By: Tom Toscano

November 1, 2022

This past summer I had the privilege of working as an intern in the construction industry. My experience provided me with a wealth of knowledge regarding the day-to-day operations of contractors, project managers, and designers on a large scale project, some of which will be shared in this blog post. 

I was hired by a Long Island based company called LiRo, which is an organization that I can not say enough good things about. LiRo is an intriguing firm because they pride themselves on being able to take a project from start to finish on their own. They mainly do design, architecture, and project management but also have a surveying department and provide some environmental consultation. I was hired as a Construction Inspector Trainee assigned to the first contract of the Van Wyck Expressway Expansion Project in Queens, NY. 

LiRo serves as the Quality Control (QC) for the project, and is responsible for sending out construction inspectors, such as myself, to report to the contractor. Inspectors ensure that the project is following the plans provided by the designers and there are no egregious safety violations that would get the contractor in trouble with the state. My role was to shadow and assist the other Construction Inspectors on the project. 

On a typical day, I would report to the field office at 7AM and spend an hour or two looking at plans, researching construction equipment and techniques, and reading the schedule for the day. Sometime between 8 and 9, I would head out to the field. My first action after arriving and putting on PPE would be to make my rounds and greet the contractors and the QA inspectors. After that, I would either be assigned to an operation to supervise for the day or I would float between operations in an attempt to learn about each one. Typically, work would finish around 3:30 PM for the contractor, and the subcontractors would stay until 5 or 6. One inspector would have to stay late to supervise the last 2 hours of work, which I volunteered for a couple of times to help out the other inspectors.

The Van Wyck Expansion Project is a massive 327 million dollar design build project with an ambitious goal. The endgame is to expand the Van Wyck Expressway with an extra lane on both sides to increase connectivity between John F. Kennedy International Airport and the Whitestone Expressway. The reason that this is such a daunting task is because the Van Wyck is significantly lower in elevation than the street for most of the distance it runs, so there is a retaining wall on both sides of the expressway that rises as high as 30 feet tall to separate the expressway from the service road. The consequence is that the retaining wall needs to be moved back on both sides, eliminating a lane on each service road and causing other complications, the largest being the effect on the overpasses.

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Image1 from Google maps: The Van Wyck Expressway Retaining walls

 The first two contracts of the project mainly contain the expansion of the overpasses. Modifications had to be made for the overpasses to be sufficiently supported because the main spans are going to be increased in length by about 6 feet on both sides. Contract 1 is particularly challenging because it included the consolidation of the supports of a 112 year old double decker railroad bridge that runs directly into Jamaica Station, a popular connection for commuters into Manhattan on the Long Island Railroad.

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Image 2 from google maps: The double decker railroad bridge near Atlantic Avenue

This double decker railroad bridge was a huge challenge for the contractor. The train traffic on the bridge could not be paused for any duration of time, so replacing the entire thing was impossible. Instead, the designers decided to eliminate 5 out of 6 pier sections of the bridge and compensate for that lost support by encasing the original center pier in concrete, constructing new supports in the middle of the service road, and reinforcing the abutments with tieback anchors. These solutions were very difficult for the contractor to implement. Due to their age, the abutments do not have any rebar, which raised some questions of structural stability if the bridge supports were to be consolidated. The solution the designers came up with was 34 tieback anchors drilled into the abutments. The installation process for these tieback anchors was very intense, and each one required 4 hours of drilling and 2 hours of grouting. There were also plenty of equipment issues that slowed the process down tremendously, and it took the entire summer to install all of them.

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Image 3: American Pile LLC drilling the tieback anchors

The other major issue with moving the retaining walls back is the interruption of utilities. Atlantic Avenue, which is right off of the Van Wyck, carries utilities into Brooklyn. All of these utilities had to be relocated with the overpass demolitions and the elimination of the left lane of the service road. This meant that ConEdison and other companies were on site almost every day both overseeing and performing utility modifications. Another consequence of this utility dilemma was that there were steel plates covering more than half of the service road in some locations where trenching was happening, and so there were countless complaints about the harsh road conditions for commuters driving down the service road.

The most interesting part of the job was seeing all of the unanticipated issues that arose and how the contractor dealt with them. Within my first or second week on the job, when the contractor was trenching for a temporary retaining wall on the middle pier of the railroad bridge, concrete blocks of unknown origin were discovered right next to the mat foundation of the pier. These blocks protruded into the area where the temporary retaining wall was to be erected, and so the contractor had to call a concrete cutting company to shave sections off of the blocks so that they could continue working.

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Image 4: Concrete obstructions

Another one of my favorite parts of the job was the construction of the brand new overpass on Atlantic Avenue. When I first joined the project in June, the old overpass had been partially demolished. The goal was to demolish the former overpass in thirds to minimize the traffic interruptions. I was able to witness the full construction of the middle pier, starting with the assembly of the temporary retaining wall and ending with the concrete pouring. The best part was the rebar installation. In the end, the pier contained over 30,000 pounds of rebar and it was amazing to watch how the laborers were able to install it all by hand. I was allowed to assist them with the setting and tying of the rebar, which helped me understand just how difficult work is for the laborers. 

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Image 5: Center Pier Rebar Installation

I also had the privilege of working the night shift. Witnessing the work being done at night gave me a huge appreciation for the laborers. They are so vulnerable to crime, accidents, and drunk drivers while working the night shift in New York City. There is a huge step up in terms of precaution that needs to be taken, and it’s really intimidating for everyone involved. The spotlights used to illuminate the operations are necessary, but they cause the workers to be blind to their surroundings due to the difference in light exposure. The danger of this cannot be overstated, yet it is just another part of the daily routine for the night workers.

My overall experience on the project was amazing. Working in the construction industry is such a unique experience for a multitude of reasons. Watching infrastructure get built from the ground up and witnessing all of the challenges that arose and how they were dealt with was fascinating. In addition, I can’t talk about my job without mentioning my coworkers. The personalities that you encounter in the industry are incredibly unique and lead to many lighthearted moments and conversations. You run into so many people in different places in life and learn so much by just asking- how someone’s day is going. Everyone has a story to tell and it’s always riveting.

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