By Rodger Rochelle

Early on, it became apparent that the accelerated delivery of the Complete 540 project in Raleigh, N.C., would require a decidedly different approach. The litany of studies and approvals needed to move the project forward would take far too long for the aggressive timeline proposed by then North Carolina Department of Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon.

Complete 540 comprises an additional 29 miles of the 70-mile I-540 outer loop around Raleigh and is the North Carolina Turnpike Authority’s most significant project to date. Funded primarily by a U.S. Department of Transportation loan and toll revenue bonds, Phase 1 comprises 18 miles of the loop currently under construction and is being delivered under three design-build contracts. Once those sections are opened in 2023, only Phase 2 will remain as the final link for closing the loop. 

From the beginning, Phase 1 has been a colossal endeavor, requiring the acquisition of 650 parcels of land, extensive environmental assessments, studies and proposals, and an unparalleled level of collaboration between team members, government officials, and the community at large. 

NCTA’s initial task was finding a way to expedite the NEPA environmental documentation work, particularly in light of the number of reviews needed for the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Typically, the process takes months and requires multiple reviews and iterations before even being sent to the Federal Highway Administration for approval, creating a challenge for the project’s schedule.

To streamline the process, the NCTA team chose to tackle the problem from several angles. Initially, we shared applicable sections of the EIS with the appropriate subject matter experts and review partners as each was completed. 

Then, in October 2017, we invited everyone to Raleigh for a three-day work session, during which all comments were discussed and many changes to the EIS were made “on the fly,” either in the same room or by phone. It was an unprecedented approach for NCTA, and for the state. By working in a robust, collaborative and concurrent review manner, the group completed the process with extraordinary speed, and the approval of the Final EIS took a couple of weeks, not months.

Multi-Tasking in a Big Way

Upon approval of the Final EIS in early 2018, the NCTA began overlapping other activities to further streamline the schedule. As we prepared the Record of Decision, we completed the traffic and revenue studies needed to finance the project. As we procured design-build contracts for roughly $750-800 million that summer, we continued work to solidify financing and simultaneously collaborated with interested parties to settle a legal challenge to the project. 

NCTA also began the utility coordination process before bidding, rather than giving the entire task to the design-builders after awarding the contracts. Inviting all potential bidders to the early meetings ensured that all design-builders were fully involved and aware of how their designs might affect relocations. It paid off in the end, as it minimized the uncertainty and risk in the job’s schedule and cost.

This was particularly helpful on Phase 1, where numerous utility suppliers crisscrossed the corridor creating many dozens of utility conflicts and tens of millions of dollars in relocations. Most significantly, underground fuel lines operated by Colonial Pipeline conflicted with the route in eight different places. They weren’t alone, as there were several other utilities with similar conflicts – electrical distribution and transmission, cable, phone, and gas lines. 

Elsewhere, environmental issues identified in the EIS posed their own challenges to the schedule. There were endangered aquatic species – salamanders and mussels – in the creeks that fell directly in the corridor’s path. That required a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion and mitigation plan, followed by the identification and relocation of the mussels immediately before nearby construction activity. 

As an additional measure, NCTA committed to providing $8 million in long-term funding for the design, construction and long-term operations of a mussel propagation facility in coordination with the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission and North Carolina State University. The facility will test and develop methods for propagating mussels in the lab, then re-introduce them into their native habitat. 

There was also some required data recovery (artifact collection) at select archeological sites, per the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office, in collaboration with the Catawba Indian Nation. 

NCTA also took a proactive approach to the project’s aggressive Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) goals. The DBE contracts amount to $70-75 million, so it was crucial that NCTA connect area DBE firms with prime contractors. So, we hosted a formal pre-bid information session for contractors and designers, followed immediately by a DBE forum to facilitate the connections.

The NCTA team also sponsored multiple public hearings and forums for the community – with hundreds in attendance – where we presented virtual fly-throughs, looped informational videos and a formal presentation, staffed with dozens of project personnel to answer questions. Residents could even print maps of the corridor relative to their properties at the events. Remarkably, there have been few complaints during the land acquisition process, with much of the credit going to Dennis Jernigan, NCTA’s Director of Highway Operations, who met frequently with property owners to hear and address their concerns.

Design-Build Lends Itself to the End Game

Ultimately, NCTA plans for all three of the adjacent Phase 1 design-build sections to be completed and opened simultaneously in 2023. To that aim, we awarded the design-build contract with the longest duration first, then staggered the remaining two at later intervals. 

Design-build is critical to our meeting that goal, as it provides flexibility, speed, and an unparalleled level of collaboration. It has also been conducive to innovation, as NCTA allows its bidders to propose alternative technical concepts (ATCs) in their proposals. Throughout procurement, there were nearly 90 ATCs proposed during Phase 1, with about a quarter of them approved. Although time consuming and labor intensive, the ATC process pays huge dividends in the long run and provides contractors with infinite room for innovation. 


Rodger Rochelle is Chief Engineer at North Carolina Turnpike Authority.

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