NAPLES — After the politicians pitched their golden shovels, Joe Cothran slammed the door on his pickup.
It was Oct. 28, 2007, and the $430.5 million Interstate 75 Expansion Project (known as iRox) was under way. For construction manager Cothran, it was time to pave some pride, and chase a potential $15 million bonus offered to the contractors to finish the project early.
“I was the only one on this job who, from the beginning, said we were going to take that $15 million,” Cothran said.
Wednesday, the new, third southbound lane of I-75 opens to traffic, following the new northbound lanes opening in November, nearly a year before the December 2010 scheduled completion date.
“This job right here was all about pride,” the 50-year-old Cothran said. “Everybody was so proud that we were building the largest road job ever built in the state of Florida.”
If it weren’t for the Immokalee Road interchange, a project expanded by Collier County mid-production, iRox would be finished nearly a year ahead of schedule, not the five months needed for the full bonus. The interchange is scheduled for an April 2010 completion.
“It’s just an excellent project team and aggressively pursuing the project to say the least,” said Debbie Tower, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Transportation, which owns the project. “Eight months ahead of schedule, that is exceptional. It is exceptional. Underline it, because we are talking about a joint venture.”
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Several factors played a part in opening the lanes early, Cothran said.
First is the Department of Transportation’s design-build-finance approach to construction, the first Florida project of its kind.
In a traditional project, the owner usually gets financing, hires designers to draft plans and opens the designs for bids from contractors, who then are largely stuck to those plans as they do their work.
With iRox, the designers had a few months of lead time before work began, and the two main contractors fronted the cost of construction in lieu of payments from the department spread out over five years. All of it was done at the same time.
Cothran likes this approach. The design team, HDR out of Omaha, Neb., which was chosen by the joint contractor venture of AJAX Paving in Nokomis and Anderson Columbia Company Inc. of Lake City, is in an office right across the hall.
Looking to rework a plan for efficiency and cost-savings on-the-fly?
“They draw us up a brand new plan, they get it stamped, they get it signed, we turn it in, they approve the plan, and within a few days or a couple weeks everything’s approved and you’re right back working,” Cothran said.
And that’s what Cothran does, work. He’s put nearly 200,000 miles on his truck, the equivalent of driving up and down the 30-mile project zone eight times per day.
“He’s on the job almost 24/7,” said Dave Parks, project spokesman. “Poor guy doesn’t sleep much.”
All those miles were spent watching the job’s subcontractors, who Cothran said would step up to solve problems before they “got into the office.”
“If I had a sub that got a little bit out of line,” Cothran said, “I would grab that sub and pull them back.”
Also contributing to the fast pace of the project, Cothran said, was the good weather. He said anticipating problems early, quickly moving crews around when problems occurred, and cross-training everyone also played a part.
Working with a relatively young and inexperienced crew, workers were started on traffic control and then taught their co-workers’ jobs to keep things moving during sick days, Cothran said.
Finally, Cothran said, everyone made sure the work got done right the first time, limiting the “remedial items list,” as the workers call it. Miami’s Metric Engineering was hired by the Department of Transportation to supply a team of watchdogs, who stand behind the workers, watching, measuring, and writing on their clipboards.
“I’ve been on fast-track jobs like this where people have thrown the spec book in the trash can,” Cothran said, then raising his voice. “Nothing on this job is that way. This job is solid all the way through and that’s what every single one of these guys on this job are proud of.”
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The project hasn’t been without its failures, though, among them when a worker lost his life and a crane collapsed on the highway.
Other problems presented themselves during the day-to-day. For instance, literally jamming miles of storm water runoff pipes through miles of varying types of soil and rock. Cothran said it could be the toughest job on the project.
“They’re the ones down in the deep muddy water and running around with the water moccasins and the gators,” Cothran said. “I had a water moccasin strike my boot one time. We’ve seen some big snakes on this job.”
Barrels and cones also brought challenges. Like when 5,000 of them had to be removed from the road in 14 hours upon Tropical Storm Fay’s arrival. Every night, as many as 1,500 cones would be put out to protect workers, all of them straight as an arrow, just the way Cothran likes them.
Back-breaking work was status quo for many of the jobs on the interstate. Cothran mentioned laying nearly 2 million square yards of sod as an example, which is enough for 273 football fields.
“The people driving up and down the road couldn’t even imagine throwing one pallet of sod in a day. These guys get out here and they may throw 25 to 30 pallets in a day,” Cothran said.
Perhaps the most difficult challenge is the Immokalee Road interchange, which brought headaches to drivers long before iRox began.
As such, Cothran took to managing the whole dilemma himself. He rearranged traffic control patterns to save the project six or seven months of work, he said.
“This interchange here by itself, they should have given you 1,150 days to build the whole interchange, because of the ramps and the bridges and everything we had to do here,” Cothran said, referring to the total number of contracted days for iRox.
If it weren’t for the county’s added $2 million worth of work for additional turn lanes onto I-75, which caused previous work to be ripped up, Cothran said the entire project already would be done.
“We would be done with Immokalee Road as per our original design. We’d have been done and we’d have been sitting here waiting on that bridge to be done,” Cothran said. “But still, at the end of the day, when everything is all said and done, Collier County is going to have one beautiful interchange out here.”
In the third week of January, traffic will be moved to the newly paved south side of Immokalee Road, Cothran said, allowing passers-by to avoid the bumpy ride on the north end during the last few months of the project.
Overall, said Tower, the project was designed to be an intermediary. Interchanges like Immokalee Road were designed to later accommodate 10 lanes, which are expected by 2030.
The men Cothran oversaw may be back for that project. Most of them are under 32 years of age, Cothran said. It’s something he’s proud of. Not just doing the job right, but bringing new experiences to the 500 workers who brought relief to Southwest Florida.
“They’ve all grown up here, because they’ve had to grow up,” Cothran said. “Every one of them grew up and became a man on this job.”
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Crunching the numbers
2 million cubic yards: amount of dirt used in the project
1.75 million square yards: amount of sod placed by crews
400,000 tons: amount of asphalt laid down
8,000 cubic yards: concrete required for the project
375 miles: distance of pavement markings
24: number of bridges renovated or re-built
23: number of storm water runoff ponds