Washington Street bridge work 2 months behind schedule, but time table not under Naperville control, official says

Ongoing work to replace a bridge that runs through the heart of downtown Naperville is close to two months behind schedule, a city official said.

Crews started construction on Washington Street bridge this spring with expectations it would be finished by the end of summer 2024. But after repeated delays, work is taking longer than expected, said Bill Novack, Naperville’s director of transportation, engineering and development.

Per progress made so far, it’s more likely the new bridge running over the DuPage River’s west branch will not be complete until next fall, he said.

“It’s been more difficult for (crews) than they anticipated,” Novack said. “It’s not an easy job. I can’t point to one area where they lost all their time. They’ve just been consistently losing time. ... Overall, (crews) are just not hitting the production rate that they normally would.”

Originally, the plan was to get the east half of Washington Street bridge torn down and rebuilt this year, followed by the west side next year. Glendale Heights-based Dunnet Bay Construction is performing the work under a contract awarded by the Illinois Department of Transportation.

The two-part approach is still the strategy planned, but finishing the east section of project this calendar year amid delays might be hard, Novack said.

“If we have enough warm weather days, we could … but I don’t see that happening in 2023,” he said. “I would love to, but we would need to have exceptional weather.”

He also said the company doing the work is not taking measures, such as working overtime, to speed up the time table. Because it’s a project overseen by the state, the city has no ability to control the work, he said.

“They have not worked Saturdays. They do not appear to have a sense of urgency to get the project done, which I would say is disappointing,” Novack said.

The need to replace the Washington Street bridge, which sits between Aurora and Chicago avenues and sees thousands of travelers a day, has been mounting for years.

It was built in the 1920s, widened a half-century later and last renovated in 2004.

The last work done updated the bridge’s superstructure, which is the part that bears the weight of vehicles passing over, but left its substructure — essentially the support beneath — untouched, Novack said. The update gave the structure a few more years of use without a complete overhaul.

A study of the bridge conducted in 2014 recommended a full structural replacement, according to city documents. In 2016, the city imposed a 15-ton weight limit in an effort to reduce damage from heavy loads and extend its lifespan. That same year, the city started conducting quarterly inspections of the bridge, which became monthly in January 2019.

After consulting with bridge engineers from the state last fall, it was determined the deterioration had taken a toll and the Illinois Department of Transportation told the city to restrict the weight limit to 8 tons and close two lanes.

Traffic studies showed the best method for reducing traffic congestion, crashes and delays on and around the bridge would be to widen the span to five lanes and add right-turn lanes at the Aurora Avenue/Washington Street intersection, according to project information posted on the city’s website.

The city secured federal funding to cover 80% of project costs which is being overseen by IDOT. Naperville will pay for the rest, which as of September 2022 included $3 million in construction costs and $210,600 in engineering costs.

Asked if recent delays to construction have impacted the city’s bill, Novack said, “Not yet.”

Hoping to avoid any more complications, the city is looking at different options to get back on schedule, he said. But that’s not easy given the many moving parts of the project.

“It’s not just the bridge,” he said. “This is (also) a very large utility project.”

Electric utilities and a new water main had to be installed below the river and sanitary sewer infrastructure also will need to be replaced.

“We really don’t want to drag (this) into 2025,” Novack said. “We want to get it all done in 2024. If we get it done later in the fall of 2024, as opposed to the end of the summer, that’s not a concern at all. We just want it all done in 2024.”

The rub is that because most of the project funds are coming through the Federal Highway Administration — and disbursed by IDOT — crews work for the state. That leaves the city without the authority to spur on the work.

“There’s not a lot that we can do,” Novack said. “What we can do is give them our advice. … We have resident engineers and inspectors that were out there constantly communicating with them.

“We also have regular progress meetings. We’ve talked to them about getting back on schedule, but they haven’t been as receptive as other contractors (we’ve worked with) over the years,” he said.

The one area where the city has some pull to speed things up is an ongoing update to AT&T equipment at the bridge, which involves moving existing utilities located on one side of the bridge to the other. Equipment will also be moved underground.

But construction delays have hampered this job too, Novack said.

Initially, crews’ pre-delay schedule allowed for a period of time — in between east half and west half repairs — where AT&T could move its equipment uninterrupted by traffic or construction. But with the time frame to finish the east half now condensed, the city is trying to figure how AT&T can do the rest of its work at the same time to prevent it the completion date from being pushed back further.

“That’s what we’re looking at right now … if it can physically be done or not,” Novack said. “(If it can), that will help us out tremendously.”