Video: Time-lapse look at I-680 reconstruction
Photo Showcase: I-680 through the months of flooding and repair
More: Missouri River flood coverage
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In the early morning, the Welcome to Iowa sign stood cloaked in darkness up the hill from the paving crew trying to put Interstate 680 back together.
Under normal circumstances, the sign greets Interstate travelers and commuters with a pleasant, "The People of Iowa Welcome You."
With the passageway closed from the destruction of Missouri River floodwaters, the sign is a fitting greeting for the construction workers, whose roar of activity has replaced the raging river from this summer and the hum of traffic before that.
Indeed, Iowa welcomes these workers. Council Bluffs welcomes the work; Crescent and Missouri Valley welcome it. Drivers from north Omaha and the northwest Omaha suburbs welcome it.
This Wednesday afternoon, all four lanes of the 3.1-mile stretch of I-680 are due to reopen to traffic, making an improbably quick comeback from its closure and destruction.
When the floodwater receded just two months ago, I-680 was revealed as a broken, crumpled row of concrete blocks. The dour assessment was that it would take until late 2012 at the earliest to rebuild.
I-680's route to reopening stands as a testament to the hard work and dedication of hundreds of people, from the mechanic fixing a bad alternator on a paving machine to top officials at the Iowa Department of Transportation.
On the front lines, construction workers embraced the challenge of getting the highway open as soon as possible and performed beyond the most optimistic expectations. For their quick work, three contractors stand to split some $6 million in incentives for opening early.
Behind the scenes, DOT officials cut through the normally grinding process to fast-track plans, quickly hire contractors and get workers on the job.
Mother Nature, having caused the problem in the first place, actually became a partner. Throughout an intense four weeks of construction, a mild, dry October meant practically no time was lost to weather.
As the work wraps up, a sense of pride and accomplishment has washed over the people who returned I-680 to use.
The people waiting to drive the stretch again are thankful for the effort. Within the construction industry, people consider the project a sight to behold.
"It's gone so fast," said Ron Otto, technical director for the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, who previously had a 47-year career at the Iowa DOT. "It's truly amazing."
The first peek of morning sun was more than an hour away last week as the crew from Manatts Construction prepared to lay one of the last ribbons of new concrete.
Floodlights glared to allow this group of 20-some workers to start a day that wouldn't end until the sun went back down. Overhead, jets departed out of Eppley Airfield just across the Missouri River, their engine noise drowned out by paving machines.
At 7:03 a.m., as a pink glow emerged in the eastern sky, the first dump truck backed up to the paver and dropped the day's first load of cement for a 14,000-foot-long stretch. Two minutes later, the second dump truck pulled up, paving the way for 108 more loads to follow.
The project has continued almost nonstop for four weeks. At the start, work to clear upward of 18,000 tons of broken highway each day ran 24 hours a day.
Since then, the pace has backed off — to 12- to 14-hour days, seven days a week — as workers have prepared the ground, installed a sub-pavement layer, paved the road and completed other work.
Mark Bare, project coordinator with Peterson Contractors of Reinbeck, Iowa, has overseen the job. Bare said the workers, about 300 at one time during the peak, are motivated by the challenge. He described the attitude as: "Tell me it can't be done. Then get out of my way."
While focused on their task, the workers are tired and even lose track of days sometimes.
Troy Teggatz, a Manatts mechanic from Marengo, Iowa, in the eastern part of the state, admits he's ready to go home. But before that can happen, he said he's committed to doing "whatever it takes to get the job done."
The week before, that meant fixing a burst hydraulic hose that stopped the paver. He fixed an alternator that quit charging and caused other parts to shut down. The day before the shoulder paving started, Teggatz put in six hours shifting a paving guide 2 feet to fit the 8-foot-wide shoulder.
His co-workers, Teggatz said, have "done an awesome job."
"It's all about helping the community out as quickly as we can," he said.
The work zone can be described as organized chaos. Using the two lanes of highway now in place, construction traffic generally follows the proper eastbound and westbound routes.
As two sets of pavers operate at one end, dump trucks and cement trucks run back and forth to a makeshift cement plant three miles down the road. In a spot just off the road, crushers work down what had been a 30-foot-tall pile of the broken pieces of I-680.
Heavy trailers haul excess dirt from the median, dumping it into a detention pond. Other workers install drainage equipment on the roadside.
Two primary contractors — Peterson and Reilly Construction of Ossian, Iowa — bid for the job, beating out four other bidders, including Omaha's Kiewit Co. Along with subcontractor Manatts, five other subcontractors have worked on-site at one point or another, and dozens more companies have provided the supplies to keep the work going.
Peterson and Reilly won the contract with a $19.239 million bid. Three companies — Peterson, Reilly and Manatts — stand to split some $6 million in incentive bonuses offered by the Iowa DOT. All but $2 million of that is due to be reimbursed by federal highway disaster funds.
Cork Peterson, vice president of Peterson Contractors, acknowledged the incentives are a boost. But he said the bonus is not pure profit, helping instead to recover some costs and cover a "staggering" payroll.
Peterson commended the workers and the contractors, saying, "Everybody has their A-team there."
"I would not have thought we'd be done this soon," he said. "Our people have performed incredibly well."
Still, Peterson said the project also has been blessed with good weather — little rain, unseasonable warmth and few dips below freezing. "Sunshine makes us smart," he said.
Under ordinary circumstances, a project to repave a stretch of Interstate might take a construction season, perhaps six months to complete. If a brand new highway was carving a new route, that could take two years.
Before a brand new project could even proceed to construction, it very well could take 10 years to study, buy property and finish other preliminary work, said Otto, the Associated General Contractors official.
So while construction moved quickly, the Iowa Department of Transportation's behind-the-scenes preparations also sped up the project.
While the Interstate was still flooded, the DOT surveyed the site by air to get an early read on problems.
Before the extent of damage became clear, Director Paul Trombino called together senior management to plan for flood recovery efforts, said Dena Gray-Fisher, a department spokeswoman. Trombino's challenge to the department: Be bold and innovative.
As the floodwaters pulled back, officials knew they had to put the project out to bid as quickly as possible with fall approaching, said Mike Kennerly, director of the design office.
The department decided to offer contractors a "limited design," something that Iowa hadn't tried before, Kennerly said. That meant not taking the time to draw up the typical detailed, prescriptive plan — the precise cross-section at different points, for instance, or details on the guardrail design.
Instead, Kennerly said, the contractors would receive only key guidelines necessary to let them start the work.
"A lot of those details, we just filled in after the fact," he said.
The plans didn't come completely from scratch. Planners were able to call up a complete set of original I-680 plans from the 1970s stored electronically.
Still, there were gaps in the land survey data, Kennerly said. To obtain survey information from areas still affected by the flood, the state turned to 3-D models of the terrain that the state had previously gathered.
Because the work would trace the existing highway route, the department also could skip the lengthy environmental review process.
After construction bids were opened on a Friday — Sept. 23 — the contractors were chosen that day. The companies started mobilizing equipment by Saturday, had some workers on-site by Monday and began work that Wednesday, Sept. 28.
Throughout construction, the department and its contractors have remained in close contact. Each Monday, DOT officials meet with managers and executives from the three main contractors.
Bare, the project manager, said the coordination among the department and contractors has been exceptional.
"There's a united front," he said. "It's a testament to what can be done if you work together."
People have been taking notice.
During a reporter's tour of the site, Bare got a call from a local contractor asking if he would go to lunch to talk about the project.
In Crescent, local worker Jacki Killpack, who lives in Minden, Iowa, can't wait for the highway to open so she can get back to driving her regular route into Omaha.
"It's just amazing," she said. "I commend them."
At the main intersection entering Crescent, the town's message board posted a sign of thanks.
"Thank You Road Contractors For Fixing Our Highways."
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