Marquette Interchange: Model Project Moving On Schedule

Story by Mike Larson, Editor | September 28, 2010

The $810-million Marquette Interchange in Milwaukee is the largest highway project ever undertaken in Wisconsin.

It consists of five sections: the Clybourn Street project, the north leg, the south leg, the west leg, and the core.

The most complex section of the project is the core. Located in downtown Milwaukee, it is the section that has the highest concentration of ramps and overpasses packed into the tightest amount of space.

This section of the project, which represents about $340 million of the project's $810-million overall cost, is moving smoothly along toward an on-time and on-budget finish in November of this year.

Success By Any Measure

Knock on wood, but this project has gone so well throughout its entire lifespan that representatives from other states' transportation departments are studying it in hopes of emulating its success.

By whatever measure you choose, the Marquette project is so far an unmistakable winner.

It is on schedule.

It is within budget.

It has proven minimally disruptive to traffic, far less so than the public first feared — in fact, Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) sources note that the average commute is no more than five minutes longer than before the work started.

The public's input has been heeded, and it has been alerted in advance to closures.

And the safety record is good, with no significant injuries on the project in four years of work.

Total Teamwork Is Key

Ryan Luck, P.E., is WisDOT's project manager for construction of the core section of the project.

A Milwaukee native, graduate of the University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee, and a 17-year veteran of WisDOT projects, he is clearly enthusiastic about being involved in this key project that will improve traffic in his hometown.

"This has been a very great project all the way around," he says. "The project designers, CH2M Hill and HNTB, came up with a good design and a very good construction plan. The contractors tweaked it, based on their experience. And everyone from the contractors, to the suppliers, to the municipal departments like utilities, street crews, police, and sheriff's departments cooperated to make things happen on time. We've also had great support and hands-on leadership from the secretary of transportation."

The core project's general contractor is Marquette Constructors, a joint venture of Edward Kraemer & Sons, Inc., Plain, Wis.; Lunda Construction Co., Black River Falls, Wis.; and Zenith Tech, Inc., Waukesha, Wis.

Says Luck, "I give total credit to the Marquette Constructors for working together so smoothly and well. It really does feel as though you are dealing with one company. Their cooperation is really one key that makes this complex project go so well."

Dan Dassow, a Marquette Constructors project manager, gives one example. "On these lifts today, for example," he says, "we have cranes owned by one of the contractors being run by operators from a second contractor, while ironworkers from the third partner are spotting and bolting. It's one seamless team."

Suppliers And Municipal Workers Part Of Success

The project is using a mix of pre-cast/pre-stressed concrete girders, steel double-box girders, and traditional steel I-beam girders in the core's ramps and overpasses.

All of the steel girders are fabricated in Eau Claire by PDM, then trucked 250 miles to the site. PDM has been on time and in sequence welding the girders. In some cases, the girders are staged for later erection, but at other times, they are delivered and erected right off the trucks.

Getting the massive steel components, which can measure up to 150 feet long and weigh up to 75 tons, to the job site takes a police escort and is generally done during lower-traffic times to minimize disruption.

Says Luck, "We've had times where police jurisdictions overlap, so the local police will seal off intersections while the sheriff's department escorts the trucks through them on what is actually a county road running through the city. That's another aspect of the teamwork."

"If you didn't get the girders when you need them, your crew would sit idle and the schedule would suffer," he says.

Snow-removal crews have even helped keep the project on schedule. Typically, says Luck, when a section of freeway has been shut down to permit work, the county road crews will lay down briny salt solution in the work area before an expected snow fall to help keep the surface clear for the cranes, lifts and work crew. Then when the work is done, the contractor and county road crew work together to plow and salt to make the road ready for the driving public.

Good Planning And Experience Helps, Too

Another key to the project's smooth flow is the good construction plan provided by the original designers, complemented by savvy on-the-fly adjustments made as project conditions change.

Marquette Constructors' Dassow explains, "Working in the core's tight area, one of the challenges is making sure you leave access so you can put equipment where you need it. Here, up to five levels of ramps and overpasses crisscross above one another at heights ranging from ground level to more than 120 feet. We've left some ramps unfinished because we need to put cranes right where the ramps will go."

"If we need to make changes in the sequence, we check how they will affect the entire construction process down the line. Having many experienced people involved helps make good decisions. So far, it's all worked out smoothly," says Dassow.

Much Still Left To Do, But On Schedule

So where does the project stand right now?

Says Luck, "The work is about 80 percent done. By sometime in March, we'll have all the structural beams in place. Through the spring and summer, we'll pave the remaining 400,000 square feet of deck — we've already paved 1.2 million square feet of the 1.6-million-foot total on the core." They'll also place the parapet walls.

Through summer and early fall, crews will do the huge amount of detail and finishing work required for a project of this size, like placing signals, signs, downspouts, electrical wiring, and lights. They'll also paint and stain.

Later in the fall, says Luck, crews will finish asphalt work, pavement marking and signal installation on some intersections that connect the freeway to city streets.

Another important process that will be ongoing through the rest of the project is educating the public about the new system of interchanges, which will have some on- and off-ramps at different streets than the old system. To do that, WisDOT is planning to use a series of informational pieces distributed with local newspapers, television and radio commercials, as well as information on the project's website.

The Marquette Interchange project's success has come from a good design, executed with outstanding teamwork, and attention to detail in every aspect from start to finish.

Deep into its schedule, it remains a model of how well a major highway project can go.