Hwy 17 drainage project ‘pedal to metal’ despite rain, other hurdles

Caltrans inspectors and workers with Pavex Construction Division measure the spot where a new drainage pipe is to be installed down a ravine next to northbound Highway 17 south of Big Moody Curve on the Santa Clara County side.

    The $18.1 million construction project aimed at improving wet weather driving conditions on the curvy three-mile portion of Highway 17 between Summit Road and south of bear Creek Road is pedal to the metal. That's good news for nearby Redwood Estates residents and commuters. It's also good news for the contractors who have been tip-toeing around Mother Nature and working every day they can to get it done in the summer of 2012. Pavex Construction Division, of Graniterock, is working feverishly to install new drainage systems under and around the highway that opened in 1940, build a retaining wall at Big Moody Curve, and replace the median divide and the outside metal guard rail. A smooth layer of pavement will be the final touch. Last week, I took a tour of the work site with Eli Mowbray, Pavex project manager. Here's what I learned: Work occurs from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. Sunday through Thursday nights. On Friday and Saturday nights, crews work from 10 p.m. until 9 a.m, 10 a.m. on Sundays. Each night since June, crews have been working both directions of the highway, digging through two feet of concrete and old drainage pipe and scaling as much as 270 feet down steep ravines to install new drainage systems.

Caltrans safety inspectors and a Pavex Construction Division crew inspect the soil where a new drainage pipe is to be installed along Highway 17's Santa Clara County side. This is part of an $18.1 million project to improve drainage on the highway, which opened in 1940, making the road safer when the weather is rainy.

Pavex erected a cement plant at the Summit Shack to deliver quick drying cement to the drainage sites. In good weather conditions and if mixed properly, the cement can dry in less than an hour. Of the 102 systems listed in their contract, Mowbray estimated his crew has replaced two-thirds of them. While Pavex addresses the drainage issues, one subcontractor is in charge of removing debris and garbage from the highway and another is smoothing out the hump in the road at Madrone Drive using a Botox-style method of injecting asphalt into the ground. However, as with any construction project, this one isn't without speed bumps – the first being unseasonable rain in June and October, causing the crews to stay home. Meanwhile, crews must contend with other obstacles from Mother Nature once they are on the job. While workers try to ensure the safety of endangered animals that make their home in the project area, they're also concerned about run-ins with animals that can cause them harm, such as rattle snakes and mountain lions. But Mother Nature isn't the only thing Pavex and its contractors are trying to make peace with. Human beings also play a roll in how smoothly the project runs. “We've had people throw fire crackers at us – M-80s,” said Mowbray. Another challenge: keeping the noise level down. At least one neighbor has written to Caltrans complaining about the project's loudness. That's difficult to mitigate, Mowbray said, as some homes sit 20 feet from the highway. But they're trying, he said. Meanwhile, motorists' speed also concerns the workers. The area is posted at 30 mph, yet drivers, including a big rig truck I witnessed Tuesday night, barrel through the construction site's 11 foot wide travel lanes. Without the movable protective barriers in place, the lanes are 12 feet wide. While CHP cruisers monitor the construction zone's entry points, Caltrans reminds motorists to slow for the cone zone – it's the law. By the way, construction areas are double fine zones. For more information about this project, visit http://www.dot.ca.gov/dist4/17wetpaving/index.html/.  
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