Snow and rain put Intercounty Connector construction months behind schedule

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

This winter's record snowstorms, on top of last year's rainy spring, summer and fall, have put construction of the 18.8-mile Intercounty Connector months behind schedule, but project officials say they still plan to open the highway's first 7.2-mile segment this fall.

ICC officials said it's difficult to quantify how far behind construction is but said paving and dirt-moving work they had planned to complete last year has yet to be done because the ground has remained too wet.

"We're not, overall, where we want to be, especially on Contract A," said ICC Project Director Melinda B. Peters, referring to the first segment between Interstate 370 in Gaithersburg and Georgia Avenue in northern Silver Spring.

Peters said contractors can make up for lost time this spring and summer by adding crews and lengthening their workdays, which could include more overnight work -- potentially unwelcome news to nearby neighborhoods. The rest of the $2.56 billion toll highway, which will extend east to Interstate 95 in Laurel, is scheduled to open by early 2012.

"It's difficult to know what the rest of the winter may bring," Peters said. "We have the contractors in place to get the work done. The real challenge is whether Mother Nature cooperates with us."

Pete Temple, project manager for the joint venture of contractors building the ICC's western segment, said last year marked one of the worst for weather-related delays in his 25-year construction career.

"It's a day here and there" of lost work, Temple said. "When you add it all up, it's suddenly months."

The contractors will bear any additional costs for the delays because they bid a set dollar amount for the job, Peters said. Contract A was awarded at $478.7 million.

The ICC's massive construction site was a muddy, boot-sucking mess for much of 2009, when 55.57 inches of rain fell at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport -- nearly 14 inches more than a typical year, according to National Weather Service data.

Wet dirt is far more difficult to move, construction officials said. Even heavy equipment and four-wheel-drive trucks have had trouble getting through the muck. The clay-like soil in northern Silver Spring is a particular problem because it remains soggy longer than the sandy soil on the highway's eastern end, in Burtonsville and Laurel, Peters said.

Moreover, asphalt can't be laid down and embankments can't be compacted unless the ground is dry enough, officials said.

Residents living amid the construction -- much of it is occurring just beyond back decks -- and motorists having to navigate detours and temporary lane closures have told project officials that thy want the work done as quickly as possible. Contractors typically plan to accomplish less work during the winter and build in time for a certain amount of bad weather. But project officials say the weather has posed a significant challenge.

"The rains started the day we started Contract A, and they haven't let up," said Mike Baker, the ICC's environmental construction manager. Last year "was far wetter than average, and now 2010 is the worst winter in 126 years. It's been relentless, absolutely relentless."

This month's back-to-back snowstorms came at a particularly bad time, Baker said, because February marks the "crunch time" to finish up work near streams. Most of that work must be done by March 1, when the fish spawning season begins, he said. Anything not finished by then must be put on hold until August, which would waste the prime warm-weather construction season, he said.

Baker said his team worked round-the-clock last week and is doing so again this week to monitor streams for water quality while the contractor finishes up culverts that will carry streams beneath the highway. Peters said all stream-related work will be done on the western segment in time. Some stream work on the eastern end won't be complete by the March 1 deadline, Peters said, "but they can work around it" to continue construction.

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