Length: 11 miles, from Federal Boulevard to 88th Street
Cost: $312 million
Estimated completion date: December 2014
Bus rapid transit stations: Westminster Center (Sheridan Boulevard), Westminster (Church Ranch Boulevard), Broomfield (1stBank Center), Broomfield (Flatiron/96th Street)
Length: 6 miles, from 88th Street to Table Mesa park-n-Ride
Cost: $113 million (estimated)
Estimated completion date: December 2015
Bus rapid transit stations: Superior/Louisville (McCaslin Boulevard), Boulder (Table Mesa Drive)
Ron Ruelle has been making the regular trek up and down U.S. 36 from his home in the Heatherwood neighborhood near Boulder to the Community College of Aurora, where he teaches graphic design and cartooning.
Nearly a year ago, when the U.S. 36 Managed Lanes project began, Ruelle noticed his ability to jockey for position on the highway diminish appreciably -- as cement barriers went up, earthmovers moved in and lanes got narrowed and realigned.
Yet Ruelle hasn't been pounding his steering wheel or seeing red at every orange sign he passes on the busy Boulder-to-Denver thoroughfare.
"All in all, they're actually keeping the traffic moving pretty well. It flows reasonably well for a construction site," he said. "The areas that are usually congested are as congested as they ever were."
But that auspicious outlook could change this summer and fall, as the $425 million highway widening effort moves into what construction managers are calling "the meat" of the endeavor.
Miles more of roadway will be squeezed into constricted lanes, three major bridges will be pulverized and brought to the ground and the new concrete road surface will get its first pour starting late next month. The number of workers in the corridor will swell, from the 250 or so today to more than 400.
"It will be a little more cramped for a longer distance," said Jason Estes, construction manager for Ames Granite Joint Venture, the design-build firm in charge of part of U.S. 36's makeover.
But from the discomfort of heavy construction this summer and fall will come the reward of seeing what rises from the commotion and dust, he said.
"We're getting into the final product," Estes said recently, standing atop the BNSF bridge west of Church Ranch Boulevard as a massive excavator moved bucketfuls of dirt nearby.
Highway 80 feet wider than before
That final product is a state-of-the-art overhaul of U.S. 36, which aims to add 40 feet of width to the roadway in each direction.
Inside that bigger envelope, a managed lane will be built each way. The lane, which will require solo drivers to pay a toll, will accommodate bus rapid transit service and high-occupancy vehicles for free. The highway will continue to have two general-purpose lanes east and west.
Also planned for the length of the corridor is a dedicated bikeway.
The revamped U.S. 36 also will get a fiber-optic backbone designed to feed real-time data to electronic highway signs -- informing motorists of accidents and delays -- and to TV displays at the bus rapid transit stations along the corridor, letting commuters know when the next bus is due to arrive.
"This will be one of the most high-tech stretches of highway in the country," Estes said.
The project is split into two phases, the first stretching 11 miles from Federal Boulevard to 88th Street between Louisville and Superior. Work on the $312 million phase -- funded by RTD, along with state and federal grants and loans -- began last July and is expected to wrap up at the end of 2014.
The second phase, which won't get underway for another six months, is 6 miles long and covers the highway from 88th Street to the Table Mesa park-n-Ride in Boulder.
Mark Gosselin, U.S. 36 Managed Lanes project manager with the Colorado Department of Transportation, said the project is moving along on schedule despite unusually cold and snowy spring weather.
"We're approaching 40 percent completion (of Phase I) this coming summer," he said. "You're going to see a lot of activity and changes out there."
Pouring concrete, demolishing bridges
Chief among the changes motorists will notice this summer will be the pouring of the highway's new face -- a layer of concrete that represents the first complete repaving of the road since it was built more than 60 years ago. The work will begin in late July.
Estes said the challenge will be repaving the entire eastbound side of the project's first phase in the face of foul weather and before winter sets in.
"You can't concrete pave in the rain, you can't concrete pave when the winter gets close," he said. "It's a matter of completing as much of the weather-sensitive work as we can in the window we get."
But it has to be done right, Estes said, as he pointed to a collection of graders criss-crossing over a wide swath of dirt where the old eastbound lanes of U.S. 36 used to be near Sheridan Boulevard. The pavement is the largest, longest and most visible facet of the project.
"What everybody will know about the job is the pavement surface we leave behind," he said.
In 2014, the whole configuration will flip, with traffic being directed onto the new pavement on the eastbound side so that the westbound side can get a new surface.
The other noticeable activity, scheduled for late July or early August, will be the demolition of the Wadsworth Boulevard and 112th Street bridges. The Sheridan Boulevard bridge is slated to come down later in the fall.
Crews will use hydraulic breakers and hydraulic pinchers to break up the bridge deck and bust down the supporting structure, before pulling the debris off the highway. CDOT thinks the demolition work will only require the closure of U.S. 36 for two or three nights.
Motorists can expect to see a vastly improved interchange at Wadsworth Boulevard, with a brand-new bridge spanning the highway and more elegantly laid-out on- and off-ramps.
"It will be good to see it go," Gosselin said of the old Wadsworth bridge.
Phase II starts soon
While the western stretch of U.S. 36 leading into Boulder has been spared the orange construction barrels and restrictive cement barriers thus far, that sense of calm won't last long. The second phase of the U.S. 36 Managed Lanes project is set to gear up at the end of this year or early next year.
The cost of that part of the project is estimated to be $113 million, though concessionaire Plenary Roads Denver has until June 27 to finalize an agreement with CDOT and until November to get its financing in place.
But plenty has been happening behind the scenes, as CDOT pursues land acquisition for right-of-way along the corridor. In just the last couple of months, the agency has signed agreements with Louisville and Superior to take possession of slivers of municipally owned land along the highway.
So far, according to Ames Granite Joint Venture's Phase II construction manager Ron Dukeshier, all sales have been willing and there has been no need for eminent domain action.
Dukeshier expects things on U.S. 36 between Louisville and Boulder to move along even smoother than on the first phase, largely because the segment is shorter and has fewer complicating factors en route.
"It shouldn't be as chopped up as Phase I -- there's aren't as many structures," he said.
The one structure that could cause some heartburn in the second phase is the diverging diamond interchange planned for the McCaslin Boulevard bridge over U.S. 36. The interchange's unique configuration, in which traffic is temporarily routed to the wrong side of the road to eliminate obstructed left turns, combined with a web of dedicated ramps for Regional Transportation District buses, may confuse some motorists.
"There will be some interesting traffic switches there," Dukeshier said.
Work in Phase II also will include the installation of multiple box culverts for irrigation ditches crossing the highway and a pedestrian underpass connecting Davidson Mesa in Louisville with Marshall Road in Superior.
The second phase, along with the entire project, is expected to wrap up at the end of 2015.
As for cartooning instructor Ruelle, he is not so naive to think that the relatively smooth sailing he has experienced in the past year on U.S. 36 will continue without a white-knuckle, hair-pulling hiccup or two going forward.
"Ask me again this summer," he said.