The state’s South Beltway bid request landed on his desk like a 4,000-page set of assembly instructions.
And they were unfinished.
Alan Hayes and others at Hawkins Construction knew what the Nebraska Department of Transportation ultimately wanted — an 11-mile line on the map through former fields and farmyards south of Lincoln, giving east-west travelers unencumbered passage between Nebraska 2 and Interstate 80.
But the state needed Hawkins — and any other contractor interested in drawing that line — to fill in the blanks.
What would it take? How much would it cost?
Hayes, a Hawkins project manager, had an idea of what the company was in for. The state had been talking about building a beltway for decades, and before it released its final specifications and standards in October 2019, it had revealed preliminary plans, and then revised preliminary plans.
The scope of the project was unprecedented: 77 total lane miles; five interchanges; and 21 bridges, including the beltway’s most prominent piece — a nearly half-mile-long flyover, soaring up to 65 feet over U.S. 77 south of Saltillo Road.
Hawkins officials spent two months crunching final numbers to respond to the request’s deadline.
The calculations were staggering. They’d have to move 5.3 million cubic yards of earth. They’d need more than 8,000 tons of steel rebar and girders. They would pour nearly 830,000 square yards of concrete. They’d have to have traffic flowing freely in three years.
And it would cost $352 million.
“I was working on it every hour I was working for those two months,” Hayes said. “We started preparing as a company for taking on a job this big, because a job this big has never been done in Nebraska.”
Record cost, short deadline
There is a line in the earth now, more than a year after they broke ground.
It stretches from the far-east edge of Lincoln, near Nebraska 2 and South 120th Street, to just beyond the city’s southwestern corner, near U.S. 77 and Saltillo Road.
The land has been cut, scraped, stockpiled, heaped, hauled and roughly reshaped into the form of a dusty, four-lane highway. Entire hills disappeared from one side of the route and reappeared on the other.
“Big picture-wise, the first year, 2020, the main thing we needed to get done was as much earthwork as we possibly could,” Hayes said.
So at one point last summer, as many as 100 dump trucks were running up and down Saltillo Road, hauling dirt from where it wasn’t needed to where it was, said Curt Mueting, the state’s District 1 construction engineer.
Now much of that construction traffic has shifted to the beltway’s bumpy path itself, with trails of dust kicked up by dozers and dump and water trucks and state workers and a fleet of yellow Hawkins pickups.
On average, about 200 builders from Hawkins and its nearly dozen subcontractors are on site at any given time, spread out across the beltway’s 11-mile footprint.
On the east side last week, for example, a crew of eight was tying in the last lengths of rebar on a bridge near 98th Street and Saltillo Road, just days from covering it all in concrete.
Near the middle, another crew was working on the 68th Street interchange, racing the clock to get the road to Hickman reopened next month.
The state has fast-tracked the entire project. Normally, a job this size would take up to seven years to finish, said Mike Owen, the state’s design manager.
And originally, the state envisioned building the beltway in three phases, each taking a couple of years to complete. But it scrapped that idea and gave the winning contractor three years to get the east-west lanes open, and another year to finish the interchanges and related work.
A partial beltway would be useless, Owen said.
“There’s really no benefit until we get traffic on it. That’s why we put it all together. We want to build it as a single project and build it all in three years.”
That changed things. It required more oversight. On a typical project, the state might put a project manager and three inspectors on site, Mueting said. But more than two dozen state employees report for work daily on the South Beltway — monitoring all of the separate job sites and keeping track of the big picture.
“It’s a lot of communication and coordination,” he said. That includes twice-weekly meetings with the contractors, to make sure everyone’s on the same page, that everyone knows what’s been done and everyone knows what comes next.
It also required more money. Over the last year, the Transportation Department has approved about $12 million a month in beltway spending, more than any other transportation project in the state’s history, Owen said.
And construction crews have spent much of their time, and the state’s money, on the beltway’s west end and its multi-tentacled tie-in to U.S. 77, where they’re building 12 distinct roadways to connect the two.
‘One of the most complicated parts’
The state and Hawkins have built longer bridges. Fifteen years ago, the two worked on Omaha’s West Dodge Expressway, a pair of mile-long viaducts carrying cars 45 feet above the street’s lower lanes.
And they teamed up again on the six lanes of Interstate 80 bridges over the Platte River.
But the beltway’s flyover — a curving, 2,245-foot-long and 65-foot-high viaduct carrying westbound travelers above all other traffic before depositing them on southbound U.S. 77 — won’t go unnoticed.
“It’s the one that most people will look at, just because of the location of it and where it’s at,” Mueting said. “Of all the structures on the project, I’d say it’s probably one of the most complicated parts.”
It will be supported by nine concrete piers, each of them anchored to the earth on top of dozens of steel pilings, diesel-hammered 50 to 60 feet down. On top of those, contractors are laying a base of four spans of steel girders, 10 feet deep and up to 285 feet long.
And on top of those, eventually, they’ll add nearly 1 million pounds of rebar before covering it with the concrete driving deck.
You won’t be able to miss it when it’s done, said Hayes, the Hawkins project engineer.
“It’s going to be the most noticeable, with how high it is above everything else. You’re going to see it one way or another. It stands out.”
His crews have poured seven concrete piers so far, and will build the last two after U.S. 77 traffic shifts to the northbound lanes. Much of the span’s steel is in place, and they’re preparing to start pouring concrete. By the end of the summer, the flyover should be 50% to 60% done, he said.
And when it’s finished, and open for traffic, travelers will spend maybe 30 seconds driving across it, not knowing the planning, time, labor and materials it took.
That so much earth beneath it had to be reshaped, that each pier took four to six weeks to build, that the steel girders were so massive Lincoln’s Capital Steel scouted the delivery area to make sure its semi-loads would fit, or that the Hawkins crew had to tighten 25,000 nuts to hold it all together.
Project on schedule
But that’s the goal.
If the state and Hawkins do their job, the beltway’s future drivers shouldn’t think about the work that went into the road. The 44 box culverts, the 12,000 feet of storm sewer pipe, the 33,000 feet of drainage pipe, the 850,000 square yards of concrete, the 26 miles of chain-link fence.
Here’s what they should notice: Cruising on the beltway, they won’t have to worry about the 17 stoplights that can now slow them — and stop them — on their drive across Lincoln.
By 2025, the state estimates up to 13,600 vehicles will travel the central stretch of the beltway daily, including 1,700 semis — reducing big-rig traffic on the existing Nebraska 2 through Lincoln by two-thirds.
Construction is on schedule, Hayes said, despite a series of small surprises. Trucks weren’t always available to deliver the girders. The girders didn’t always fit quite right.
“I would say it happens all the time. You can have one plan to start the week Monday morning, and by Monday lunch, you’ve got to do something different.”
And despite all of the dirt they’re moving on this one job — more than three times the volume the state typically moves in an entire year, in all of its projects — they haven’t unearthed any dinosaur bones or human burial sites, he said. Nothing that could idle their excavators.
“Other than some nice-looking rocks, there hasn’t been anything too exciting. If you find something cool, that means the job has to shut down for a while. So we’re OK with not finding anything.”
The project also weathered the pandemic, Mueting said. The coronavirus didn’t rip through the project’s workforce, and Hawkins and its subcontractors had already ordered much of the needed materials before global supply chains were crimped.
Mueting drove much of the future beltway last week, steering his state truck toward the smoothest stretches of the rough road and dodging bigger rigs as he pointed out projects in various stages of completion.
Some were close to getting concrete; others are still months away. But he liked the progress. Last year, this whole area was still farm fields. And a year before that, the beltway was still just an idea.
“We’re comfortable,” he said. “We’re right where the project needs to be.”
PhotosFiles: Highway 2 through Lincoln
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