BRATTLEBORO — Bridge construction on Interstate 91 is delayed once again.
"The project hasn't met its timeline thus far," Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Chris Cole said Thursday.
The four lanes of traffic on I-91 were expected to be back in order by late 2015. Then the plan was to have the lanes open by December 2016. But it doesn't look likely that the contractor PCL Civil Constructors can get it done by then, Cole said.
Now, the expectation is for early spring or late summer of 2017.
The $60 million project began in the fall of 2013. Four bridges are being replaced with two new structures. VTrans hired PCL for construction and FIGG Bridge Engineers for design. Federal funding is covering 90 percent of the cost.
The contract includes a clause for liquidated damages to account for the contractor not delivering the project on time.
"There's some significant money that will be assessed against the project whenever it reaches its completion date," said Cole.
When construction wraps up, one bridge will be used by vehicles traveling north and south on I-91 over Upper Dummerston Road. The other span is a new 1,036-feet arching concrete bridge going over the West River with viewing platforms for pedestrians.
Cole said a number of things can contribute to delays when dealing with such complicated projects. He pointed to the harsh winter of 2014, when low temperatures and heavy snowfall slowed progress. Also, the project's first winter in 2013 saw some unanticipated flooding.
Besides weather, the contractor had some site conditions that proved challenging.
"There was some hard rock they had encountered when they were building the first pier that took them awhile to figure out how to deal with," Cole said. "I think overall, they potentially underestimated the complexity of the design and how long it would take for construction."
Cole said it took "significantly more time" than PCL and FIGG had anticipated to build the first pier and meet the state's quality specifications. The second pier went up much faster because they learned from the first pier, he said.
Another issue has to do with the workforce.
"In our industry in general, we are seeing less and less workers who have higher construction skills, especially for a project like this. This is a special project that requires skilled employees they could not find available in Vermont. That has slowed down the rate at which they can build things," said Cole. "In addition, they were not able to recruit as many employees from out of state after running into the challenge of finding skilled craftsmen in our state."
For some reason, he joked, people don't like to work outdoors in Vermont during the winter. In all seriousness, he suspects there might have been a miscalculation on the part of PCL on this front.
With mild weather and a lack of snow, Cole said the contractor had "a terrific winter" this year for getting work completed. Sections coming off the first pier were put in place.
A piece of equipment called the form traveler will now be moving from the first pier to the second one. The machinery is used for moving beams and casting segments of the bridge.
"They're actually ahead of schedule, they indicated, in terms of moving that," Cole said. "So that's a good thing."
Another positive development involves traffic flow during holiday weekends. By closing the entrance ramp at Exit 3, Cole said visitors to the state won't have to worry about getting backed up on I-91. Although ski season's over, July 4, Strolling of the Heifers and Labor Day are coming up.
Part of Cole's reasoning behind visiting Brattleboro on Thursday, he said, was to "really acknowledge the good partnership that we've had with the town of Brattleboro."
The entire project affected mobility and traffic flow. But there was some impact to infrastructure, too.
The town will be given a $200,000 grant.
"We're working with the town to best meet their needs," said Cole, who expects the money likely will go toward road-resurfacing projects stemming from the additional traffic on town roads due to ramp closures. "It's an important, critical project for the state of Vermont for maintaining our economy. It's the main gateway for people to come to Vermont."
VTrans Construction and Materials Bureau Director David Hoyne expects all segments of the bridge will meet at the second pier later this year. But getting barrier walls in place will take some extra time.
Still, Hoyne said the casual observer will be saying, "Wow, it looks like it's almost done."
"This trapezoidal shape, with the size of it, you have to understand how the forms respond, how the concrete mix responds and how those things come together to have a successful placement. It took several segments to really nail that down," Hoyne said. "Concrete mix is a delicate balance to get right."
That process was taking as long as three weeks at first. But now it's getting done in about eight days.
The relationship between the state and the contractor has been good and collaborative, Cole said.
"We both wish it went better. But this happens when you're dealing with complex projects," he said. "It will be quite stunning when it's completed. I think the design team calls it 'Bridge to Nature.' The bottom of the structure is going to have some light blue paint that looks like the sky on that hollow piece."
The project is VTrans' largest in the state, said Cole, citing its size, complexity and cost. The next big project is dubbed the "Middlebury Tunnels" and it involves building a tunnel over an operating railroad track in downtown Middlebury.
In Windham County, there are two projects a few years away from starting. VTrans will be replacing a bridge over Wells River in Bellows Falls and reconstructing Putney Road in Brattleboro.
Contact Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.