Mid-Coast Transit Constructors draws on the strengths of three civil contracting companies to build a massive light rail project in San Diego.
By Jim Harris
Three of the nation’s leading civil construction firms have joined forces to complete a major light rail service expansion in San Diego. Mid-Coast Transit Constructors (MCTC), a joint venture of Stacy and Witbeck, Herzog Construction Corp. and Skanska, began work in fall 2016 on the $1.2 billion Mid-Coast Corridor Transit Project.
“We are a fully integrated joint venture,” Project Manager Clayton Gilliland says. “If you walked through our office, you wouldn’t be able to tell who was employed by which company – we act as a single team.”
The three companies that make up MCTC have built more than 30 rail projects including 600 miles of tracks combined over the past 10 years. The total value of the projects built by the three is more than $4.7 billion.
Stacy and Witbeck is a builder of light rail, commuter rail and streetcar systems across the United States. The company is also well versed in the construction management/general contractor – also known as the construction manager at-risk – delivery method, which is being used on the project. “Stacy and Witbeck has the strongest resume in the country for that, as well as in building rail projects in an urban environment,” Gilliland adds.
Herzog is similarly experienced in building streetcar, light rail transit, commuter rail and freight systems, particularly in San Diego. “The company has deep roots in San Diego and has built as well as operated commuter rail in that corridor,” Gilliland says.
Skanska’s Riverside, Calif., office provides its heavy infrastructure knowledge as well as equipment to the project. The company is a world-leading project management and construction group. “We feel that these three companies bring characteristics that, when you put them together, the whole is greater than the parts,” he adds.
Serving a Need
The Mid-Coast Corridor Transit Project will extend the existing Blue Line trolley from the Santa Fe Depot in downtown San Diego north to the city’s University City neighborhood. The project includes approximately four miles of system upgrades to existing tracks between the Santa Fe Depot and the Old Town Transit Center, and 11 miles of new tracks between the Old Town Transit Center to University City.
The neighborhood, considered San Diego’s “second downtown,” is a densely populated residential and commercial district that includes the University of California San Diego (UCSD) and the Westfield UTC shopping center. The area is currently not served by regional public transit services.
Freeways and local roads located in the existing traffic corridor between University City and downtown San Diego – dubbed the Mid-Coast Corridor – are typically crowded. Population in the area is forecasted to increase 19 percent and employment is expected to increase by 12 percent before 2030, according to the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG).
SANDAG is providing half of the funding for the project, with the other half secured through a federal grant. MCTC supported SANDAG with cost estimating and constructability activities to secure the federal grant agreement, which was received in September 2016. Gilliland calls the receipt of the grant a major milestone for the project. “That was a very big deal for SANDAG,” he says. “It’s not easy to secure that level of federal funding.”
After the project is completed in 2021, SANDAG will turn the Blue Line trolley extension over to the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System, which will operate the line.
The extension will include nine new stations, five of which are located in University City. The remaining stations will be located between the University City and downtown areas, including one existing station in the city’s historic Old Town district.
The northernmost four miles of the new light rail extension, located in University City, will be elevated, while the other seven miles will be situated next to the existing San Diego Coaster commuter rail service tracks. Building the light rail tracks next to the Coaster tracks is one of the largest logistical challenges faced by the MCTC. “The Coaster is reportedly the second busiest in the United States, next to the Northeast Corridor,” Gilliland notes. “All three companies in the joint venture have a lot of experience working with projects near busy corridors.”
The MCTC is closely coordinating construction efforts with the North County Transit District, the Coaster’s operator. “We are letting them know our plans for upcoming work and they are providing representatives that work alongside our crews to help facilitate work and provide communication with trains, so there’s no chance of incidents,” he adds.
In addition to building the tracks and trolley stations, MCTC is also working on several infrastructure projects related to the Blue Line extension. “We’ve integrated six large infrastructure projects into one integrated schedule, which makes the most sense for us from a construction phasing and priorities standpoint,” Gilliland says.
These projects include building one light rail bridge and two commuter rail bridges over the San Diego River. The MCTC is also building bridges that cross existing roads and commuter rails. Current work includes relocating utility and water lines to make way for construction of a bridge on Gilman Drive near Interstate 5. Excavation work on the bridge is also underway. Deep foundation work for the elevated structure near UCSD is slated to begin soon.
One of the most challenging aspects of the project is the creation of a “flyover” – a light rail track located above commuter rail tracks – near State Route 52. The MCTC is also reconstructing a channel portion of nearby Rose Creek to make room for the new rail line. The MCTC will use precast concrete girders for the flyover superstructure. “This is helping us from a logistics as well as a cost standpoint,” Gilliland says.
The Right Method
The joint venture’s use of the CM/GC method has helped it coordinate the project’s many overlapping aspects. The CM/GC method is atypical for projects in California. The MCTC project is the first SANDAG project to be delivered using the method, Gilliland notes.
As the construction manager/general contractor on the project, MCTC oversaw an 18-month preconstruction period that began in September 2014. The preconstruction process included scheduling, designing, negotiating prices and holding constructability meetings regarding on the project.
“The CM/GC method is different from the traditional design/bid/build method, where the contractor is not involved at all in design, scheduling or community engagement,” Gilliland says. “Typically, the contractor doesn’t arrive until design is complete, at which time they secure bids. This is the first time you’d know if the project was on budget or not.
“With our method, we’ve giving feedback at every step of the design, so the design can be guided to the scope of the budget,” he adds.