a week or 2 to repair/replace.

The 10+ mile repaving project along I-270 only took a little longer than a month with even more "lane miles" than this beltway project. Now the jersey wall repairs are still going on at the 270 project (looks to be another month or 2 of work to go on those), but the actual repaving project was done in about a month.

So, exactly WHY is it going to take a YEAR to repave 4 miles of the beltway? The new surface should be rolled out no later than the end of September, which would make one wonder why SHE is concerned about ashpalt plant shutdown over the winter. The only thing I can think of is that the morons at SHA are going to mill, and leave the road milled through the winter until they complete the jersey wall repairs, which is just ridiculous. They can just leave the shoulders milled and apply the final coat of asphalt to the shoulders once the jersey wall repairs are complete.

Someone should find out who's mananging this project, and if they really plan on taking a full year to resurface 4 miles of highway, because if it does actually take that long to get new asphalt on the travel lanes of the beltway, it will be a travesty!

Posted by: Russtinator | August 5, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse

I'm usually one to agree with state DOT's, being an engineer and all, but the timeline on this project still seems a bit fishy. Even if they had to double up on lane closures (close 2 lanes in order to re-pave one, to leave a safety buffer), even if they had to replace every storm drain and the entire Jersey barrier, it should not take an entire year to do this project.

I don't think its a good idea to have drivers riding over milled surface for extended periods of time. Its dangerous, its harder for tires to grip, easier for water and ice to accumulate (impossible to plow), and much harder to see temporary pavement markings. And its just plain old annoying to drive over...I know I typically drop my speed when driving over milled surfaces to reduce some of the annoyance.

Posted by: thetan | August 5, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

As the SHA person quoted in Dr. Gridlock's post, I would like to provide an update -

Weather permitting, the milling, paving and drainage parts of the I-495 resurfacing and safety project between I-270 and the American Legion Bridge are expected to be complete by the end of October, 2009.

With that said, because we do need 50+ degrees and rising in order to put down the final surface of asphalt, and if we get a very rainy early fall, this may be completed next spring. Additionally, the guardrail repair and replacement on the ramps will occur either later this fall or early next spring, depending on where we stand in mid to late October.

We also are aware of the need to have I-495 in excellent condition prior to the winter. For motorists and winter plowing safety, it is not acceptable to have milled pavement through the winter.

For that reason, we will only mill a certain amount of lanes before we begin resurfacing; we do not want to get too far ahead of ourselves and have any issues over the winter.

Thanks for the comments. Our press release should have made this point more emphatically.

David Buck

Posted by: MDSHA | August 5, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

I agree that the explanation given by Mr. Buck seems very nearly to be utterly nonsensical. This project should take a month, not a year, even given the restrictions placed on the activities by the need to keep the road open.

Particularly whimsical is the notion that the Jersey barrier repairs add time to the project. There is no reason other than some odd notion that fewer workers is somehow better why this could not proceed simultaneously with the paving work.

Much bigger projects than this have been completed MUCH faster than this.

Posted by: FergusonFoont | August 5, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

I guess you can't please every armchair engineer... Thanks for the responses, Mr. Buck, they make sense to me. Now if only I could understand the seemingly-nonsensical maintenance schedule of the Metrorail, but that's a completely different story...

Posted by: Comunista | August 5, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

I appreciate Mr. Buck's response. If his statement was broadcast to the media when this project was initially announced, there would not have been nearly as much confusion.

When an agency starts talking about the limitations of rolling asphalt during the winter and there's milling going on right now, the natural reaction is going to be outrage, because people do not want to drive on milled pavement in the winter. The initial press release and discussion during Dr. Gridlock's chat on Monday definitely raised some eyebrows about the efficiency of this project. I definitely understand the need to expect the worst when planning a project, and to not get drivers' hopes up with an unattainable deadline. However, by having a project completion date so far away from the realistic time to complete a relatively simple project was rather jolting.

Hopefully SHA will be able to complete the project safely, efficiently, and will bring a smoother ride to a pretty rough stretch of the Beltway.

Posted by: Russtinator | August 5, 2009 1:30 PM | Report abuse

Kudos to David Buck for joining in the comments section. Always nice to see that.

Posted by: Booyah5000 | August 5, 2009 1:58 PM | Report abuse

Road construction laborer is a really easy job as long as you're one of the six people standing around doing nothing and not one of the two actually working.

Posted by: Jack45 | August 5, 2009 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Thank you Mr. Buck, that makes a little more sense, and I'm glad to hear that we will not have to drive on milled pavement all winter!

Posted by: thetan | August 5, 2009 3:51 PM | Report abuse

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