First phase of Interstate 5 project nearing completion

Barry Kaye
On a busy day, as many as 150 people can be seen working along Interstate 5’s concrete rehabilitation project between Dunsmuir and Mount Shasta. The first phase is nearing completion and all traffic should be diverted back to its original arrangement by Nov. 15.

Few people know Interstate 5 better than Greg Colwell.

As a general superintendent for J.F. Shea Construction, general contractor for the current highway rehabilitation project in the Mt. Shasta area, Colwell has spent the past 35 years predicting the future.

“I’ve worked on every piece of this road more than once in my life,” he said. “I can tell what is going to happen before it happens.”

On any given day Colwell can be found problem solving along the eight-mile long project with a pit bull named Gaurdie, who fortuitously showed up one day at Shea’s construction yard in Redding, hitched a ride on a fork lift, and has been a fixture with the company ever since. Colwell describes him as a “watermelon with legs.”

During a tour, one of the first stops is a recycling operation off Abrams Lake Road where the old highway is ground into aggregate and reused as road bed. On this particular day, a conveyor belt is busted. A quick conference call ensues.

Further to the south at the old rest area next to the northbound lanes of Interstate 5 and tucked back into the trees is a portable concrete manufacturing facility. It can be set up or disassembled in three days. Every 90 seconds it produces 10 yards of concrete, which is enough to fill one dump truck. A fleet of nearly 20 trucks is in perpetual motion when a pour is happening.

Colwell said being able to manufacture concrete onsite is “like gold up here.” An estimated 85,000 cubic yards will be used during construction. On a busy day as many as 150 people can be working on the roadway.

The first phase of the $56.9 million construction project is almost complete and on schedule, according to Lupita Franco, Caltrans District 2 Public Information Officer. Workers are pouring the last section of concrete roadway near the Central Mt. Shasta exit.

“It is a complex project,” Franco said. “But at the end of the day it will be delivered as specified.”

Later this month, traffic will start being diverted back to the new, southbound lanes, Franco said. Barriers will be removed from the northbound lanes and everything will be back to its original configuration by Nov. 15.

Next spring, the second phase of the project will commence from Mott Rd. to the Dunsmuir Bridge over the Sacramento River. There is no construction set for the northbound lanes and there is no plan to widen the freeway to three lanes.

The project was originally supposed to take three years, but Colwell found a way to work with the California Highway Patrol and knock a year of that timeline. That meant temporarily closing the inspection station but saved millions of taxpayer dollars in the process - not to mention the patience of an estimated 25,000 daily drivers.

In addition to being one of the busiest roadways in the country, a key engineering issue is the local climate. Rigid asphalt will do well in winter, for example, but not summer.

That is why concrete is being used, according to John Hinton, an engineer with Caltrans. It is four times more expensive but lasts 40 years. It can also expand and contract.

“The (weather) extremes here are pretty harsh. The asphalt that we have out there really hasn’t held up very well,” Hinton said. “We repeatedly have done emergency jobs.”

He added that Caltrans was having some “restraints” with traffic, especially on the northbound side when the project first began. Those restraints could mean delays of up to one hour.

It was Hinton who made the decision to use orange cones to prevent the freeway from expanding from two to three lanes at the bottom of the Dunsmuir grade. That meant traffic did not have to merge back two additional times to get down to one lane. It also put limits on the always slow sport of trucker drag racing up the grade.

“It’s my moment of glory,” he quipped.

Kirk Johnson, general contractor for the project, said J.F. Shea has had to work around fires, road closures and supplier issues. At one point the company was running 20-hour days to stay on schedule.

And that #6 purple rebar in perfectly straight lines stretching for miles and strong enough to walk on?

“It’s an epoxy coating,” Johnson said in explaining why the rebar is purple. “It’s to resist corrosion.”

He added that one of the unique features of this particular highway rehabilitation project is the thickness of the finished roadway – nearly two feet. It starts with a six-inch road bed, then an asphalt layer, and then more than a foot of concrete on top.

At the center of the construction project is the Gomako GHP2800 concrete forming machine, which runs about $1.2 million brand new, Johnson said. When everything is firing on all cylinders, crews can pour half a mile of roadway 22 feet wide in a day.