On the Job with Jim Foley, Strand Project Leader

photo by Eric Tadsen

“We are going to need your help and assistance,” Jim Foley, project leader of the Monona Drive construction project, announces to group of 11 business owners during a progress meeting with the affected Monona business community. The surprisingly affable group seems ready to comply. With more than 80 property owners and 100 business owners directly affected by the one-mile route, the turnout is disappointing, but not unexpected.

“We get the same five to 10 people at every meeting,” said Foley, thankful for them. It isn’t for lack of trying. Letters announcing the meeting were mailed, door-to-door invites were extended, and the Chamber, Monona Drive Alive, and the city were all notified. “The word was out there, the effort was made,” Foley said.

Richard Vela, Monona’s city engineer and director of public works, agreed that the Monona business community is one of the most informed he’s ever encountered on a project of this size, partly because “Jim takes personal interest in this project. He doesn’t have to be involved in PR,” Vela said, of Foley. But he is.

Two days later, Foley meets with the project team. Representatives from R.G. Huston Co., Inc. (the general contractor), its Monona project subcontractors, utility companies, OTIE, the City of Monona, and Dane County gather around a table at the project headquarters on Nichols Road. They measure the project’s progression, raise problems or concerns, confirm road closings, traffic flow and access to businesses, and discuss the importance of communicating route changes with emergency personnel. The weekly meeting is brief and to the point, yet amicable.

Foley, 42, a project manager with Strand Associates for three years, interviewed with the Department of Transportation (DOT) for this project leader role. Once selected, he negotiated his contract with the DOT, though his salary is set by Strand. “I don’t get more or less depending upon the job,” he said, and in this case, there are no incentives to him for finishing the project early.

Foley previously has worked on several projects, but this project, with its direct affect on businesses and traffic, is the largest and most complicated from a communication standpoint. He credits Strand, the City of Monona, the County, and the state for making his job easier by notifying all involved early-on, and designing a complex but solid communications and traffic flow plan. “That set the tone for me coming into this project. Now I just continue the communication level,” he said. Luckily, communication seems to be his strength.

“From our very first business owners’ meeting [required by contract], I wanted people to know that I was available and that they should contact me with any problem,” he said. “What they think is huge could be very easy for me to rectify. I’d rather deal with 100 little problems early than one huge one later.”

Foley’s job is to ensure that the contractor does its work in accordance with specifications. He tracks and verifies all pay items, and on a daily basis makes sure that all materials used on-site have been appropriately tested and installed.

On a project the size of this one, that means overseeing 400 bid items such as concrete pavement, sidewalks, concrete bumpers, and tree removal, to name just a few. “It’s a challenge,” he said, “especially when there are three pipe crews, two grading crews, and subcontractors.” But Foley thrives on challenges, and believes he’s at his best in the middle of a project, when things are most chaotic.

From Nichols Road south to Broadway, for as far as the eye can see, huge graders, bulldozers and dump trucks alter the landscape. The $8.7 million project calls for the removal of existing pavement and curbs, the addition of a four-foot bike lane on either side of the road, replacing sidewalks and driveways, as well as adding two 11-foot lanes for traffic and landscaped medians, which will dictate left turns along the route. In addition, the water main, sanitary sewer, and storm sewers are all being replaced, communication utilities (i.e. utility lines) are being buried, and street lighting will be added. “And this is just Stage 3 of Phase I,” Foley smiled. Phase II (Winnequah Rd. to Cottage Grove Rd.) will begin in 2012, and a future Phase III will complete the project.

On a daily basis, between 20 and 40 construction workers report to the Monona Drive project, hired by up to 12 subcontractors that are reporting to R.G. Huston.

Planning for the Monona Drive project actually began eight years ago, according to Vela (Monona engineer), adding that Phase I is 80% federally funded, which helps explain the DOT’s involvement, and 20% locally funded for street improvements.

Costs for the next two phases will be funded equally, in a 50-50 split.

The several-story-high mountain of rock that once towered over the Monona Drive and Broadway intersection was rock that was pulled up from the road, then crushed and reused. In fact, according to Foley, all asphalt is being recycled.

About three feet under the road’s surface, work crews first level the ground, then cover it with fabric. Next, one foot of “select crush” rock is laid down, followed by six inches of a 1-1/4″ base aggregate. Finally, 8-1/2″ of concrete pavement is poured. Bulldozer drivers smooth each surface with their blades, by sight, coming within inches of newly buried sewer and water pipes. “A good blade operator is worth his weight in gold,” Foley notes.

Meanwhile, the addition of the center turn lane during construction has kept traffic moving and businesses open. “The city really pushed for that in the design of the project.”

So what about potholes? “The life expectancy of a concrete road is usually 35 to 45 years,” he said. “Because all of the utilities underneath are being replaced, this should be a good 25-year road.”

The project was criticized early for removing trees along Monona Drive, but Foley is quick with the facts: 175 trees were removed. Of those, 50 were relocated elsewhere in the county, and a half of the remaining trees had trunk rot. When all is said and done, 280 deciduous trees, 3,000 shrubs, and 2,500 perennials will be added.

For someone motivated by responsibility, Foley enjoys his job immensely. “Every day there’s a new challenge,” he said. “I love making sure there’s a quality product at the end of the job, and seeing the completion. There really is nothing I don’t like!”

With a mid-November completion date, Phase I is running about one week ahead of schedule, but that can change as quickly as the weather. This winter, he will return to his duties at Strand to assist in plans for other projects. Depending upon the selection process, he hopes to interview for Phase II in 2011.

Foley said he can’t help but assess every road he drives on with a critical eye, even if it’s a project he hasn’t worked on. “You know where the imperfections are. It’s like a big, red blinking light every time you drive past.”

At home in Cottage Grove, he and his wife have two children. Not surprisingly, his four-year-old son loves trucks.

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