ST. GEORGE – Traveling through the Virgin River Gorge hasn’t always been a treat for motorists over the last few years.
Roadwork on Interstate 15 and its bridges has produced lengthy delays in time and distance and often reduced traffic to single lanes along the way. Motorists soon learned the only viable alternative around the construction zone was by taking Old Highway 91.
Well, no more.
The Arizona Department of Transportation announced Friday that the extensive roadwork has been completed for the time being.
The most recent project on the Arizona stretch of I-15 has focused on rehabilitating and upgrading Virgin River Bridge No. 6, located at milepost 16.
Work on the bridge started in May 2014. While the $27 million project has proven to be a challenge, ADOT officials said, it is now completed. Earlier road work, such as repaving, started in 2012.
“The Bridge No. 6 project finished yesterday,” said Sgt John Bottoms, of the Arizona Department of Public Safety. Work crews finished putting striping on the roadway and putting up the speed limit signs before they “boogied out” Thursday afternoon, he said.
Having the roadwork completed is a relief for both the Arizona DPS troopers who patrol the 29-mile stretch of highway, as well as the motorists who have had to travel it, Bottoms said.
“It’s been a huge relief not having traffic back up three or four or five times a week and watching motorists actually get through there without hesitation or delay,” he said. “Most people we’ve interacted with are pleased they aren’t caught in backed-up traffic anymore.”
Part of the work done to Bridge No. 6 has included the addition of an emergency lane, Bottoms said. This addition recently came in handy when a truck pulling a trailer broke down and was able to pull off the road while waiting for a tow truck. Before the addition, the truck would have been stuck in one of the lanes and caused traffic to back up until the tow truck arrived – which could take a while.
Instead, the whole incident was resolved in around 45 minutes and with little impact to passing traffic.
Bridge No. 6 was the centerpiece of an overall $50 million project that saw to the reconstruction and upgrade of aging infrastructure which included work on four other bridges and the repaving of all 29 miles of highway.
The Interstate and accompanying bridges were completed in 1973 and considered one of the more challenging projects to date for the U.S. Interstate system, ADOT officials said in a press release.
Just as it was a challenge to originally build the roadway and bridges that connect St. George to Las Vegas, Nevada, and beyond, so too was it a challenge to overhaul them 40 years later.
Crews faced uncommon challenges as they replaced girders, decks and railings as well as widened the roadway at Bridge No. 6, said Adam Carreon, ADOT’s resident engineer on the project.
The first challenge was the same as during the original construction: geography. The bridge stands 100 feet above the river in a narrow canyon. Not only did that demand an unending focus on safety for workers, it required specialized equipment to work in tight spaces.
“I-15 in the Virgin River Gorge is an extremely curvy section of freeway,” Carreon said. “Access was extremely limited. We had to build a steep road to bring equipment, materials and workers to the work site.”
Protecting the environment also required careful management, including shielding to prevent any debris from falling into the Virgin River. Crews worked closely with the Bureau of Land Management, Arizona Game and Fish Department, the Arizona State Land Department’s Natural Resources Division and the Environmental Protection Agency, among other agencies.
“Every precaution was taken to make sure we were sensitive to the environment,” Carreon said.
The overall project has involved 4,000 cubic yards of structural concrete, 3 million pounds of structural steel, 910,000 pounds of reinforcing steel, 4,000 tons of earth moved and 3,600 tons of asphalt.
The stretch of I-15 connecting Utah and Nevada is a vital economic corridor, with 1.4 million trucks using the roadway each year. Its remote location offers few alternate routes.
While the roadwork and construction is completed for now, work is anticipated to pick up again in July 2018, which falls in Arizona’s fiscal 2019. At that time ADOT plans to commit $33 million toward the replacement of Virgin River Bridge No. 1 near Littlefield, Arizona.
Until then, motorists won’t have to deal with reduced speeds, recurring traffic delays, single-lane travel, or routinely using Highway 91 as an alternative. People can still take Highway 91 between Littlefield, Arizona, and Ivins if they really want to – just watch out for the occasional cow that likes to stand a little too close to the road.
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