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Business Observer Friday, Sep. 23, 2016 1 year ago

Diamond rush

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A first of its kind road project in Florida is halfway done. A big bonus hinges on the second half.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

One of the biggest ongoing road construction projects in the region dates back to a meeting of transportation officials nearly a decade ago, in 2007.

That was when Florida Department of Transportation officials first talked about turning the University Parkway interchange at Interstate 75 in east Manatee County into a diverging diamond. A diverging diamond is designed to make traffic flow more efficient, and safer, by reducing the number of red lights. The diverging part happens when two directions of traffic on the non-interstate road cross to the opposite side on both sides of the bridge at the interstate.

Both state and local officials agreed the booming area, gateway to Lakewood Ranch and now the Mall at University Town Center, is a perfect spot for Florida's first DDI. “This area really lends itself to a DDI because of all the activity and traffic,” says FDOT spokesman Robin Stublen.

State funding for the $74.5 million project, after seven years of planning, meetings and lots of politics, was approved in 2014. Tampa-based Prince Contracting, which won the bid to do the work, broke ground Aug. 3, 2015.

The project has a palpable sense of urgency: Prince aims to complete the DDI by Sept. 24, 2017, the first day of the 2017 World Rowing Championships at nearby Nathan Benderson Park. While the contractor can earn $5 million in bonus money for an early finish, it can also be penalized for being late. (See related story.)

The project is also a complex undertaking. It has a host of connected side projects, including an auxiliary lane on northbound and southbound I-75; constructing new bridges on I-75 over University Parkway; widening of University Parkway; widening of I-75 bridges over Errie Creek and Foley Creek; realignment of on-ramps and off-ramps at I-75/University Parkway; drainage improvements, new lighting and signals; construction of a noise wall on the west side of I-75; and sidewalks, bike lanes and pedestrian walkways.

A big part of the logistical challenges, says Stublen, is lane closures are limited to nighttime hours. “There are a significant amount of utility installations and adjustments on this project,” Stublen says in an email response to written questions.

With one year down and one to go, Stublen, in an early September interview, says the project was 51% done the week of Sept 12. Most of the challenges have been weather related.
“Schedule adjustments are made accordingly and crews are allocated where necessary to keep items on the critical path of work progressing forward,” he adds in the email.


At a glance: Diverging diamond
Project: A diverging diamond is designed to make traffic flow more efficient, and safer, by reducing the number of red lights. The diverging part happens when two directions of traffic on the non-interstate road cross to the opposite side on both sides of the bridge at the interstate.

Location: Florida Department of Transportation District One; University Parkway interchange at Interstate 75. It's the first diverging diamond built in Florida.

Traffic: Daily traffic averages 53,000 vehicles on University Parkway just west of I-75; 34,000 vehicles on University just east of I-75; and 12,000 vehicles on I-75 at the interchange.

Start date: Aug. 3, 2015.

Expected completion date: Fall 2017

Cost: $74.5 million

Contractor: Prince Contracting LLC. Out-bid five other companies.

Sources: Florida Department of Transportation, Prince Contracting


History of a diamond
Washington, D.C., area engineer Gilbert Chlewicki is widely credited with creating the concept for a diverging diamond interchange.

Chlewicki was the primary designer behind a diverging diamond proposal in Maryland in 2000, when he worked for the Maryland State Highway Administration. He came up with the idea, he says, while driving around some congested areas north of Baltimore in the late 1990s. He later saw something like a diverging diamond while on vacation in Versailles, France.

While that project wasn't selected for that intersection, Chlewicki, founder of Fulton, Md.-based Advanced Transportation Solutions, has since written several papers on the benefits of diverging diamond interchanges for the Transportation Research Board. He also has spoken about the concept at conferences in more than a dozen states.

The question Chlewicki gets asked the most about a diverging diamond: How can it be safe with all the changes to normal driving activity? “It actually is so easy and so efficient,” Chlewicki says. “Most people don't even realize they are driving through one.”

Despite doubts, the concept has since been lauded in national engineering and traffic publications. Popular Science magazine, for example, named the diverging diamond interchange one of the best innovations in the engineering category of the Best of What's New 2009.

Chlewicki, working with the parent company of Advanced Transportation Solutions, Wesley Chapel-based American Consulting Professionals, is now consulting with highway officials in Florida on diverging diamonds in Lee, Pasco and Sarasota counties.

Chlewicki also attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the first diverging diamond intersection in the United States, in Springfield, Mo., in 2009. “The hardest part was getting that first one built,” Chlewicki says. “Missouri has some forward-thinking people in their transportation department.”


Bonus time
The Florida Department of Transportation often uses financial incentives for road projects — something to push the contractor to finish on time.

The incentives dangled for Prince Contracting, the company behind the diverging diamond interchange in east Manatee County, can total $5 million. “The incentives are because this is an important and complex project, and it's the first one of its kind in Florida,” says Florida Department of Transportation spokesman Robin Stublen. “I don't see it as out of line.”

The World Rowing Championships, expected to bring 40,000 people to nearby Nathan Benderson Park from Sept. 24-Oct. 1, 2017, is another reason for the incentives to get it done.

Prince Contracting, per the original contract, can receive the full $5 million if the diverging diamond is fully operational on or before July 24, 2017, says Stublen. Fully operational, adds Stublen, means some final work might be left, such as the final layer of asphalt, but cars can use the interchange.

For each day the project is not fully operational after July 24, the incentive can decrease by about $200,000 a day. One caveat is the July 24 deadline, says Stublen, is somewhat flexible in that it can be pushed back due to weather delays. Two weather days have already been granted says Stublen, pushing the unofficial incentive deadline to July 26.

There's a flipside to the bonus incentive possibility: Per the contract, state transportation officials can penalize Prince $200,000 a day for every day the project isn't fully operational for 26 days past the deadline.

(This story was updated to clarify several points from Florida Department of Transportation officials regarding the contract and potential penalties with Prince. The date of the groundbreaking and the estimated completed finish date have also been updated.)

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