Marquette Interchange: Gold Medal Project

Story and photos by Mike Larson, editor | September 28, 2010

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Except for a few minor finishing touches, the Marquette Interchange in the heart of Milwaukee has been finished – three months ahead of schedule, millions under budget and with a nearly perfect safety record.

Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle and State Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi cut the ribbon to officially open the interchange on Tuesday, August 19, putting it into service more than three months early.

Gold Medal Performance

If road building were an Olympic event, constructing the Marquette would be a gold medal performance. Like a top-notch gymnastics or diving routine, it held a high degree of difficulty and was close to perfect in execution.

The four-year-long project has, in fact, recently won a regional award for on-time completion from the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and has been studied by transportation departments from other states as a model to emulate.

Wisconsin's largest and most complex transportation project in history, the Marquette rebuilt a 40-year-old network of highways in a tight urban footprint while maintaining at least two lanes of traffic flow in each direction during peak travel times.

Impressive Quantities Show Size Of Project

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) says that the project has included demolishing 88 bridge units from the old interchange to make room for the new, and that 200,000 tons of concrete were processed and recycled. WisDOT says that in addition, 13,000 tons of structural and reinforcing steel from the old interchange were also recycled.

The new interchange encompasses 21 miles of roadway, including nearly six miles of bridges. Those bridges have a total deck area of 33 acres, incorporate 12,000 tons of reinforcing bar, and required 116,000 cubic yards of concrete – enough to pour a concrete block that would cover a football field and stand 66 feet high.

There are 28 ramps entering and exiting downtown Milwaukee, and the project used 1,406 concrete or steel girders weighing a total of 59,800 tons. Laid end to end, they would stretch 30 miles.

A Winner By Any Yardstick

No matter how you choose to measure the Marquette Interchange project, it comes up a winner. Those involved credit outstanding communication and cooperation for the success.

Months Ahead Of Schedule

Started in 2004, the project was built in five phases: Clybourn Street, from April to December, 2004; the North Leg, from October 2004 to December 2006; the West Leg, from February 2005 to December 2006; the South Leg, from September 2005 to December 2007; and the recently completed Core Interchange, from November 2005 to August 2008.

Clybourn St. and the North Leg were done by Walsh Construction Co., Chicago, IL.

The West Leg, South Leg, and Core were all built by Marquette Constructors, Inc., a joint venture of Edward Kraemer & Sons, Inc., Plain, WI; Lunda Construction Co., Inc., Black River Falls, WI; and Zenith Tech, Inc., Waukesha, WI.

When the Core was completed in mid-August of this year, the whole project came in three months ahead of schedule.

Millions Under Budget

The very first estimate for the project was nearly $1.4 billion, which was reduced through redesigning to $810 million. That was the generally accepted cost, until the good news a few months ago that officials expected the project to come in millions under budget.

Although the actual savings have not yet been calculated, preliminary estimates are $10 million to $15 million.

In his dedication speech, Governor Doyle credited good management, good communication, good contractors, and good suppliers as all contributing to the substantial savings.

Near-Perfect Safety Record

The entire Marquette Interchange reconstruction was completed without a single fatality or major injury for either motorists or workers.

That is phenomenal, considering that the work involved demolition and construction conducted in tight quarters using an armada of cranes, bulldozers, backhoes, and other heavy equipment operating year round in all sorts of weather and at heights to 120 feet.

More than 4,000 workers put in a total of 2.25 million work-hours on the project, without even one major injury.

That admirable safety record came in large part because of the strong emphasis on safety that WisDOT maintained for everyone working on or visiting the site.

Right from the start, WisDOT decided to take control of on-site safety, setting up an owner-controlled insurance program (OCIP).

According to Kevin Gehrmann, WisDOT OCIP manager for the project, this was the first OCIP on any WisDOT project in Wisconsin.

Under the OCIP, WisDOT took out the insurance for the project, and established one set of safety rules for all contractors working on the job. The stringent safety focus required a two- to three-hour safety orientation for anyone entering the worksite.

In addition, contractors with more than 30 workers on the site were required to have a dedicated safety officer on the job, and strong safety rules were enforced.

That top-down focus on safety has yielded the phenomenal results mentioned above.

In addition to being a safe project, the new interchange will add safety for drivers. All the on- and off-ramps will now come from the right side, rather that some coming from the left. Drivers will now know that all vehicles entering the flow of traffic will come from their right.

Drivers will also know that all vehicles will leave the flow of traffic by exiting to the right.

Public Convenience And Communication

Although the highways of the Marquette Interchange carry about 300,000 cars and trucks on a typical day, the average commute throughout the construction was no more than five minutes longer than it was before the construction.

That was in part because the construction plan made sure at least two lanes of traffic were open during all peak driving times. Major lane closures and large-scale tasks that would disrupt traffic were done at night or on weekends.

Community relations were also kept strong by making sure access to downtown events and businesses was available throughout the project and that people were kept informed of what would be happening – ahead of time – through public meetings, TV, radio, newspapers, the Internet, and even personal e-mail.

Minority Contractor Involvement

Businesses owned by women and minorities did about $122 million in work on the project, or nearly one-fifth of the total.

Seventy-four disadvantaged consultants and contractors participated, with 62 being from southeastern Wisconsin, and 41 of those coming from Milwaukee County. Nearly 1,000 minority workers contributed 472,000 work-hours to the project.

Ready To Serve For Decades

The Marquette Interchange is now ready to serve the needs of commercial and private vehicles traveling through Milwaukee for the next 75 years – a gold medal project that will continue to have a lasting impact on Wisconsin and on other states that learn lessons from its success.