In 2005 the Illinois Tollway Authority launched its Open Roads for a Faster Future initiative. The $6.3 billion road building project was labeled a congestion-relief program for northern Illinois and especially the Chicago metro area. The program also corresponded with the Tollway's golden anniversary, since most of the system had been designed and built 50 years ago.

When Tollway officials announced the plan, they touted their capital investment as a new wave of revitalization for future economic growth throughout northern Illinois. In its half century of service, the Tollway has grown to become a key link in northern Illinois' transportation system. It has been a great influence on the local communities in the 12-county region.

Much of this funding was front-loaded. And one of the key portions of this program is rebuilding and widening the north end of the Tri-State Tollway, a 39-mile corridor of I-294 and I-94. When the projects on the north, central, and south segments are complete, the Tri-State Tollway will have four lanes in each direction from Indiana to near the Wisconsin state line. Several bridges are also being rebuilt and lengthened to accommodate mainline construction.

For the Chicago concrete industry, the fast-paced project provided a great market expansion opportunity. According to Pat Conerty, the Chicago-area sales manager for RexCon, a concrete batch plant manufacturer in Milwaukee, many producers adapted their business approaches to be part of the action.

“The producers' opportunity came because many road-building contractors were hesitant to get too leveraged with additional equipment for such extensive work on a possible short-term basis,” says Conerty.

RexCon president John Jacobs was also involved in this project. At one time, area producers had set up 13 of the manufacturer's portable plants in a 90-mile stretch from the new Marquette Interchange in Milwaukee to the southern limit of the I-355 extension near Joliet in Illinois.

Some of the producers who were active on various project segments of I-294 included Thelen Sand & Gravel, Super Mix, Chicago Elmhurst Stone, Ozinga Brothers, Plote Construction, and Prairie Materials. The same producers were also involved in other Tollway projects. Rogers Ready Mix worked on I-90 near Rockford, Ill., further northwest.

Meeting requirements

As a rule, the producers acted as subcontractors to each project segment's general contractors, which had distinguished names such as Walsh, K-Five, and Paschen. The producers typically were responsible for erecting portable high-production central mix batch plants for each project segment. These plants were sized to meet the hourly production requirements on mainline paving days.

Often the plants were placed strategically, at the contractor's direction, on the Tollway's approved right-of-way sites. Careful consideration was made to lessen travel time to the pour. The producers were responsible for obtaining the proper operating permits, and they supplemented production needs from existing commercial plants in the area for small pour quantities.

These plants were specifically engineered to repetitively batch one mix directly into dump trucks or mixers. This plant type provides a more thorough, unitized mix which is consistent from load to load. Plant operators can readily adjust fresh concrete properties easily, reducing the variability that could come from dry-batched operations.