Public Works Help Fill the Void
We talk to contractors who have diversified.
It’s hardly startling news that grading work has declined sharply since the housing boom peaked a few years ago. Since then, earthmoving contractors have been diversifying to survive.
“Diversity is always a key to success,” says David Hales, president of W.W. Clyde & Co., a large heavy/highway contractor based in Springville, Utah. “Over the last five years, we were working a fair amount in the residential market. When that dried up, we were able to move into the transportation market to fill that void left by residential work. Twenty years ago, probably 95% of our work was in the private sector and 5% was public. Today, we are probably 95% public and 5% private.”
Smaller contractors say much the same thing. “The key to longevity and viability is our diversity,” says Ted Lashley, vice president at BSB Construction Inc., of Curtis, NE. His firm has found grading work in projects ranging from dam repair to landfills to feedlots.
“We don’t do mainline paving or asphalt,” says Lashley. “We do concrete parking lots and a little bit of street paving. Our main thrust is in three types of projects: heavy earthmoving; municipal water and sewer work; and trucking and material handling.” BSB runs Caterpillar and John Deere earthmoving equipment.
Lashley is not thinking of expanding the paving operations. “It is so competitive right now that you’d have to buy an existing company to do it,” says Lashley. “And with the constriction in new street and highway funding, it is mostly a maintenance market. Plus, the capital outlays would be intense.”
“Three years ago probably 40% of our work was public works projects,” says Jerry Pabbruwee, chief estimator at Sukut Construction Inc., a large Orange County, CA–based contractor. “Sixty percent of our work was site preparation for residential tracts. Now, we’re doing 90% public works projects and very little residential work.”
Does Sukut have thoughts of getting into paving? No, because it’s too competitive right now, says Pabbruwee. And it’s even more competitive because paving contractors who were doing residential projects are now bidding highway and street projects. “All public works projects are competitive, but we try to pick our areas of strength and capitalize on them,” says Pabbruwee.
To diversify, Sukut recently acquired a company that does landfill gas collection and flare station works. It’s possible to burn the gases emitted from a landfill and use the energy to produce electricity. Currently Sukut is closing the Meyers Landfill in northern California by installing a capping system, a French drain, and a gas collection system.
For the East Bay Municipal Utility District in the Oakland, CA, area, Sukut performed a $50 million seismic retrofit of the San Pablo Dam. Sukut teamed up with Raito Inc. to do cement deep soil mixing into the subgrade on the downhill side of the dam, placement of a full-width earthfill buttress, and some pressure grouting of the outlet structures. Sukut drilled under the concrete outlet structures and applied grout under pressure to strengthen the resistance of the structures to earthquakes.
And in joint venture with Flatiron Corp., Sukut is doing the grading, drainage and utilities for a new stretch of the Route 905 Freeway for Caltrans in San Diego. Plus, Sukut has a $35 million contract to build a water storage reservoir for the Santa Margarita Water District near Rancho Santa Margarita. Called the Upper Chiquita Reservoir, the structure consists of a zoned earthfill dam that is lined with a geosynthetic material.
Another public works project, this one the $9 million Robert Diemer Water Treatment Plant, is being built by Sukut in Yorba Linda, CA. Now under way for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the project entails grading, retaining walls, a bridge, and utilities.
“We’re almost a 100% Caterpillar company,” says Pabbruwee. The company owns about 120 Caterpillar scrapers, an extensive fleet of excavators, and many wheel loaders. Bulldozers range in size from Caterpillar D5’s up to two Cat D11 dozers.
Utah’s Highway Work
At W.W. Clyde, Hales says Utah has been fortunate to have a robust highway budget for the past ten years. Those projects now will decline somewhat. This year, Hales says Clyde’s volume of business will nearly equal last year’s, and both years are off considerably from 3 years ago.
|Photo: W.W. Clyde
W.W. Clyde used a Cat 14H grader equipped with a Trimble GPS system for grading work at the Twin Falls bypass project.
“We have traditionally bid in the state of Utah and the bordering states,” says Hales. “Those are markets that we have always been in—but now we’re going deeper into the surrounding states.”
Hales said W.W. Clyde joint ventured with Kiewit Corp. on a $170 million Pioneer Crossing project, which included a large diverging diamond interchange on Interstate 15 south of Salt Lake. The project included the offsite construction of two large bridges that were subsequently moved into place overnight by Self-Propelled Modular Transporters. Those are large sets of wheels that act like land barges to move structures into place.
And W.W. Clyde does asphalt paving. “We have two portable asphalt plants and crushers that we roll around the Intermountain West with,” says Hales. “Our sister company, Geneva Rock Products, does black paving in the metropolitan (Salt Lake City) area here on the Wasatch Front, and they also do concrete paving.”
For the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, W.W. Clyde recently finished a new $34 million water treatment plant in Duchesne, UT. The project involved some grading, but not a lot—mainly a lot of mechanical works and structural concrete. And Clyde is working on a tunnel and head works for the Ashton Dam near Ashton, ID. “We are doing the first phase of the reconstruction of the dam and hydroelectric plant there,” Hales says.
In a large excavation project, W.W. Clyde removed 2.5 million cubic yards of overburden for an open-pit mine in central Utah. “That was rock drilling and blasting,” says Hales. “It’s tough material.”
And in another diverse project, Clyde has begun installing approximately 18,000 feet of buried 60-inch-diameter pipe—called the Provo Reach—which helps bring water to the Salt Lake metro area from the Uintah Basin. The owner on that one is also the Central Utah Water Conservancy District.
Counting pickups and all rolling stock, W.W. Clyde’s fleet consists of approximately 700 pieces of equipment. Included are 10 Caterpillar 631 push scrapers, some twin-engine Cat 627 and 623 scrapers and a dozer fleet that ranges from Caterpillar D3’s up to D10R units.
“We have nine 55-ton Caterpillar rigid-frame rock trucks,” says Hales. “And we have 45 excavators that range from a Cat 320 up to a 385-size unit.” Plus, Clyde runs 32 wheel loaders and 15 motor graders.
“Several of our motor graders have GPS systems, and all of our GPS systems are Trimble,” says Hales. “We have GPS on our big backhoes, big dozers, graders, and a couple of scrapers are GPS-capable as well.”
Traditionally much of Ryan Inc. Central’s grading work has come from the Chicago area and northwest Indiana. That has changed.
“If you sit here and wait in Chicago for work, you’re going to sit here for awhile,” says Larry Hill, Ryan’s operations/business development director. “The residential market in Chicago has been hit harder than in other places. And on the commercial building side, there are many open buildings around Chicago. The general contractors built buildings on speculation, and they’re vacant now.
“In a decent economy we would have 20 jobs in the Chicago area, and now we have three,” says Hill. “We’re grading for an intermodal rail site in Joliet, for a distribution center for Clorox in University Park, and we’re starting work on the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery at Elwood, IL.” At the cemetery, Ryan will level an area, then dig a mass excavation 12 feet deep. That excavation will hold 2,500 crypts in one area of the existing cemetery for American veterans.
The 126-year-old, fourth-generation Ryan Inc. Central is based in Janesville, WI, and is working in Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and up and down the middle-Atlantic states, says Hill. In recent years landfills and power plants have provided Ryan with sources of grading projects. In fact, the company has completed some 30 different landfill sites in the last couple of years.
“We’re bidding a lot of state highway work but have not been successful at landing any yet,” says Hill. “We continue to bid highways in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana; we bid anything to do with dirt work. We’ve been bidding for wind farms, but it takes awhile for the administrative and permitting work to be completed for those.”
Ryan runs more than 200 pieces of heavy equipment. The fleet includes 60 Volvo 40-ton articulated trucks and some 75 scrapers, including Caterpillar 627 units and John Deere 9520 tractors pulling tow-behind scrapers. The dozer fleet is close to 50 in number, including many Caterpillar units and several John Deere 650-size dozers.
Ryan does something that is unique to the Midwest—it uses Cat D8 tractors and John Deere 1050C tractors to pull Rome pans. Ryan says the cost per yard of earth moved is less with “Cats-and-Pans,” particularly in wet soil and tough going.
Not the Usual Work
In good years, J.B. Holland Construction Inc., Decorah, IA, does about $18 million or more of earthmoving projects. This year, though, will be down about 20%, says office manager Diane Henry.
“We have become more concentrated in landfill projects and wastewater treatment facilities made necessary by regulations of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and other regulatory bodies,” says Henry. The company counts three Iowa landfills as part of its current portfolio of work. Another larger project is the Lost Grove Dam and Spillway in Scott County, IA.
In the past we haven’t had to worry about running out of work by the end of the season,” says Henry. “This year it’s different. Bidding is more competitive and everybody is in the mode of forcing themselves out of their usual lines of work. So are we, and we’re not alone.”
Canyon Presents Construction Challenges
Several logistical challenges faced W.W. Clyde & Co. when the Springville, UT, contractor tackled the $30 million US 93 bypass around Twin Falls, ID. The project involved building 6 miles of four-lane highway, 4.5 miles of frontage road, and a new bridge across Rock Creek Canyon.
Included in the reconstruction of the roadway are the addition of turn lanes, a new intersection, and a railroad crossing near the southern end of the project. Construction began in September 2009 and was expected to wrap up late in 2010. The result: a four-lane limited access highway that is wider and has a different alignment than the original roadway.
Grading involved about 200,000 cubic yards of shot rock excavation from the bottom of the canyon, and about 200,000 yards of borrow from a pit at the south end of the project. Clyde used three spreads of equipment to handle excavation and borrow work.
To excavate the shot rock from the canyon bottom, Clyde used a Caterpillar 375 excavator with a 7-yard bucket to load 40-ton Caterpillar D400 trucks. “We needed something that could pull the grade up out of that canyon, because part of the ramp out was on a 26% grade,” says Brett Hanni, Clyde’s project superintendent. “Those Cat trucks did the job very well.”
“Plus, we moved about 80,000 cubic yards with two Cat 627 scrapers,” Hanni says. Those are twin-engine units that Clyde worked in push-pull fashion; the scrapers connect by a bail and the rear one pushes while the front one loads. Then the front scraper pulls the rear one while it loads.
Clyde fitted one of the Cat 627 scrapers with a Trimble GPS. The GPS helped maintain grade control at both the cut and the fill at the roadway. “We have a central base station at our office, and we have two motor graders—a Cat 14H and a 14M—both equipped with GPSs,” he says.
The third spread working the borrow pit was a Caterpillar 980G loader that was fed by a Cat D9 dozer. The big loader filled belly dumps pulling pups and hauled fill to the roadway.
A key logistical challenge loomed. The canyon bridge was on the critical path toward project completion—and Clyde needed to position a crane near the bottom of the canyon in order to build the bridge. “As soon as we got the majority of the material excavated out of the canyon, we leveled off a crane pad near the bottom of the canyon,” says Hanni.
Moving the 250-ton crane into place down the 26% ramp was not easy. The 26% portion was about 200 feet long, and in total, the ramp measured approximately 600 feet down into the canyon.
Hanni says they removed the lattice boom sections and the counterweights from the crane, to lighten it up and improve its balance. As the crane moved down the slope, two Cat D8 dozers, with blades facing the crane and close to it, led the way, backing down ahead of the crane. “We did that so the crane didn’t run away on us,” says Hanni.
Bridge footing construction began in January 2010. Today, the big steel bridge is five lanes wide, 450 feet long, and stands 120 feet above grade at the tallest point. It has stay-in-place steel decking. “Starting bridge construction on time was a key to our success,” says Hanni.
One of the last stages of construction is to remove twin 10-foot-diameter multiplate pipes, or culverts, from the canyon bottom. The pipes are covered with fill to create the original roadway across the canyon. “We have to remove that pipe and reshape the canyon as it was before,” says Hanni.
The new US 93 was paved with approximately 130,000 tons of asphalt, and the new highway is paved 7 inches thick. Base construction consists of 300,000 tons of open-graded rock that is 3 inches and smaller in size.
Author's Bio: Daniel C. Brown writes on safety and technology in the construction industry.