STORIES BY RICK DANDES | PHOTOS BY JUSTIN ENGLE
Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series of stories about what life is like on a typical day in various parts of the Susquehanna Valley.
Half a century after the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation conceived of a mid-state highway — and after many years when plans had to be halted due to lack of revenue — the $670 million Central Susquehanna Thruway is now fully-funded, and construction is well underway. The northern section is due to be completed by 2022.
Thousands of cars, inconvenienced by delays, detours and lane closures on routes 15 and 147, can see only a fraction of the grueling, heavy construction work done behind the tree lines or at the Susquehanna River.
The Daily Item was recently granted permission by PennDOT and lead project contractor Trumbull Corp., of Pittsburgh, to go behind the scenes to witness a typical work day at the CSVT project.
VIDEO: A Day In The Life Of The Thruway
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF THE THRUWAY PROJECT: 7:00 A.M.
It’s a rainy morning in late May, and workers building the massive river bridge over the Susquehanna — and bridges over Wooded Run and Chillisquaque Creek — gather at their assigned work spots, slogging through mud and over gravel and stone, ignoring the light drizzle.
“This rain, it’s not enough to call off work,” said Vince Cavanaugh, of Shamokin Dam, a concrete carpenter foreman responsible for teams working on building and fortifying the bridges over Wooded Run and Chillisquaque Creek.
While work usually starts at 7 a.m., Cavanaugh might begin at 6 a.m. or 5:30, checking the weather reports, seeing if it’s safe to work. “A heavy rain, snow in the winter months, were legitimate days to call off work. Not today.” The foreman and superintendent collaborate on the decision to work or not.
A foreman at a work site might think it’s too muddy. If rain is in the forecast, a team might be able to work a couple of hours and try to finish by 11, Cavanaugh said. “There is also a 20 mph wind rate beyond which they don’t believe it is safe,” Cavanaugh said.
Wherever crews are working, the day starts with a short safety meeting, where foremen explain that day’s duties, with feedback on the project’s progress. Workers then change into protective gear, which could include hi-visibility jackets, hard helmets, safety glasses and gloves.
Once the construction day has started, numerous jobs are carried out at different locations.
Employees with the relevant licenses lift steel beams using a crane, while others dig dirt from a site, or transport required materials and tools to a roof surface. Some will be laying concrete.
The construction crew works an eight-hour day, 7-3:30, with a half-hour lunch. They work 10-hour days, if needed.
Trumbull has three contracts: The bridge, the Northern section and the interchanges.
The dirt work is 98 percent done and is expected to be completed this year, according to Cavanaugh.
Trumbull is building five bridges in four locations. Eight piers of the river bridge have been placed and two spans of steel set.
Fifty-five to 60 people are working the Northumberland side of the CSVT on this day, according to Trumbull Corp. But that number changes as the day to day tasks change. Trumbull has offices elsewhere in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and Harrisburg, for example, so if extra equipment or workers are needed, they can come from those locales.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF THE THRUWAY PROJECT: 8:00 A.M.
Surveyors have already been out at multiple work sites, marking the exact locations of everything that will be done and placed.
On our day in the construction zones, surveyors visited sites on the west side of the river, in Winfield, where tons of dirt are still being moved, at the river bridge where 14 piers will support the roadway over the river, and on the east side of the river at Wooded Run where crews are already well into their workday building another bridge.
Concrete surveyor Randy Klose, of Selinsgrove, said the work everyone is doing “today” is based on a late day meeting, “yesterday.”
“There are two of us on this project,” Klose said. “One does the surveying on the river bridge, the other, me — I survey on the west side of the river. We go to all the foremen. We do all the layouts for them so they call us and tell us what they are going to need the next day.
“We go out in the morning and take care of the stakeout work and tell them where to build. If they are digging a footer (the foundation on which the concrete piers will be placed) we have to show them where to dig it. Once it is dug, we go down and place pins at the corners of the concrete so they know where to work. They form the structure. And once they form it we tell them where to pour the concrete. We do that all the way up to the top lift of the piers.”
Trumbull construction workers follow the instructions made by PennDOT engineers, Klose said. He is computer savvy. He gets CAD files, architectural drawings that are highly detailed and show the surveyor where things go. “After looking at the CAD, we take the plans out and tell crews where to build in the fields,” Klose said.
Klose also closely monitors the railroad tracks on the west side of the river. “Because it is an active track, and because we are doing so much earth work around it, we have to make sure every day that the track doesn’t settle,” he said. “We have to check elevations on them.”
It’s called shooting the grade, the process of testing the elevation of a construction project to level or slope it, Klose said.
“Shooting the grade properly,” Klose indicated, “is critical to every facet of construction including excavation, pipe laying and forming footers and foundations.
“We get our levels out and shoot the elevation of the rails and compare them to where they were when we started,” he said. “Make sure they are not moving. That is the first thing we do every morning."
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF THE THRUWAY PROJECT: 9:00 A.M.
We’re driven to Wooded Run.
It’s still raining, and to get to where three laborers are working, on top of the ravine, it will take walking about 50 yards through mud and gravel. Dirt and stone are being bulldozed all around us. Dust flies everywhere.
We meet Aaron Stahl, of Selinsgrove. He’s a Trumbull employee, and also a labor union steward, also known as a union representative or shop steward, who represents and defends the interests of his or her fellow employees.
“I look out for them,” he said.
After the morning meeting, Stahl said, his foreman, Vince Cavanaugh, “tells us what we’ll be doing, what to look out for, safety wise. Today we are putting steel straps on panels, which fortifies the panels.”
It’s heavy lifting work. The steel straps, each about 100 pounds, are attached to panels that will stabilize the bridge, Stahl said.
Stahl and a colleague spend the next hour laying the straps out. When all the straps were bolted to the panel, “the bulldozer guy currently operating the excavator will get stone trucks and they’ll dump stones on this. He’ll put the stone in and knock it down for us. Then we have to shovel it behind the pipes, bury everything. Try to keep everything level.”
At about 9:30, Stahl pauses.
“I’ve been hearing about this job my whole life,” he said. “Oh, the bypass, the bypass. So it’s kind of nice to work on it,” he said. “Yesterday was bad, we got rained out. When it rains too bad, we can’t get the stone trucks in up through the road, it’s too muddy.
“This is gonna be a bridge because we have to go over two houses,” he said. “Beams will have to be laid over the piers. The goal is to have that done this year, then we have another one down by the Chillisquaque and have to go over that.”
Stahl and some other workers are building an abutment — a structure built to support the lateral pressure of an arch or span at the ends of a bridge.
They are building a mechanically stabilized earthen wall — soil constructed with artificial reinforcing. It is used for retaining walls and in this case, bridge abutments.
Meanwhile, foreman Cavanaugh is checking off what is done and what the next row is that needs to be set. He is very precise. He is following the plan laid out by PennDOT engineers.
Cavanaugh supervises work at three bridges, he said, “the two at Ridge Road, the one right here at Wooded Run, and I am also working the southbound bridge at Chillisquaque.”
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF THE THRUWAY PROJECT: 10:00 A.M.
We’re east of the river now, on land near the Northshore Railroad tracks, off Route 147 in Point Township.
Several workers, including crane operators, welders and other machine operators are preparing to dig the foundation — the footer — for pier 13 of the river bridge.
Dexter Ravenolt, of Paxinos, a heavy highway, or “form” carpenter, is helping to make the concrete forms. Concrete forms, he said, are the best solution for the most dependable bridge construction forms with long lifespans and proven durability.
“Right now,” Ravenolt said, “we are doing sheet piling, which prevents the earth from caving in on this as we do the footer work for the piers. After the sheet piling, we’ll do the footer, which is the base of the piers and what you see above the ground.”
The piers must follow blueprint specifications, carefully delineated measurements — so Ravenolt uses hand tools, rules and levels when necessary to ensure that everything is placed according to spec.
The structure is taking shape but the earth isn’t exactly cooperating, he said. “The footer level is about 26 feet below ground level.”
The footer level is below bedrock, and the drilling meets resistance.
“We’ll drill through it,” he said, taking off his protective glasses. “We put in some fortifications so the bottom of the sheets don’t collapse from the pressure from the outside. We have the sheets all down finally and drilling, putting pieces of rebar (short for reinforcing bars) in there. As we dig down, we’ll have a frame. All of this is in preparation for the footer that will fortify the pier.”
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF THE THRUWAY PROJECT: 11:00 A.M.
Everything on this job at the bridge is huge, heavy and tall.
All bridge structures have two components: Substructure and superstructure. The substructure consists of bridge piers, abutments, wing walls and piles, while the superstructure consists of a deck, support girders or any part on which the traffic moves safely, such as the roadway.
Crane operator Fern Druckenmiller, of McClure, is giving us a quick lesson about building a bridge. We’re standing at the foot of pier three, which is about 155 feet tall.
Druckenmiller has operated cranes for 19 years, he said. “I’m here to support the people working at the top of the pier, getting them what they need, such as lifting the cage that creates the hammerhead pier on which beams sit.”
The crane has a height of 270 feet and can pick up 125,000 pounds, he said
“Right now,” Druckenmiller said, “I’m waiting on guys to call me if they need me.”
Workers are building what they call a “cage,” which will be lifted by crane to the top of the pier. The cage is the reinforcing bar that will support the cap. Atop the cap will be the roadway.
Workers are standing in the middle of the Susquehanna River on an artificial island made to hold pier nine.
A footer for the pier has been dug 25 feet deep and has been fortified. The problem posed is water from the river seeping into the footer.
The entire area has to be fortified before a pier can be placed in the hole. Once the foundation is fortified, concrete is poured on the dirt floor. That pour is called a mud mat. It keeps the working surface up and out of the mud for footer installation.
Workers in knee-high boots climb down a ladder into the hole and guide the concrete pour. The only delay is waiting for the cement truck to arrive.
The truck arrives around noon.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF THE THRUWAY PROJECT: 12:00 P.M.
Because it is Thursday, the job superintendent, senior engineers, supervisors and foremen gather in Winfield at the company trailer for their weekly update meeting.
Here, they discuss what progress has been made and make plans for the following week.
Everything is planned and plotted. Every structure, every movement has to be precise.
The crew breaks for lunch within the hour. They have half an hour and so most of them bring their bags of lunch to work.
The half hour lunch break is the only break during the day; there are no scheduled rest breaks during either the morning or afternoon, said a Trumbull representative.
After the meeting and crew lunch break, work at multiple sites continues. Foremen make updates to their work schedule so that they — and others — know how much has been accomplished.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF THE THRUWAY PROJECT: 1:00 P.M.
Work resumes as the specific goals at each work site continue — and in some cases continue for days.
At Wooded Run, a bulldozer has already laid down 5-6 feet of stone atop the steel straps that Stahl and his fellow laborers laid down early that morning. Now, once the stones have filled up the area, another set of steel straps will be laid down and bolted atop the stones, further stabalizing the abutment they are building.
By the end of the day, once concrete foreman Vince Cavanaugh checks off the work, the crew will move on to do similar work at other bridges being built as part of Route 15.
Meanwhile, over at the location where pier 13 will be placed the crew continues to dig down 25 feet and fortify the structure.
All of this is a long process, building the foundation into which the pier’s footer, and eventually the pier itself will be positioned.
“This could take months before the pier is put down,” Ravenolt said.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF THE THRUWAY PROJECT: 2:00-3:30 P.M.
Back to pier 9.
It takes only a few hours to pour all the concrete needed into the 25-feet deep footer because there are multiple trucks making deliveries.
As the trucks arrive, workers at the bottom of the footer carefully position the funnel to pour the concrete where it can fill the bottom of the footer evenly. They have levels and work to smooth the concrete before it solidifies. All of this is in prepartion for the pier to be put in place, a very precise exercise, concrete surveyor Randy Klose said.
Klose is back in the field shooting the grade again, ensuring that the ground hasn’t shifted due to heavy construction work.
At the end of the day, work is “replanned” for weather, like wind and rain that may have caused a down day.
“We have a GPS rover, and that gives us the elevation and location of everything we shoot and then we can plot it in the computer and it shows up on the screen,” Klose said. “Our job is planned day-by-day, not weeks-by-weeks.”
Klose sits back in his chair, his computer screen showing the entire engineering design of the northern section.
He’s been a surveyor for 20-plus years, 17 with Trumbull.
“I have a personal stake in this,” he said. “I live on Park Road, so the next piece of CSVT is near my house.”
At the end of the day, foremen will discuss the day’s progress with the superintendent, who will then replan as necessary for the next day.
At 3:30, the workday is over.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF THE THRUWAY PROJECT: By the Numbers
1960s — Preliminary studies/design of CSVT
1978 — CSVT Studies stopped due to lack of funding
1994 — Studies restarted
2003 — Obtained environmental clearance
2006 — Northern Section final design initiated
2008 — Project placed on hold – funding issue
2013 — Act 89 passed (funding identified) and project reactivated
2015 – Southern Section final design initiated
2015 — Construction of the Northern Section started
May 20, 2016 — Official CSVT ground-breaking: Valley and state politicians attend
-- $670 million total estimated cost
-- 13 miles of new 4-lane, limited access highway
-- 9 million cubic yards of earthwork total, estimated; 5 million in northern section
-- 21 highway structures
-- 4 interchanges
-- Completion and opening to Bridge traffic, 2022
-- Completion of entire CSVT, estimate not yet determined
BRIDGE OVER THE WEST BRANCH
-- 4,545 feet long
-- 15 spans
-- 60 to 180-foot-high piers
-- 50,000 cubic yards of concrete
-- 20,000 tons of steel
CONTRACTS (SO FAR)
$156 million — Trumbull Corp., of Pittsburgh
Earthwork & Structures, north of river
$61 million — Trumbull Corp.
Earthwork & Structures, south of river
$37 million — New Enterprise Stone & Lime Co., Inc., of Winfield
Northern section contract has not yet been bid
Bid: in Fall 2018
Maine Drilling and Blasting, Trumbull (they did their own blasting for the second contract) and Wampum Hardware.
43: Number of subcontractors for the River Bridge work
38: Number of subcontractors for earthwork and structures north of bridge
22: Number of subcontractors for earthwork and structures south of the bridge
10: Number of bridges that will have to be built in northern section, located throughout the project area
12: Number of bridges that will have to be built in southern section, located throughout the project area