Donald Rumsfeld wasn’t speaking about freeway construction when he referred to the unknown unknowns, but he could have been – specifically the Empire Project. The project began with dozens of unknown unknowns – underground utilities that hadn’t been mapped, that no one knew were there, that would have to be identified and relocated before work could begin. These unknown utilities would delay the start of the project by about 14 months and extend its duration. The contract was awarded to Security Paving and then immediately suspended.
The good news is the suspension is now over, as anyone who has driven I-5 in Burbank can attest – the piles of concrete, closed ramps and boring operations are hard to miss. Work began in mid-May, launching a complicated, lengthy and ultimately game-changing transformation of I-5 (and the railroad) in Burbank.
The $355 million Empire Project – the largest of the I-5 North Projects – is a series of improvements between Magnolia Boulevard and Buena Vista Street, including high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, grade separations that will elevate the railroad tracks, realignment and reconstruction of the Burbank Boulevard bridge, and construction of a new diamond interchange at Empire Avenue, among other improvements.
Typically, utility relocation is already complete when construction begins, but because that didn’t happen in this case, the first order of business was to issue a change order for the utility work. Developing the change order while the project was still in suspension took careful coordination and cooperation among many players, including the City of Burbank, utility companies, the railroad, Metro, the contractor and subcontractors, and Caltrans.
“Dealing with the subsurface conditions as part of the complex utility relocation schemes is a challenge that we come across on a daily basis,” said Construction Senior Vladimir Gurfinkel. “Also, because utility relocation is not usually handled during construction, we’ve had to broaden our professional horizons in this specific area of civil engineering and get up to speed in a very short period of time.”
In the early days of the project, every day in the Burbank field office became a marathon problem-solving session. White boards were covered with numbered lists of issues to be resolved. Sometimes 30 people participated from eight different agencies. Meetings morphed into other meetings and splintered into sub-meetings. Days began early and ended late. Sometimes tempers flared and tensions ran high. But the issues on the white boards were slowly crossed off, and work is now proceeding more smoothly.
Still, challenges persist – in large part because of the location. The Empire Project is located in a highly developed, densely populated area, with houses and businesses smack dab up against the freeway, which means construction impacts are keenly felt. For example, a concrete obliteration operation had to be halted when business owners complained that the vibration was causing tiles to fall off their buildings. The construction team worked with the contractor to find a less disruptive method to remove the concrete, ultimately opting for saw-cutting, which resulted in an immediate reduction in plummeting tiles and complaint calls.
Another challenge is traffic. The local transportation system in Burbank is already over capacity. Any closures – particularly long-term and permanent closures – can only exacerbate congestion and make an already stressed system even more difficult to navigate. The Empire Project requires a number of significant closures. A portion of San Fernando Boulevard has been closed permanently along with several ramps, inspiring panic in some residents early on, but thus far cataclysmic predictions have not been realized.
For the most part, motorists have adapted to the closures and found new ways to get around. And they’ll need that flexibility in the future. The project will demolish the Burbank Boulevard overcrossing in a few years and rebuild it over a period of 14 months, eliminating a key route to an important commercial district. However, the new interchange at Empire Avenue will be completed before the Burbank Boulevard bridge comes down. Caltrans giveth, and Caltrans taketh away … and then Caltrans giveth back, building bridges bigger and better than they were.
In the meantime, the work forges ahead. Utility relocation and removal continues. K-rail has been placed on I-5. Lanes have been shifted. Retaining walls are going up. The Buena Vista Street ramps have been widened. Tons of concrete have been broken up and removed. And what was once the San Fernando Boulevard undercrossing is now gone, reduced to piles of dirt and rubble. By this time next year, the temporary elevated railroad tracks (known as a shoofly) will be almost finished, and the new Empire Avenue interchange will be halfway done.
The entire project is expected to be completed in about five years. That five years will be filled with plenty of challenges to overcome and unknowns to be addressed.
“To meet constantly evolving project demands and challenges, we’ve had to be always ahead of the game to be able to discover innovative approaches, strategies and action plans, while developing creative solutions on as-needed basis,” said Gurfinkel. “Based on the overall progress of fieldwork, and despite all the challenges we've had to deal with, we carry a very optimistic feeling about this unique and futuristic project.”