After the flood: restoring Colorado’s Highway 7

On Nov. 26, two days before Thanksgiving, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and other officials joined residents in a small town 45 miles northwest of Denver. They were there to give thanks to what a Skanska joint venture team had accomplished.

Colorado floodwaters

State Highway 7 was heavily damaged – and rendered impassable – in September after northern Colorado received as much rain in a few days as it normally gets all year. Some called it a 1,000-year flood. Water poured down the steep canyons of the Rocky Mountains’ Front Range, causing tremendous damage: boulders the size of school buses rolled down the mountain and rivers spilled over their banks, completely washing away some sections of road.

People living along these roads were either stranded at home or unable to get home from where they had taken refuge. The few fortunate enough to not suffer significant property damage found themselves cut off from the towns they depended on for food, medical care and employment.

When our team was awarded the Highway 7 project, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) asked for one passable lane – not necessarily paved – to be open by December 1. Instead, those officials gathered on two newly-paved lanes stretching for 14 miles nearly a week earlier than scheduled – a remarkable feat. What’s more remarkable is the story behind it all.

“Colorado needed this highway rebuilt and rebuilt quickly,” said Skanska’s Dan Howell, who led the project. “The issue, though, was where to even begin.”

Into the unknown

Our team started from a blank slate. Given the emergency nature of this project, CDOT was operating at a rapid-fire pace, advertising and awarding the work in less than one week. None of the normal plans and specifications associated with projects was available.

“We didn’t even know what the scope of the work was, other than to fix roads,” Howell said.

The first task faced by our team – including joint venture partner R.L. Wadsworth Construction of Utah – was assessing the damage. They focused on reconnaissance during the week between contract award and the start of reconstruction on September 30. They even brought in a helicopter for aerial views.

The results showed the immense work our team had before them. Of the 14 miles of highway our team had to repair, sections totaling about seven miles had been washed away by the St. Vrain River.

“We had no initial plan because no one knew what was going to be there,” Howell said. “After the helicopter, we could start to put together how we would attack the project.”

The solution: Skanska crews would start on one end of the 14-mile work area, while our partner Wadsworth would start on the opposite side. Each would send an excavator and a bulldozer ahead for “pioneering,” helping clear a stable path for even larger equipment.

Before any significant road work could take place in a given spot, crews had to literally put the river back where it belonged.

“The floods changed the flow of the river, with debris, pieces of highway and boulders sitting where the river should be,” said Jeff Smith, Skanska project manager. “The first thing we had to do was get in the water, move rocks and form a new embankment where we could build a road.”

To align the rebuilt road, GPS couldn’t be used, as satellite signals didn’t reach the ground in the steep and narrow canyon – having granite cliffs hundreds of feet tall and at some points just 100 feet wide – through which the highway and river passes. Our team had to be rather primitive in their survey work: at points, they just tried to match whatever pavement remained.

“There was no grade requirement,” Howell said. “The requirement was to get a road open.”

Logistical and safety challenges

ColoradoHighway7

As work began, quick repairs were made to sections of the road on either end, allowing some residents to access their homes. These “soft closure areas” were manned 24 hours a day by local authorities to prevent drivers from entering unsafe areas.

Even those efforts, though, didn’t solve a larger problem: getting work vehicle access to the site. Not only was Highway 7 impassable, but surrounding roads also could not be traversed. This meant a three- to four-hour, 160-mile one-way trip from one end of the job to the other. Further, physical and electronic access throughout the job was difficult, as the canyon walls rendered jobsite radios and mobile phones useless.

“There was no communication from one end of the job to the other end,” Howell said.

Our team also faced unique safety challenges. Rocks loosened by the rain continued to roll down the steep canyon walls. And constantly changing weather – from as low as minus 10 degrees to as high as 65 degrees – affected the stability of the slopes our team was working on and around.

The joint venture’s 80-person team worked more than 40,000 hours with no lost-time accidents, an accomplishment they attribute to ongoing communication. Safety hazards were shared not only before each day’s work began as part of pre-task planning, but also as conditions changed.

To overcome those challenges, work continued 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week for the six-and-a-half weeks it took to reopen the highway. Improved weather paired with a committed crew got the job done early.

The results speak for themselves. More open road than planned, ahead of schedule – and to the delight of nearby residents. And although it took a tremendous effort, the incredible sense of shared purpose and camaraderie between our team, CDOT and residents made the hard work enjoyable.

“We had a lot of fun,” Howell said.

Before and After

Skanska USA

Skanska USA

Skanska USA is one of the largest, most financially sound construction and development companies in the U.S., serving a broad range of clients in the public and private sectors, including those in transportation, power, industrial, water/wastewater, healthcare, life science, education, sports & entertainment, data centers, government, aviation and commercial industries.

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