Paving the way to the mile-high city


2004 project of the year finalist

Denver's 16R/34L Runway project team met high expectations in the midst of the world's biggest aviation crisis.

by Libby Ellis

next-generation, long-distance aircraft, such as the Airbus A380, make it challenging for global airports to meet their biggest—and seemingly simplest—expectation: to provide a safe landing zone.

Project managers for the Denver International Airport (DIA) knew that if these jets were going to be as popular as predicted, the facility had to support the flying giants. When DIA opened in 1995 with five commercial runways, architects from CH2M Hill already had planned a sixth to support non-stop, year-round flights from Europe and Asia. Runway16R/34L would be a Group VI runway large and technologically advanced enough to handle jumbo jets as large as the Airbus A380. However, budget constraints during the initial DIA project stalled the plans until November 2000, when the project took off on a fast-track design and construction schedule.


Despite setbacks, the runway opened 18 days early and $12 million under budget in September 2003. Anticipating delays before they happened and choosing the right contractor made it possible, says Brooks Allshouse, program manager with construction firm DMJM Aviation, Denver, Colo., USA. “Ninety-nine percent of the design worked, and we kept the contractor on task. We used a team approach to control cost whenever we ran into potential cost overruns. The approach worked because we had a contractor more interested in building a good project than in making extra money with change-orders,” he says.

executive summary

Creative approaches to quality management can help ensure deadlines are met.

Unexpected funding challenges from unanticipated risks such as terrorist attacks can be overcome.

Working with like-minded contractors, and building slow-down clauses into contracts, alleviates the potential for risk.

The Challenge

First, a little perspective: In less than three years, project managers had to deliver a 16,000-foot-long, 200-foot-wide runway—33 percent longer than the airport's other runways and about twice as long as runways needed for airports at or below sea level. The $154 million runway is so long that a jet parked at one end isn't visible from the other end due to the curvature of the earth.

The scope also included paving and lighting approximately 1,100 acres in the midst of a functioning airport. The final cost includes design services, insurance, construction, quality management, grading, drainage, paving, lighting, construction of an electronics control station, and an airport rescue and fire-fighting station— which the team was able to add to the project after realizing they had come in under budget.

Seventy-five percent of scope was defined during the original airport design, so project approval took a single day. The rest of the design was updated to meet technological specifications for a Group VI runway—specifications established by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) after the airport's initial design. Using best practices from previous airport projects as a boilerplate made the conception and planning phases fairly simple—but scheduling wasn't, says Mr. Allshouse.

Time Constraints

The FAA and the city and county of Denver rounded out the key stakeholders. The FAA made this runway a top priority and an integral part of the U.S. Transportation System. While having support from the government helped the project, it also intensified pressure to accomplish it quickly. “First, the FAA mandated that the city do 100 percent acceptance testing on all materials, rather than the usual 10 percent, because they questioned some of the results from previous projects around the country,” Mr. Allshouse says.

Finishing late wasn't an option logistically because of the Jeppesen IFR Charts—navigational books pilots carry with them and rely on for up-to-date information about the runways for every airport in the country. The team set its internal completion deadline 30 days before the FAA‘s deadline to ensure inclusion in the book. If the project was late, the runway would not be included in the book. “We put a buffer in there to account for weather and other things beyond our control,” Mr. Allshouse says. “You have to open the runway based on the update of the Jeppesen Charts, every 56 days. In the planning stage (3 years earlier), we miscalculated the publication date; so we finished 18 days early rather than 30. Once we committed to Jeppesen and the FAA on our completion date, we were locked in at that point because if you miss that date, you have to wait 56 days to open.”

speed bumps


The $154 million runway is so long that a jet parked at one end isn't visible from the other end due to the curvature of the earth.


Quality Assurance

Fast-tracking and multi-tasking started during the first year, when the focus was on earthwork and site preparation. While that phase was out to bid and in progress, the team developed the paving and lighting contracts that had a lot of regulatory requirements.

The city hired independent organizations to formulate a quality assurance plan that would meet the tough FAA requirements. It contracted Aguirre Engineers Inc. to test all soil, lime-treated subgrade, cement-treated base course, concrete and asphalt. This team's focus on quality was one reason the project was selected as PMI MileHi Chapter's project of the year, says Bob Kois, PMP, vice president of public relations. “The team took a creative, impressive approach to quality management to meet the timeline,” he says. “They had clear specifications with vendors and subcontractors and were able to resolve all issues [such as sub-par materials] at the lowest level in weekly meetings with on-site testing.”

Materials manufactured off-site had to meet or exceed requirements. Daily reports were generated from field test sites, and if an item failed, all inspectors and the foreman were immediately notified and the situation was remedied.

Aviation Industry Grounded

Even the best plan and greatest communication can't save a project in the midst of an international crisis. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 closed the project for several days, limiting access to the site and requiring new security procedures for the work area and the airport. Recovery was slow for the aviation industry as a whole; it spent millions of dollars to improve security while losing millions of dollars to cancelled flights and the public's fear of air travel.

The attacks also significantly affected the project's funding—which came from a series of 12 FAA grants to be provided over a three-year period. Suddenly, money was a big challenge. “We were managing the project elements based on cash flow and funds from the FAA, which still was suffering from 9/11 budget constraints,” Mr. Allshouse says. The only blessing was the timing—heading into the winter months bought the team some time to resolve funding issues while working on smaller pieces of the project.


The approach worked because we had a contractor more interested in building a good project than in making extra money with change-orders.

—Brooks Allshouse, Program Manager, DMJM Aviation, Denver, Colo., USA

Despite fears that the project would not continue, paving began on 23 May 2002. Together, Interstate Highway Constructors, Englewood, Colo., USA, serving as the main concrete contractor, and Asphalt Paving Co. of Golden, Colo., USA, as the asphalt leader, paved 1.35 million square yards (900,000 concrete, 450,000 asphalt) astonishingly fast. IHC averaged 4,100 square yards a day, expecting to finish two-thirds of the paving in one year.

During this second year, airport management incorporated an independent team into its existing staff. “With a project this large, quality assurance is important because we're building a project so fast,” Mr. Allshouse says. To keep communication lines open, representatives from every contractor and subcontractor attended weekly progress meetings and discussed alternative methodologies for issues that arose.

For example, crews faced a sticky situation when installing an Edge Light Conduit in asphalt-treated permeable base (ATPB) material. When the ATPB was trenched, its walls caved in before the conduit could be installed. “We had never tried working with that material before and found it less than stable,” Mr. Allshouse says. “We discussed that issue at the end of weekly meetings for about two months to figure out how we'd install conduit into the ATBP material.”

Through some trial and error, the team solved the problem by scheduling the work for cooler hours and using additional equipment to backfill with a more costly material. “We had a contingency fund built into the project budget for events like this,” he says. “We discussed the issue often and worked together to keep the project moving forward.”

As paving continued smoothly, funding fell apart in September 2002. The team determined that if high-cost portions of the project, such as paving, were slowed, it could use the remaining money to cover other critical work and wait out the winter. Knowing that there can be some uncertainty when dealing with federal funding, shutdown options were included in all contracts, making it possible to slow work without alienating the project's paving partners.

“There was a concern that the project wouldn't happen because of the ‘iffy’ nature of the finances,” says Chuck Cannon, spokesman for the DIA. However, the FAA remained committed to the project, despite the overnight decline in air travel in the United States and internationally, Mr. Cannon says. “Questions came up about whether to proceed because we were just starting the paving, but the FAA felt that the drop in air traffic would be short term,” Mr. Allshouse says. “The runway was needed for long-term improvements in airport capacity.”

The project had a number of other positive factors that led to the team's ability to secure alternate funding from Congress during December 2002, Mr. Cannon says:

∎ The planning phase and site preparation was rolled into the original airport plan and the airport already owned the land, so the overall estimated price tag was low compared to projects at other airports that were estimated at up to US$1 billion.

∎ There were numerous committed stakeholders. The city and county of Denver was eager to please its citizens; commercial airlines hoped to offer better service and additional flight capacity; and the FAA believed that in the long run, the aviation industry would continue to grow and need the additional capacity.

∎ The team was able to ask for less than $100 million because they were mid-project.

The project team's letter of intent was approved in 30 days. After concrete paving was completed, Asphalt Paving placed 1,500 to 2,000 tons of asphalt each day to finish the runway in just 43 work days.

Fellow Travelers

On 28 August 2003, a United Airlines aircraft carrying members of the press and high-level project personnel made the first of three landings to meet FAA certification. “We invited all of the people involved in the project onto the second flight. The woman next to me had never flown before and was a little worried, but the runway was very important to all of the people who worked on the project and it was a great opportunity for us to give something back to them,” Mr. Allshouse says.

anticipating risks

When the team assessed the risks during the design phase, it found that a series of potential problems could negatively impact the project:

site secrets. In any civil engineering project, the construction team might unearth an array of problems. Despite early testing, during the grading and drainage phase of the Denver runway project, workers discovered lignite, an organic material unsuitable for construction. Rather than delaying the project for several months, the contractor mobilized crews, called for overtime and procured additional equipment to remove and replace the unstable material.

the elements. Knowing that weather always factors into construction, the team padded the schedule with additional time before the inaugural flight. On 15 March 2003, 36 to 60 inches of snow fell on the Denver area, stopping work for several days.

the money. To protect the project from unforeseen factors that could prevent the FAA from providing promised funding, such as the attacks of 11 September 2001, the team set aside contingency money and built shutdown clauses into all contracts.

safety. Contractors held weekly safety meetings with their workers and their subcontractors; inspectors checked to ensure that all procedures were being followed. No time was lost to accidents.


On 4 September 2003, 18 days ahead of schedule and right on time for their internal deadline, the first commercial airliner—a United 777 bound for O‘Hare International Airport in Chicago, Ill., USA—took off from Runway 16R/34L. Denver's new mayor, John Hicken-looper, hosted the event, which featured a flyover by a fighter wing of F-16s, a celebration reflecting the project's importance to the city, Mr. Kois says. “The Denver International Airport now is the first in the nation that can handle these new jets. It was a far-thinking project not just adding a new runway but new capabilities for the airport.”

Though the runway still handles mostly domestic flights and many to and from Mexico, it already has had a significant impact on the airport, Mr. Allshouse says. “Some flights now carry an additional 50,000 pounds of cargo—a 12,000-foot runway wouldn't allow for that. It's also the main runway in the winter. We're really proud and happy to have partnered with the city and county of Denver on this successful project.” PM




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