New Orleans Streetcar Line Expansion Hits Underground Snags
Installing a streetcar line in New Orleans may seem simple enough on the surface, but the project became more complex below grade when crews encountered century-old water mains and sewer lines, abandoned train tracks, sunken slabs and former roadways.
Now more than halfway compete and slated to open this summer, the North Rampart Street streetcar line has presented the project team with extensive subsurface relocations. The contractor also had only 30 days to construct a half grand union on one of the city’s major thoroughfares. Project managers approached these tasks with careful planning, innovative sequencing and strong collaboration with the city and the community.
The streetcar line project, which broke ground in January 2015, is being constructed for New Orleans’ Regional Transit Authority and will consist of 3.2 miles of double track on a 1.6-mile route. General contractor Archer Western Construction of Chicago is relocating 9,500 linear ft of utilities, along with asphalt and concrete restoration, traffic signalization upgrades and new landscaping. Archer Western is also constructing 192 foundations for lighting, installing 3.2 miles of overhead catenary system (OCS) and building six streetcar stops.
The Regional Transit Authority completed an investigation of the underground utilities during the design phase to identify and locate all subsurface lines. “Unfortunately, the only way to really know what is underground is to expose it, and we had quite a few obstructions which caused us to modify our plan,” says Wade Foster, Archer Western project manager.
Workers trenched the limits of the rail line, exposing existing utilities and installing manholes and new valves on sewer and water connections.
Martin Pospisil, project manager with RTA's transit operator Transdev, says crews relocated existing water lines at each of the 22 intersections along the route. Each of those runs through a variety of different-sized casings to allow access for future repairs without having to disrupt the streetcar line. “It may look like you can go in there, install tracks and that’s it. But there’s a huge amount of underground utility work involved,” he says.
As the utility operations are completed, track work begins. All rails were delivered to the project in 80-ft “sticks,” then welded into 640-ft-long segments and stored in the center of the rail line. Crews work in sections, shutting down two intersections at a time to excavate the slab and then place a geogrid and sub-base.
RailWorks, a rail subcontractor based in New York City, places rebar on the mat, pulls the track over the rebar and pours the slab. Then road crews complete the segment. Because the OCS and light pole installation is not contingent on other work, those crews float throughout the project.
Pospisil says the above-grade construction is “relatively straightforward,” but there have been challenges working in the tight corridor on Rampart Street. “It’s already a tight space, and we’ve got [traffic] down to one lane,” he says.
Pospisil says one of the most difficult parts of the project was building what the team calls the “half grand union” —a special track that creates a union with another track—on a major intersection in only 30 days. Both Transdev and Archer Western had previously constructed a similar half grand union on the Loyola streetcar line project in 2012. That required teams to close lanes back and forth during the four-month installation. “It was a pain for everyone, for residents, business owners—and it looked like construction would never end,” says Pospisil.
Project managers coordinated with the New Orleans Dept. of Public Works to determine the most efficient sequence of road closures. They had to convince the city that narrowing the intersection to one lane and offering crossovers for 30 days could prevent months of frequent road closures. Pospisil says they instilled confidence in their plan by offering damages of up to $500 per hour or $12,000 per day if the contractor was late.
Transdev worked with the City of New Orleans Dept. of Public Works to select July 12 as a start date, a week after the city’s last big event before the slower part of the tourist season. Loren Gallo, project manager for RailWorks, says they had weekly meetings for six months leading up to the start, developing an hour-by-hour schedule for everyone involved. All stakeholders, including Entergy and the Sewerage and Water Board, were involved in the planning to ensure that utilities could be relocated immediately upon discovery. They also found spray-on products to encapsulate the rail ahead of time, which Pospisil says “saved a lot of time over doing it in place.”
Gallo says special track work for the half grand union was fabricated by Nortak in Birmingham, Ala., transported to the city and stored in Regional Transit Authority’s yard in New Orleans East. RailWorks labeled all of the pieces and assembled them in the yard to ensure that pieces were perfectly aligned. “We did this several months prior. We pre-assembled it and made sure there were no missing pieces. You didn’t want to go out there and find out you’re missing something that takes three months to manufacture,” he says.
Once work started on the half grand union, Foster split up the crews into 12-hour day and night shifts and worked around the clock seven days a week. Some superintendents even stayed in a nearby hotel so they could maximize their time on site.
Foster says the work was a carefully choreographed sequence of back-to-back demolition, utility relocation and track and roadwork.
While they had an hour-by-hour plan, Pospisil said they also had strict protocols to “put everyone on the same page so we all knew what was expected when problems arose.” Transdev even had AECOM designers on call. In one instance of an underground canal conflict, an engineer flew in from Philadelphia the following day to devise a solution.
Once utility work was completed and areas were backfilled and bases and rebar matts installed, track installation began. The pieces were loaded onto 10 flatbed trailers, trucked to the site and put in place in a carefully timed sequence. Concrete had to be poured and cured within 24 hours so the roadway could be reopened.
“Especially because of the underground utility work, to get all of this done in 30 days and have the road open is absolutely remarkable,” says Pospisil.
The contractor also had to integrate aesthetic elements to match the neighborhood’s historic character. During design, stakeholder organizations such as the Vieux Carre Commission and the Historic District Landmarks Commission also said they wanted to keep and match the existing century-old light posts.
Pospisil says all existing 41 poles were removed and trucked to Ram Fabricators in Baton Rouge, where they were refurbished, sandblasted and repainted.
Union Metal Fabricators of Canton, Ohio, fabricated 96 new OCS poles and streetlights to match the old ones. “We have a new OCS pole, then a historic light pole, and we were able to extend a [uniform] look from Canal Street to Elysian Fields,” says Pospisil.
He adds that the project is going well, is on schedule and is on target for a completion date in the third quarter of 2016. He says engineers will likely start integrated testing in June or July with RTA opening the line in August.
Foster and Pospisil also credit a strong public relations campaign. Michelle Rousseau-Newman of In the Event managed community outreach and says the team developed a close relationship with residents and businesses to address concerns related to the work. With billions of dollars worth of civil projects happening in the city, construction-weary residents haven’t been happy. She says they never “let any issues raised go unheard” and kept in constant communication with the public through a newsletter and social media. There is also a full-time, designated public point of contact who walks the corridor daily and speaks with the public and businesses.