Why do highway projects take so long now?


The in basket:  Chuck Hower of Harper in South Kitsap asks “why the state road administrators give contractors so much time to accomplish

projects that could obviously be completed in much shorter time.

“Specifically, I was asking about the new Olalla-Burley interchange,” Chuck said, “completion for which the state has allowed two years – two years of

traffic disruption for a project that would seem easily to be

constructed in a few months if sufficient resources were devoted to it.

“The mind boggles at the thought of the bunch of

turkeys running such operations today, were they to have been in charge

back in the early 1940s when similar projects had to be accomplished

quickly,” Chuck concluded.

The out basket: Brenden Clarke of the Port Orchard project office for state highways is the project engineer on the Olalla-Burley job and offers the following:

“There are a number of reasons why transportation projects take longer

now than they did in the ’40s.  

“One  of the primary reasons, and one

that certainly applies to Burley-Olalla, is traffic volumes and allowing

traffic to proceed through the work area.  

“Not too long ago, traffic volumes were low enough in many areas to allow work to occur that required lane closures or restrictions during the day. With traffic

volumes as high as they are currently, we can not allow lane closures

during the day in most cases without severely impacting traffic.  

“In addition, lane shifts or temporary detours to accommodate work

activities must now be designed for reasonable speeds and must meet

safety standards. Back in the day, a gravel 10-foot-wide lane around

the work area would suffice. Restrictions on lane closures and the need

to construct adequate temporary bypass lanes adds time and costs to

(state) projects.

“Environmental permitting is much more stringent now that

even 10 years ago. This certainly applies to Burley-Olalla as SR 16

traverses over two fish passages within the project limits and is

adjacent to numerous wetland areas. Environmental permit compliance adds time and cost to (our) projects.

“The Burley Olalla project is scheduled to be completed in two years due

to the above issues, and the need to revise the horizontal alignment of

(Highway) 16.  Due to geometric and environmental constraints, (Highway) 16 will be rebuilt to go over Burley-Olalla (Road).  This will require that temporary

lanes be constructed to detour traffic around the current alignment.  Our contractor is using the new on- and off-ramp alignment

for this detour which will reduce costs and time, but work cannot begin

on the new alignment until traffic is shifted.  In addition, work

on the new bridge will not be able to begin until the detour alignments

are constructed.

“Weather is another factor that increases the duration of projects in

Washington state. It is difficult to perform earth work in

inclement weather, and we do not allow paving or striping to occur

unless weather conditions are favorable.  We specified the use of

material on the Burley project that can withstand some poor weather

conditions, but if it gets too wet it will become unworkable.”

Brenden said bad weather causes delays imposed by environmental restrictions.

“Some additional time savings could have been realized on the

Burley-Olalla project by utilizing pre-cast structures for the bridge,” he said, “but the cost was prohibitive, considering

the limited time savings that would have been realized.  

“We have a very

motivated contractor and are working with them to reduce the duration of

the project, but two years is not unreasonable for a new interchange in


“If we were constructing an interchange in Arizona with lower

traffic volumes, I could guarantee that an interchange could be

constructed in less than a full year, assuming level terrain,” Brenden said.


4 thoughts on “Why do highway projects take so long now?

  1. Wow. Mr. Clarke certainly knows how to stack up the excuses. I’m going to guess that most of the additional
    equirements are self-imposed, as with most safety rules. IOt’s also interesting he cites weather as a constraining factor, but has chosen to begin the project in the fall, rather than spring.

  2. Rest assured, were some dire emergency to require that interchange to be built in a few months, it would get done on time. The more we add complexity to every aspect of life the longer it takes to get things done; and the sad part is that in many cases the added complexities are simply not needed. Road construction is not the only victim of these complexities; they pervade our lives and seem to become even more perplexing the more sophisticated technology becomes. Some day, society will simply implode upon itself, not much unlike the current turmoil in the financial markets.

  3. As with most projects there is also the time versus money aspect. The 35W bridge in Minneapolis was completed in just over one year but at a cost in the $250 million range. They worked 24/7 for close to a year. Granted, they did not need to keep the road open as it didn’t exist, but they did have to deal with the Minnesota winter. I do think that two years for the Burley-Ollala project is a bit long.

  4. Oddly enough it seemed to me some fifty-sixty years ago that the highway to the bridge would NEVER be ‘finished’…
    I don’t know how many years it took for construction but as we often drove from Belfair – Gorst – Tacoma…the road seemed to be always torn up for most if not all – of my childhood.
    Sharon O’Hara

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