By Jo-Anne MacKenzie
---- — Motorists traveling Interstate 93 between the Massachusetts border and Exit 2 in Salem need to sit up and pay attention.
Orange road signs and electronic billboards warn of exit-only lanes. The highway suddenly narrows from four lanes to two. And there’s the additional distraction of off-highway dump trucks, bulldozers and construction workers busy in the median.
But there’s a serious method to the maze-like changes, orange barrels and blue-lights-flashing cruisers that dominate the stretch.
Just ask Pete Stamnas, project manager for the behemoth, $800 million I-93 widening project.
Stamnas understands the project — and all its many moving pieces — like no one else.
“It takes time,” he said of the work. “There’s a lot of traffic and very limited room. We’re trying not to do too much at one time.”
That translates into lanes shifting from their ultimate positions, night work and temporary configurations that may leave drivers wondering.
The project involves 19.8 miles from Salem to the I-93/I-293 interchange in Manchester. The ultimate goal is to widen the congested highway from two lanes to four in both directions. As is stands, with funding and environmental questions outstanding,the road is being widened to four lanes each way, but only three lanes are being built for immediate travel.
“We are constructing the footprint for four, paving and operating three lanes,” Stamnas said. “Roadway fills will be placed to accommodate four lanes and bridges built to accommodate four. We just won’t be using all four lanes.”
The project includes the replacement of 20 bridges and significant work on 23 more.
The impetus for the project is simple: When the highway was built about 50 years ago, it was equipped to handle 60,000 vehicles a day. By 1997, there were more than 100,000 cars a day traveling I-93 in Salem. Projections estimate as many as 140,000 vehicles a day in Salem by 2020.
Drive south from Manchester any Sunday afternoon and see what happens when four lanes becomes two. Or head south any weekday morning and watch the traffic build up for miles as commuters jam the two lanes in an effort to get to jobs to the south.
But, as much as all those drivers want a wider highway to get them to their destinations faster and safer, they don’t want construction to slow down their drive time.
Stamnas and company have designed the work to cause as little disruption as possible.
That means more night work and, more significantly, moving traffic away from work zones.
That has mean fewer travel disruptions, but also some unusual configurations.
Travel lanes shift to accommodate work
Take the stretch between the state line and Exit 2 — in both directions.
Work in the Exit 1 area is about 75 percent complete, with a total cost of $32 million. It includes widening travel lanes, replacing two bridges, rebuilding ramps and building 1,600 feet of sound barrier.
Right now, it’s a bit of a puzzle for drivers. Cranes work close to the shoulder. Multiple orange warning signs warn motorists of disappearing lanes. Cruisers are stationed alongside the road to provide additional warnings.
“It’s an interim condition at Exit 1 and it won’t be finalized until next summer in both directions,” Stamnas said.
Heading north, there will be another lane prior to the off-ramp. Another lane will be added on the median side, where pavement is visible now.
The so-called “lane drop” will move “beyond the influence of the northbound on-ramp,” he said.
Sound complicated? It is. It’s one of the most heavily traveled stretches of the 20-mile project.
Stamnas acknowledges it isn’t perfect now.
“I think it’s an area of accidents in general,” he said. “I think any time you introduce construction activity in that type of volume, it creates a circumstance that isn’t ideal.”
Move on to Exit 2, an estimated $43.6 million project, with a projected completion date of summer 2015.
Work started there this summer, with contractor George R. Cairns & Sons Inc. of Windham receiving the $40.9 million contract. Funding for this contract came from a $115 million GARVEE bond issued in May.
This segment includes replacing two red-listed bridges over Pelham Road, widening 1.3 miles northbound and 1.8 miles southbound. It also includes widening Pelham Road and rebuilding I-93 bridges over Pelham Road.
R.S. Audsley of Bow received a $33 million contract for work at Exit 3 south, including the on-ramp and Route 111 in Windham. That work should be finished by June 2016 and will complete all improvements for the area around Exit 3.
Work in that area also includes rebuilding the two southbound bridges on I-93, both red listed, and “approach work” over Routes 111 and 111A.
“It’s going well. Overall, we have 52 percent of construction along the corridor either active or complete,” Stamnas said. “There’s one major project left to go on the southern portion, one more at Exit 3.
Motorists who regularly travel south in the area may not be aware of it, but they are driving south on what will be the northbound lanes. The road now shifts to the east just south of the weigh station near Exit 3.
That’s by design.
“We’re building outside the traffic,” Stamnas said. “It’s safer for everyone, not only the traveling public, but also for construction workers.”
It’s a large project there and it’s just getting started, he said.
“There’s going to be a lot of activity,” he said.
Exit 5 lane shift is temporary
There’s one more section where motorists might question exactly what’s going on. That’s at Exit 5 northbound, when it appears the highway is encouraging drivers to take the off-ramp, rather than continue north.
That, too, is temporary.
“Ultimately, the northbound lanes will be shifted back,” Stamnas said. “We do pay attention and we try to make sure it presents itself so you’re not surprised, so there’s adequate time to react. We knew it wasn’t ideal, but it was a temporary case until we had the rest of the ramp constructed.”
Again, it’s all part of an overall effort to get the work done, keep workers and motorists safe, and create as little disruption as possible.
“What we’re trying to do in all of the I-93 projects along the corridor is to minimize impacts to existing travel lanes,” Stamnas said. “During low-volume periods during the night, we let them take a lane. It improves safety and minimizes congestion caused by construction.”
Work at Exit 5 is ahead of schedule and the lane shift should be back to normal by early summer.
“They’re ahead of schedule of that section,” he said. “They’re doing great work at Exit 5.”
But soon, weather will put the brakes on significant construction work until spring.
For the most part, construction schedules don’t count on work over the winter, Stamnas said.
“There’s only so much you can do productively,” he said. “There will be a presence out there, but it’s going to be limited.”
Come spring, there will be a lot happening, but will still cause as little travel disruption as possible, he said.
Visit rebuildingI93.com for a comprehensive overview of the project and very specific details about ongoing and planned work.