Across the vast landscape of Texas, billions of dollars are being spent to expand and repair bridges and roadways. Although U.S. states are struggling to maintain driveable roadways with dwindling budgets, infrastructure construction is going strong in Texas, thanks to bonds for highway improvements approved by taxpayers in 2003 and 2007. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is also exploring public-private partnerships to pay for even more major highway projects in the Houston and Dallas metro areas.
The boom has not caught precast/prestressed concrete producers offguard. “Concrete is the material of choice for bridge design in Texas, and every precaster in the state has a heavy workload right now,” says Chris Lechner, executive director of the Precast Concrete Manufacturers’ Association of Texas (PCMA). He estimates 96 percent of the bridge market is precast/prestressed concrete, with the exception of extremely long spans. He notes that gap is closing with advances in technology such as spliced precast/prestressed girders.
Off the top of his head, Lechner can name multi-billion dollar projects under construction across the state using every conceivable precast product: mechanically stabilized earth (MSE) walls on the I-635 Dallas/Fort Worth connector; hundreds of concrete pilings supporting the Campano Bay bridge; a precast pavement test strip south of Waco; and bridge beams, decks, and sound walls rebuilding the I-35 corridor from Dallas-Fort Worth to San Marcos.
Precasters also have their eyes on exit ramps. TxDOT is exploring test projects using curved precast girder sections that are cast in forms adjusted to a specific radius. The Colorado DOT estimates it has been able to save $1 million per exit, using steel reinforced curved girders.
Potential roadblocks ahead
But road construction in Texas may not continue full speed ahead for much longer. Unless the state legislature approves more taxes or registration fees to fund roadwork by 2014, TxDOT could go into maintenance mode.
“Right now the focus is on water infrastructure, after several years of experiencing the worst drought we’ve seen since the 1950s,” he says. Some precast producers could actually be involved in that construction as well, supplying pipes, culverts, and panels.
Although Texas precasters have benefited from forward-thinking investment in infrastructure, they are bound by the same uncertainty faced by other parts of the country — and the concrete industry. “The total use of concrete in Texas is increasing, especially for pavements,” says Lechner, citing comparable costs of concrete and asphalt. “Concrete delivers a better value for longevity, hands down. But we’re not out of the woods yet. There are so many variables right now; it’s hard to keep track of where the economy is going to go.
“What impresses me about precasters is that they are always innovating,” says Lechner. “The industry is constantly improving.” This restlessness has served producers well during economic downturns, and it may be what keeps them afloat through tough times in the future.
Here, we highlight three Texas precast producers and the ways in which they are meeting the challenges of their competitive infrastructure market with creativity, quick thinking, and a dedication to high-quality products.
Sylvan Avenue Bridge
Looking out over the site of the new Sylvan Avenue Bridge in Dallas, Jorge Hinojosa, P.E. sees the future of precast concrete. “The precast industry has taken, and will continue to take, a larger piece of the steel girder market over the next five years,” says the general manager of Bexar Concrete Works.
For 35 years, the Dallas precast/prestressed producer has specialized in making concrete elements for highways. Currently, Bexar is casting girders for the Sylvan Avenue Bridge, which will connect downtown and west Dallas when it opens early 2014. The 3500-foot, six-lane bridge replaces a flood-prone two-lane road and three separate bridges that cross two levees and the Trinity River.
The City of Dallas calls it a “vital project [that] will provide a new bridge across the last of the Dallas streets low water crossings.” The project will raise the elevation of Sylvan Avenue to eliminate the frequent flooding and closures experienced on the current road. The public will also benefit from new bike lanes, sidewalks on each shoulder, and a ramp for pedestrian access to a park.
In January, Bexar began casting the 150-foot girders it will supply for the bridge, including standard 28-, 54-, and 82-inch prestressed girders, as well as spliced precast/prestressed girders to span 250 feet. The project consists of 23 spans, 14 of which are typical 82-inch prestressed girders and nine that are divided in three units of three spliced, post-tensioned girders.