Anyone wanting proof that a big project can finish ahead of schedule, under budget, and at the highest level of safety need only look at the success of the Wisconsin Dept. of Transportation’s Marquette Interchange reconstruction.
The four-year, $810-million project, completed in 2008, finished three months ahead of schedule, $10 million to $15 million under budget, and without a single fatality or critical injury. Its economy, speed, and safety have made it the model for every Wis-DOT mega project since. The project’s all-round success is especially impressive in light of its magnitude, complexity, and working conditions.
It took place in the heart of Milwaukee, Wis., a major city with a metropolitan population of about 1.75 million. The job demolished 21 miles of a 40-year-old system of interchanges and replaced it with an updated and redesigned system that is safer, sized to handle its current load of 300,000 vehicles per day, and prepped for future expansion.
The project constructed some 180 structures. The work included building columns and placing more than 1,400 girders for nearly six miles of bridges in five levels at heights to 120 ft. It also entailed driving piles, placing new wastewater pipes 40 ft. below ground, installing drilled-foundation retaining walls, forming and pouring concrete, and paving.
To do the job, more than 4,000 workers put in 2.7 million total work hours. They worked in multiple shifts, all year round, including through the rain, snow, and ice of Wisconsin winters, in tight spaces, amid fleets of cranes, aerial lifts, trucks, earthmovers, and other construction equipment.
Insurance actuaries reportedly estimated that two to four people would die during the project. Despite the challenging conditions, however, no one was killed—or even critically injured—during its four years of work. In fact, emergency responders were called only twice. Some 312 worker’s compensation claims were filed, all for relatively small problems ranging from a splinter to a broken arm. How did WisDOT, its contractors, and their subcontractors combine early completion, under-budget performance, and safety?
It started from the top down. WisDOT took control of safety on the project by setting up its first owner-controlled insurance program.
WisDOT set the safety bar high, then communicated and enforced one strong safety standard for everyone. Each person coming on site had to pass a two- to three-hour safety orientation. Anyone working 6 ft. or more off the ground had to be tied off.
Contractors with more than 30 workers on site had to have a full-time safety officer on the job. Frequent meetings addressed issues and kept everyone on the same page.
The Marquette Interchange project’s success was no fluke. WisDOT used the same model to successfully build the $300-million Mitchell Interchange just completed near Milwaukee’s airport. The Mitchell Interchange project involved excavating 2 million cu. yds. of earth and constructing 68 lane miles of interstate, 29 bridges, three tunnels, 6 miles of retaining wall, 7 miles of noise barrier wall, and 17 miles of storm sewer.
The four-year project came in on budget and six weeks ahead of schedule. It saw nearly 3 million work hours with no fatalities, only three emergency responder calls, and 164 worker’s comp claims ranging from a minor scrape to a strained back.
The repeated success of the WisDOT project-management model shows that safety and operational success can go hand in hand if the project is organized well and top management keeps safety an important focus.