Florida’s largest road project underway

Ajax Paving Industries Inc. embarks on a three-year “I-75 Mega Project,” the largest highway project in Florida’s history, and the road crews are up to the task.

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Three months into a scheduled three-year project may seem a little early to gauge the progress Ajax Paving Industries Inc. of Florida is making on the I-75 project, but Vic O’Hara, Ajax Ft. Meyers’ area manager, and Mark Minich, Ajax vice president and member of the joint-venture project’s executive team, agree that the work already completed is pretty good indication that progress is definitely being made.

“The first phase of this project required us to strengthen the outside shoulder to accommodate the traffic load while we’re working on the (two existing) travel lanes,” O’Hara notes. “We removed the two-inch shoulder pavement and three inches of base below it, and then placed a full five inches of asphalt to give the structural strength needed to handle traffic for the duration of the project.

“We’ve already (mid-January) rebuilt 18 miles of shoulder and we’ve already milled and filled 18 miles of the existing travel lanes (from the south end of the project in Naples going north),” he continues. “We’re milling 2 1/4 inches off and placing an 1 1/2 inch lift of new mix on the existing travel lanes.”

Milling and paving operations are only allowed between 8 pm and 5 am, with the Ajax paving crew placing 1,800 to 2,300 tons of polymer-modified mix each night.

“Whatever we mill has to be replaced before the lane is opened up to traffic in the morning,” O’Hara notes.

Once the existing travel lanes are milled and filled, and the additional travel lane (being constructed along the median) is completed, all three lanes will then receive a ¾-inch wearing course.

“Earthwork on the additional travel lane is progressing and once the final lift of base rock is placed, we’ll be able to begin paving that portion of the project,” says Minich. “Even though the project is set up into five segments, we’ll move forward based on the permits we have at the time and the logistical capabilities of what can be done based on other work that has to be done first.”

The $430-million project, heralded in Southeast Construction as “Florida’s biggest-ever road job,” covers 30 miles in Lee and Collier Counties and entails widening the highway from two to three lanes, replacing 500,000 tons of asphalt, and widening or replacing 24 bridges and one major interchange along the route. Work began in late October.

A design-build approach

Anderson Columbia Co. Inc. and Ajax are collaborating on the project and have formed a joint venture company with the sole purpose of constructing this project. The joint venture, known as ACCI /API, will perform the majority of the work themselves and subcontract other portions to bridge builder Leware Construction and drainage contractor Guymann Construction of Florida, Inc.

The project will run north of the Golden Gate Parkway in Collier County to south of State Road 80 in Lee County, including the Immokalee Road interchange, traveling through Fort Myers to Naples.

The Ajax asphalt paving contract portion of the project amounts to $69 million of the $430 million contract, according to Felipe Jaramillo, the joint venture’s Project Control Manager. The team is seeking permits from various governing agencies and will be assigning 50 or so crew and management staff for the project, which is a design-build job.

“In a design-build job,” Jaramillo says, “construction and the design go hand in hand; the job is literally being built while it’s being designed. The contractor has to bid the project without complete plans. The prospective bidders have to hypothesize how this job is going to look and work hand in hand with their designer.”

This differs from the conventional “design-bid-build” model, where the whole job is designed and permit issues are worked out and put on blueprints and plan sheets, with the contractor then looking at a complete design - all before construction begins.

“The idea behind design-build is that the project is expedited because the designer and contractor are motivated to be efficient, since they are constructing their own design,” says Dave Reid, general manager of Business Development for Ajax.

Conversely, he says, “Under design-bid-build, the contractor may find many things in the design which need to be changed. With design-build, the impetus is on him to avoid this situation by presenting the design in the most constructable manner.”

Accountability and teamwork

The project not only is the biggest in the Florida Department of Transportation’s (FDOT) history, but it also is the largest project Anderson Columbia has worked on, according to Rick Dunn, the company’s Joint Venture Project Director.

Anderson Columbia, one of the larger highway construction firms in the southeast and based in Lake City, FA, has built or rehabilitated thousands of miles of highways, roadways, and streets in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. It will be doing the earthwork, grading, and base work on the I-75 project.

The I-75 Mega Project also is the first time Anderson, which is celebrating its 90th year, has worked with Ajax, Dunn says. “The opportunity just presented itself,” he says. “So, the key people got together and decided it was a good chance for them to get a nice piece of work if they collaborated.”

Ajax’s Reid says Anderson Columbia’s experience with grading makes the firm a perfect fit for the project. “They are a natural partner. They normally do most of the grading in north Florida and the Panhandle,” he says, “and we have asphalt plants at both ends of the job.”

Anderson Columbia and Ajax chose Omaha, Nebraska-based HDR Engineering, Inc., to handle the project’s design. The design portion accounts for $25 million of the contract and is being broken into six segments. Reid says it would be impossible to wait for all of the design documents to be completed to begin work, so the firms opted for a phased approach.

The segments are:

  • Segment A - North of Golden Gate Parkway to Collier/Lee County line
  • Segment A-1 - Immokalee Road interchange
  • Segment B - Collier/Lee County line to south of Corkscrew Road
  • Segment C - South of Corkscrew Road to south of Daniels Parkway
  • Segment D - South of Daniels Parkway to north of Daniels Parkway
  • Segment E - North of Daniels Parkway to south of Colonial Boulevard

“We do different parts at different times,” says Dave Gilbert, HDR Design Project Manager. “We design all the highways and bridges, roadway design, and pavement markings.” The firms are starting the segments in sequential order, not beginning on the next section until the previous has been completed. This requires a great deal of teamwork and communication.

Public-private partnership

The I-75 Mega Project also is a public-private partnership (PPP). As such, because the state has limited funds to build any project, private funding is sought for infrastructure. In this instance, Reid says, the state of Florida asked the prospective design-build bidders to finance the portion of the project the state cannot currently afford.

The joint venture team of Anderson Columbia and Ajax will front the construction costs and be repaid by FDOT over the next five years, with some repayments stretching out at least two years after the three-year project is completed. The funds will come from state and federal dollars (including growth-management revenue), money from the Transportation Regional Incentive Program, and funds from Collier County.

For the I-75 Mega Project, FDOT issued a request for proposals last year from the design-build teams that outlined the project and the funding in the work program.

In the February 2007 Florida Transportation Monthly, District 1 FDOT Secretary Stan Cann said the PPP approach has allowed FDOT to advance the I-75 project and launch the entire 30 miles of construction in one contract, rather than parceling it out through routine work program schedules.

As Senior Estimator, Reid says, he participated in much of the early planning, helped build the team, and assembled the bid. “We took everything into account, including all subcontractor costs and others to make sure we have all our costs covered to bring the whole team effort to a successful conclusion,” he says. “This is a heavy-highway construction dream team.”

While the job is not unique in its type, both Reid and Jaramillo agree its scope and urgency give it a special prominence. And both are upbeat about its prospects and success.

Overcoming obstacles

No project is without its challenges. For example, this particular job has to be fast tracked. Jaramillo says the companies will have to complete in three years what was envisioned initially as an eight-year project. “We’ve really got to hustle,” he says. “We are ready for it. We are going full steam for permits. We are getting design packages together. The whole job is based on simultaneous activities: seeking permits, roadway and bridge design, and construction.”

The project also calls for polymer-modified asphalt, which delivers better performance and longer life in hot and cold conditions than standard rubberized asphalt. This enhanced material is being specified by FDOT on more projects. “Other than the fact the project is huge, the time is short, and that we have taken on the additional elements of design and financing, the job is fairly straightforward,” Reid says confidently.

Jaramillo agrees that the project is a simple construction job, and the company has completed similar ones before. “There’s just a lot of it,” he says. “We are not reinventing the wheel; we are just simply making a bigger wheel.”

Reid also noted that while the I-75 project has no special testing requirements, Florida uses Contractor Quality Control (CQC), meaning the contractor is responsible for its quality control. “FDOT specifications for CQC compliance are stringent, but both Ajax and Anderson Columbia specialize in DOT projects,” he says. The contractor also is responsible for meeting the project specifications and verifying that it has done so, Reid continues.

A number of incentives

Reid says permits will be procured in phases. “With the first one in hand, we should be ready to go in November - and then at intervals, additional segments of the project will be permitted,” he says. The three-year timeline has made the project “something of a challenge,” but the companies are aiming to beat that time in the hope of winning incentive bonuses.

The project is based on what is known as A+B (incentive-disincentive) bidding. “A” is the base bid, for price. “B” is the time bid, which has a value of $100,000 a day in this case. This value always is predetermined by the owner, so all bidders bid the same value.

“But they are in competition for schedule. Add the B value to the A value, and you have the total bid; whoever has the total lower bid wins,” Reid says.

This project had a third bid component, the technical, or design, score, and that also is added to the bid.

“If a contractor takes more time than he bids, he pays for the extra days, and that’s his risk. If he finishes ahead of schedule, FDOT pays him the established rate per day,” Reid says. “Normally, there are a maximum number of days you can bid, which is the maximum contract time.

“On this job, there is so much work to do - especially permitting, etc., which can slow you down early - that we felt we needed all that time, so we bid all 1,150 days that were possible,” he adds.

If Ajax finishes early, it can win a maximum incentive bonus of $15 million, for 150 days.

“We have a lot of incentive to deliver the project to the public five months ahead of schedule, and a lot of incentive not to take any more time than we need,” Reid says. “With an additional penalty of $117,000 per day, the team faces a total of $217,000 per day in penalties for every day we finish behind schedule. And that’s a pretty steep penalty.”

Jaramillo speaks of the I-75 Mega Project as a David-and-Goliath sort of coup for Ajax, who outbid two of the largest construction companies in the United States for the project.

“The local boys got it,” says Jaramillo proudly of his home-based Ajax division, whose main office in Florida is in Nokomis. “We submitted a technical proposal, gave the most competitive bid, and ultimately FDOT chose to award it to us.” ?