Three summer construction seasons after Brice Inc. took over an emergency flood on the Dalton Highway, fixed it, then pressed on with its originally scheduled project, the Fairbanks contractor will finally say goodbye to the Haul Road this fall.
Brice Inc. spent this summer putting the final touch on a $45 mil-lion project that stretched from Mile Post 397 to MP 414, which marks the end of the road in Deadhorse. The original bid was 4 miles shorter (MP 401 to MP 414) and was projected to cost about $26 million. But those plans changed when spring ice flows on the Sagavanirktok River caused major flooding on the Dalton Highway in May 2015.
“It was a big deal,” said Marcus Trivette, construction manager for Brice, about the flooding. “A really intense period of time.”
Brice responded to the challenge by coordinating with the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities to execute an ambitious plan to substantially raise the grade and improve the road overall for years to come.
“When the designers were redesigning the road, we were pricing changes with the DOT, and they were laying out the milestones,” Trivette said. “Usually they leave the means, methods and sequencing to the contractors fairly exclusively, but they had some pretty specific goals as far as the first season of work: not only to repair the damage that was done and make the road passable but also to put those first 8 miles of substantial grade raise in place during the first season.”
Brice has not been the only contractor working on the Dalton Highway this past summer. Cruz Construction crews are working on two back-to-back stretches of the Dalton. The first contract (MP 379 to MP 397; $31 million) started in summer 2016 and is on track for completion in September, said Tim Cunha, project manager for Cruz. This is the first time Cruz has worked on the Dalton Highway.
“It’s been pretty successful,” Cunha said.
Cruz Construction also dealt with emergency work associated with the Sag River. This emergency happened when the river flooded in 2016. A limited notice to proceed was issued on Jan. 29, 2016, to build a 3-mile berm using previously stockpiled material to protect the road from getting washed out like it did in 2015.
Working during the winter months posed an enormous challenge.
“We were out there with excavators trenching the overflow and diverting water away from the highway,” Cunha said. “It was a pretty bad stretch of road there out of Deadhorse, and it got to the point where it couldn’t be maintained.”
The berm was successfully completed in April 2016, said Mike Lund, construction manager for DOT&PF. Without the hard work of Brice and Cruz, he said the 2016 floodwater would have been roughly 4 feet over the road. That berm has been replaced by the permanent roadway improvements.
“Risk of flooding is significantly reduced by these projects,” he said.
With emergency flood mitigation behind them, Cruz started working on its second contract (MP 362 to MP 379; $32 million) this summer. The company is hoping to complete 12 miles of it by the end of this summer, Cunha said, so it can have a shorter season next year.
At the peak of last summer, 75 workers were on the job. But this summer, Cruz had between 130 and 140 employed.
“It’s the most people I’ve ever managed,” Cunha said. “We’re working 24 hours a day as long as the sunlight is in our favor.”
At the end of their shift, Cruz workers return to a developed gravel pad that the State of Alaska owns called Franklin Bluffs at Mile 378. Cruz has two 65-man camps, a 20-man camp and then the DOT crew in a separate 10-man camp. Cruz has been handling all the camp services, which include catering and housekeeping.
“Those guys have one thing to look forward to at the end of the day,” Cunha said, “and that’s a good hot meal.”
Last summer, construction work on the Dalton was a dream in regards to the weather — consistent temperatures between 50 and 70 degrees. This season, however, a late summer posed some challenges. The thaw pits where Cruz gets its materials were slow to warm up, giving employees not much to work with early on. Heavy rains also shut down construction at one point during the summer.
“The gravel site we put at Mile 367 is in the Sag River,” Cunha said. “When the rain came it raised the river levels, and they had to evacuate to make sure our equipment didn’t get stuck in a flood.”
On the North Slope, favorable weather conditions are crucial for getting the job done on time. The average dependable construction season is only about 100 days. Any convenient weather after Sept. 1 is a bonus to operations, Lund said.
“The short season means that contractors in this area often work seven days a week, 12 or more hours a day,” Lund said. “Crews this month didn’t even take off for the July 4 holiday.”
The Dalton Highway needs protection from two forces of nature: water and warming permafrost. Therefore, both Cruz contracts (MP 362 to MP 397) called for raising the existing roadway about 7 to 10 feet, installing 52 culvert pipes, using about 4.8 million tons of borrow material, and installing an estimated 30 miles of insulation foam board.
Brice’s contract (MP 397 to MP 414) has a similar scope of work. It included 2.5 million tons of borrow material and 9 miles of insulation foam board.
Trivette explained how there were two ways to protect the Dalton from warming permafrost: build a thick embankment or install insulation foam board. Brice’s project was originally designed for the entire length of the road to have insulation, but that changed after the 2015 flood. The designers recognized they needed to raise the grade of the road to protect it from additional flooding.
“The embankment is so tall it doesn’t need insulation,” Trivette said. “The rule of thumb is an inch of insulation provides the same thermal resistance as a foot of gravel. By adding 4 inches of insulation, they get the same resistance to heat transfer as 4 feet of gravel.”
The tundra mat is a decent insulator, Trivette said, but when a road is built on top of it, the tundra heats up, which causes frost heaves and settlement. So designers called for 4 inches of insulation foam board.
Getting accurate figures on materials needed for the project is crucial on the Dalton Highway, Lund said. Changes to designs or field expectations can have significant effects because most materials are shipped from Anchorage or further.
“Order too much, and it is a waste of resources,” Lund said. “Order too little, and it could delay a project by a year, depending on availability and shipping considerations.”
For Dalton Highway drivers, it’s no secret where Cruz’ road work ends and Brice’s work begins. A DOT&PF-issued sign clearly displays it at MP 397.
“It’s not a normal thing to have 51 miles of construction going at one time,” Cunha said, “with two separate contractors working on two separate jobs that butt up next to each other.”
The DOT&PF wanted the sign, Cunha said, so it could distinguish traffic control and traffic issues between the two projects. At the same time, the sign has become a point of pride between the two contractors.
“We certainly want our side looking better than their side,” Cunha said with a laugh. “And I’m sure Brice is the same way.”
The work done between these two contractors is a significant move toward protecting this 414-mile highway for many years to come.
“It’s truly the lifeline to the oil industry,” Cunha said. “Summertime comes around, and you’re talking about a lot of tourism as well. So there’s a lot of pride in the quality of work.
“We are re-establishing that highway, I would imagine, for the next 40 years before they need to do anything significant to it. That’s a big deal to the state of Alaska.