Case Studies

Guy F. Atkinson Construction LLC

Interstate 90's Snoqualmie Pass
  • Written by: Guy F. Atkinson Construction LLC
  • Produced by: Guy F. Atkinson Construction LLC
  • Estimated reading time: 4 mins

Snoqualmie Pass is a segment of Interstate 90 (I-90) passing through the Cascade Range of mountains in central Washington. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is funding a makeover for the section of highway that is in disrepair. Guy F. Atkinson Construction LLC (GFAC) secured a bid for the project in July 2011, and the team began the project that autumn with only one month in the season remaining.

GFAC is a subsidiary of the Clark Construction Group LLC with a head office is in Broomfield, Colo. With multiple branches in the western United States and an underground branch that serves projects all over the country, GFAC employs 200 salaried employees and has been in the business since 1926. Diversified services and a good reputation have afforded the company a long history of satisfied customers. The team’s ingenuity has won GFAC bids throughout a period of unpredictable economic conditions.

“It’s seasonal work, that’s why this project will take six years,” explains Jason Streuli, project manager on I-90’s Snoqualmie Pass. “There’s a lot of snow up there, and we can only work mid-April through mid-October.”

Streuli’s team is not just repairing the road, but is also expanding the interstate from two lanes going each direction to three lanes in each direction. While increasing capacity for traffic flow will help with congestion on the pass, this segment of I-90 presents several unusual challenges.

Obstacle Course of Action

The mountainous region is prone to avalanches because of heavy snow. The dangerous sliding snow had been addressed previously by the WSDOT by constructing a snow shed over the road. The snow shed is essentially a tunnel devised so that avalanche snow will pass over the road, protecting traffic. Still, the section frequently faces closures and maintenance is expensive.

GFAC has proposed a new plan, and the team is working with the state to build side-by-side bridges that allow the snow to pass under the road and into Keechelus Lake at the foot of the mountain. The bridges will extend 1,200 feet and will be easily accessible to snowplows. Other safety additions include snow nets designed to hold back avalanches as well as widened road shoulders that leave more room for snow and emergency breakdowns.

The project’s obstacles don’t stop with snow. The pass runs along Keechelus Lake, a protected aquifer that provides the water for irrigation to agriculture in the nearby Yakima Valley. The WSDOT has had to obtain the right of way on the lakeside for construction, and the body of water is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Aside from serving agricultural projects the lake is the spawning site for many species of fish. Water levels fluctuate in elevation in a range of over 70 feet, regulated by the Keechelus Dam. “We need the water level down to work along the lakeside of the pass,” explains Streuli. “Snowfall and melting determines how much it fills up. How much water farmers need for irrigation determines how quickly the lake lowers and how fast we can work.” Despite the dam, the lake cannot merely be emptied for convenience fish populations depend on a manageable rate of water flow, otherwise they cannot make it upstream.

Building a Team

GFAC is self-performing both the traffic control and structural work on the Snoqualmie Pass project. Streuli’s team of subcontractors includes an earthwork company performing everything from drilling to blasting, eventually moving to grading and embankment work. The road surface will be concrete, finished by concrete and asphalt subcontractors. When it comes to picking his team, Streuli says, “Ultimately it comes down to price, but we’ve been around this business a long time. We know all the players. We know who’s competent in this type of work.”

Competence and reliability are huge factors in the Snoqualmie Pass project, especially due to the limited season and constrained schedule. Each of the subcontractors has been selected for price, reputation and financial stability.

GFAC is big on safety and expects the same from its subcontractors. Streuli says, “We worry about costs, we want to make sure we’re running as efficiently as possible, but my biggest concern is that no one gets hurt on my watch. That includes our subcontractors and it includes our inspectors.” The company has earned several awards in safety as well as in quality and ingenuity. These three things mark a successful project for Streuli, who adds that second to safety a quality product with a happy owner is the best indicator of solid performance.

“I know the way we’re bidding now, it’s still very tough to get work at a reasonable price,” Streuli admits. He has seen several companies in the industry struggle and go under. “It’s good for taxpayers, because the projects are cheaper in the bidding world.” But the Northwest still seems to be waiting for a turnaround. “It’s a cycle,” he reports. “Every four to six years the state says they’ve run out of money, but they pass a bill, get more funds and keep fixing roads.”

The Snoqualmie Pass project is complex, but GFAC has the right team and the right solution for the many challenges presented by the interstate. When the project is completed in 2017, the Snoqualmie Pass section of Interstate 90 will have doubled in capacity, improved in safety, reduced congestion and preserved the natural environment along the corridor. Streuli and his team are building success with a wealth of knowledge and experience that clients have come to expect from Guy F. Atkinson Construction LLC.

Published on: July 16, 2013

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