Two feet of concrete separates workers expanding Interstate 630 from speeding traffic.
At night, when some of the most labor-intensive work begins, the construction workers sometimes feel the rumble of a car coming before they see it. Working amid the bright, flashing lights and constant thrum of backhoes and cranes, most workers are used to feeling the cars rumble by -- but Johnny Bowen said they know how dangerous the traffic can be.
"The traveling public is not very forgiving day or night," said Bowen, general superintendent for Manhattan Road and Bridge's construction site on I-630. "And you have a different kind of person driving out there at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning."
The $87.4 million construction project will replace two major bridges while expanding 2.2 miles of one of the busiest interstates in Little Rock, with more than 100,000 motorists crossing through the area on a daily basis.
For the construction workers on the project, especially the ones who work at night, the work is inherently dangerous.
"Our biggest fear is the traffic -- more than the work itself," Bowen said. "The work is dangerous as it is, but you factor that traffic in at night, and it can be a real risk."
A 2018 report from the Center for Construction Research and Training said 532 construction workers died on sites between 2011 and 2016 nationally. More than half of those deaths were caused by workers being struck by vehicles or mobile equipment, the report said.
Black tire marks etched onto the concrete barriers show that drivers sometimes get a little too close, and even those who don't are often traveling over the speed limit, Bowen said.
Despite the lowered visibility and higher likelihood of impaired drivers at night, the nature of the construction crews' work makes night shifts not only common, but necessary.
RACING THE CLOCK
Manhattan Road and Bridge started the project in July, and on the wall in the Bluebird Drive construction site headquarters is a countdown timer showing the days, hours and seconds until construction must be complete.
Mark Windle, vice president for Manhattan Road and Bridge's Arkansas operations, said the firm made a bid on 590 calendar days, meaning every single day -- regardless of weather, weekends or holidays -- counts.
"The days on this job are valued at $198,800," Windle said. "About $200,000 a day. That's one reason we have such complex schedules."
Manhattan Road and Bridge has a crew of more than 100 people, with at least 75 people working during any one day. The company also hires contractors to do specialized work, such as concrete paving and road striping.
"The highway department's main focus is not to hinder the traveling public, not to inconvenience them any longer than we have to," Windle said. "That pretty much means we have to work at night."
Some of the construction, Bowen said, simply cannot be completed during the day when so many cars are passing through.
When hulking cranes and construction crews are removing reinforcement steel and concrete that hold up the Hughes Street overpass or the Rodney Parham bridge, it's not sensible to keep traffic flowing, he said.
On Saturday night, workers used blow torches to slice away metal reinforcements beneath one of the Rodney Parham bridges while, just a few dozen yards away, traffic moved slowly over the other bridge.
Each time a piece of the long sheet-like metal fell, a gush of white dust would rise and swirl toward the construction workers working near a pile of debris that was, only days before, a bridge.
Though some workers glanced occasionally toward the rolling traffic overhead, most appeared focused on their own task.
When asked how he keeps from being distracted by the traffic, Bowen said he wants his crew to be wary of the road.
"You've got to be aware of your surroundings. We've got as much lighting as we can, and we get our people behind barrels or concrete because we've got to keep our people safe, but we have to keep the traveling public safe, too," Bowen said. "There's just a lot to pay attention to."
Jobs like shifting the lanes of traffic require workers to step out from behind the concrete barriers to set up traffic cones or reflective signs. Shifting these lanes at nights means fewer cars coming by and less danger for the workers, but workers are still walking out onto an interstate.
"The main thing Johnny [thinks about] is how to keep his people safe," Windle said. "It's an added danger at night. Everything you do has to be lighted. It's harder to see. Even though we wear very high-visibility vests and hardhats and all the personal protective equipment ... there is a danger to it."
WATCHING THE SPEED
From time to time, Bowen said he will glance over at the traffic signs that display drivers' speeds. The speed limit on the 2.2-mile track of construction is 50 miles per hour, but Bowen said speeds of 65 to 70 miles per hour light up the speedometer constantly.
People speed through one-lane closures, he said, stare down at their phones while negotiating worker-heavy areas, and, especially on the weekend, appear to be driving intoxicated. Cars stall or run out of gas on the interstate, which can cause traffic build-ups and irritate commuters, he said.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's work zone crashes report said more than 96,000 vehicle crashes happened in construction zones in 2015, the most recent year for which data were available.
Two safety engineers and a safety team monitor the site, ensuring everyone is wearing reflective vests and hard hats and to coordinate risky jobs. A wrecker is on-site every day to tow any stalled or immobilized vehicle, Windle said, and to keep traffic moving.
"It can get anywhere on the job within 5 minutes, and it's operating 24/7," Windle said. "Someone breaks down on the road, we can give them assistance. He's constantly going up and down the road."
Every night just before the sun sets, the bright lights surrounding the construction workers flicker on. The placement and intensity of the lights is calculated, Windle said, to ensure drivers have the best visibility.
"We've all walked into a bright room and then out into the dark," Windle said. "For a minute, you can't see. We have to be really careful where we put those lights. There's a lot to it."
Each employee had to have experience on other major construction sites to apply for the I-630 construction, Windle said. With the proximity to rushing traffic and the scope of the project, every employee has to be aware and cautious, he said.
While the vast majority of the work is done behind the concrete barriers, each time the workers shift to a new part of the road or a new lane, someone has to move the cast concrete.
"Somebody has to go out there in that traffic and start that closure," Bowen said. "Somebody in a pickup truck, lights flashing, setting out traffic drums, and traffic doesn't slow down until after midnight."
On a weekend in December, Bowen's crews were in the process of relocating approximately 4,000 feet of wall. The 12-foot concrete blocks are too heavy to lift without a track hoe, meaning each piece has to be painstakingly lifted and pushed over into its new position while a few orange cones or barrels stave off oncoming traffic.
Even with all the bright lights and reflectors, Bowen said drivers can still have a hard time seeing workers. One thing that always seems to get a commuter's attention, however, is blue lights, he said.
The Arkansas State Police and Arkansas Highway Police often post out around the construction site with their flashers on to deter speeding and to safeguard the workers.
"Just having them out there really helps," Bowen said. "We really appreciate that."
DOING THE JOB
The project, Windle said, is far more complex than a commuter might imagine. The 19-month endeavor has more than 5,000 activities -- from striping and re-striping roadways to tearing down walls and building new bridges.
Despite attempts to keep traffic moving and keep the lanes open, Bowen and Windle said they are aware the construction can be cumbersome for commuters.
"Oh, people get mad," Bowen said. "We get a lot of honking, a lot of irate gestures."
The end result will be beneficial to everyone in Little Rock -- including many of the construction workers, he said.
"I think that's one thing people don't really think of," Bowen said. "They're mad and they're inconvenienced, but that could be their son or daughter out there. Those are real people on the side of that road trying to work, and we live here, too. We're your neighbors."
"We're out here trying to do our job, too," Windle said. "Ours just happens to be on the road."
Metro on 01/07/2019
Print Headline: Danger inches away on I-630 job in Little Rock