Innovation in technology can turn industries on their heads.
Construction workers familiar with a profession of manual labor accomplished using massive machines, now use bulldozers with upgrades akin to those of the iPhone 5. Or at least the Maps App.
With the help of GPS satellites and recycled pavement, contractors working on the Interstate 64 Widening Project will shave $15 million off the cost and save weeks of construction time.
The Virginia Department of Transportation has its sights set on the already-begun phase three, the final segment of the six-year I-64 widening project.
The segment which started August 2018, is a $262-million, 8.2 mile project in York County that stretches from the Lightfoot exit 234 to approximately exit 242, the Humelsine Parkway and Marquis Center Parkway interchange.
The project is contracted by Shirley Contracting, the same company that completed the first segment in 2017.
Like the project as a whole, the additional 12-foot-wide travel lane and shoulder added in the final segment will increase capacity, bring portions of the interstate up to current design standards and improve safety by reducing congestion, according to the project’s website.
Workers will repair and widen four bridges, three major culverts and replace the two Queen’s Creek bridges. The I-64 east off-ramp to Route 143 also will be reconstructed with a signalized stop.
Sound walls may be installed beginning at the eastern end of the Queen’s Creek bridges, and most of the widening will take place in the median of the existing interstate.
The final phase, expected to be completed in fall 2021, will utilize machines equipped with GPS technology, as did segments one and two.
Although the technology has existed for almost 20 years, it’s becoming the standard among the big, heavy highway bridge contractors, Shirley General Superintendent Randy Plyler said.
“It’s not a new technology, it’s just an enhanced technology. So you know, from your first iPhone,” Plyler said. “The new dozers you purchase now, it’s all integrated into the machines, it’s got this antenna on top that receives the signals so everything is run off wifi on this project.”
It’s called Integrated Grade Control — a computer model of the project is created and downloaded, so the machine knows the location and what contours and grades to build.
In construction, grade refers to the creation of a level base or specified slope.
“There are computer models generated from the plans, like a 3-D computer model, so it takes all that input from the plans that were developed and, with the new technology out there, it essentially communicates to the machines and controls the blade of the dozer,” said Joe Ludwig, I-64 Widening Project area construction engineer. “As it moves down road it reacts, it’s actually building the roadway.”
For safety reasons, giant machines can’t just run on autopilot, Ludwig said. And the machines aren’t exactly robots, they still need a little help.
“You’ve got an equipment operator. You still need the guy in there to pull some levers, you don’t get in it and just let it go,” Plyler said. “It’s not a robot out there running around and doing everything.”
The technology saves some time for grades crews, who used to have to walk along the roadway and put down stakes. When building a ditch, a worker would paint out the center line continuously. Now, it shows up on the GPS screen inside the machine.
Once completed, state inspectors would have to check the grade every 25 feet for miles.
“You can zoom in on the screen and see the edge of the road, you have your grades already programmed — it makes that stuff a lot quicker,” Plyler said. “(Now), you can walk around with a handheld rover and just spot check because everything’s coming through the satellite.”
Because the GPS technology is becoming commonplace, Plyler thinks the state should alter its on-the-job training program with courses on the operation of grade-control bulldozers and excavators.
“They don’t have any training programs for the new technology, the GPS,” Plyler said. “Instead of training them how to put grades on the stake, now you’re training them how to read the rover or the models.”
Plyler submitted training outlines for the new technology and one for environmental methods of erosion and sediment control, to the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance for approval.
“The industry is starving for help right now. Everybody wants to sit inside,” Plyler said. “I think if you offer more of that, the training programs with the GPS, the grade control equipment or computer oriented stuff combined with the construction field you’ll, see some more people interested.”
In his 40 years in the industry, the project is the first where Plyler had to go completely green, he said.
VDOT is using environmentally friendly processes and recycled materials — Cold Central Plant Recycling and Full Depth Reclamation — in segments two and three of the project.
The project is one of the largest pavement recycling projects going on in the U.S. The Virginia Transportation Research Council will study the performance of the new techniques for use in projects of the same caliber in the future.
As part of the FDR process, the existing pavement foundation is crushed and mixed with cement onsite, then recompacted into a subbase layer for the roadway.
“Right now, it’s doing a social reclaim where we’re injecting cement into the soil to make it stiffer to build,” Plyler said. “That machine would be the same machine if you’re going to an old county road, grind it all up, inject cement to it get a good base and then build it up so you just recycled all that material that would put underneath your asphalt.”
Materials that used to get stockpiled are being reused in the CCPR process. In addition to saving product, time and money it also saved the resources, Communications Specialist Brittany McBride said.
“They take the recycled asphalt from milling. They mill two inches off the road and put a new two inches down, that used to get stockpiled,” Plyler said. “Now that’s being taken and reused for base which cuts down on the virgin material you’re putting down.”
The segment two project reused more than 180,000 tons of existing milled pavement. The final segment will reuse about 230,000 tons.
The second phase of the project reconstructed and widened around seven miles of interstate between Route 199 from the Humelsine Parkway at exit 242 to Route 238 from Yorktown Road at exit 247 in Newport News and York and James City counties.
After final inspections, the $176-million phase that started in 2016, will come to a close.
Martin can be reached at (757)-243-3685, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @SaraRoseMartin.