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Managing Hwy 10 project keeps construction gurus on the move

Part professional engineer, part amateur meteorologist.

That describes Project Manager Chad Johnson of Hoffman Construction, the company in charge of the Highway 10 and Highway 59 project.

"My friends joke I'm obsessed with the radar, and I am," he said of watching the weather each and every day during construction season. Weather is just another "hiccup" he has to deal with on the job.

Hoffman Construction was awarded the $32.5 million contract for the Highway 10 realignment and Highway 59 bridge work going on the next two years.

Along with Johnson, Jody Loew shares duties of managing the Hoffman crew and the roughly 20 subcontractors working on the project.

Being the "biggest DOT highway job ever awarded" to Hoffman Construction, Johnson and Loew share the responsibilities usually designated for one project manager.

It is the company's largest contract ever with the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

When the project is finished, hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of dirt will have been moved for the Highway 10 realignment. Johnson said 338,399 cubic yards in common excavation, 74,991 cubic yards in subgrade excavation and 27,079 cubic yards in muck excavation.

"Common and subgrade are about the same, just general excavation. Muck is when we take out marshy soil and replace it with sand. We have to do some of this by the Pelican River," he said.

Splitting duties, Johnson takes care of the scheduling, erosion control, and safety and spends about 75 percent of his time in the field office. Loew, he said, spends 75 percent of his time outside, and works more with the utilities companies on the job.

"I'm out and about," Loew said. "Mostly it's job management of the activities on the project, utilities and construction coordination."

Crews work mainly 11- or 12-hour days during the week and eight hours on Fridays so people can get home for the weekend. Some days though, they may work 14 hours.

Johnson said he is also in charge of working with people -- not just the construction crews, but the general public as well.

"When my phone rings -- I have two phones -- I better be in a good mood cause I never know who I'm going to be talking to."

With his phone ringing off the hook, not only does Johnson not know who will be calling, he can't always be sure what the issue will be coming along with the call.

For instance, while digging at the Roosevelt Avenue crossing, crews found some foundations, stopped instantly, and Johnson had to make some calls to the city and get the situation taken care of quickly.

"You have to be flexible. Even though you have a plan, you have to be pretty flexible," he said.

He added that it's good to have senior operators on the job as well, because of their proficiency.

Communication is a must for the group. All construction vehicles are equipped with CB radios, CBs and two-way radios are in the pickups, and the foremen have Nextels and cell phones. Johnson also uses e-mail to converse with MnDOT and Hoffman's home office.

Under Hoffman, there are two grading crews -- one for Highway 10 work and one for Highway 59 work -- a labor foreman -- who spends 90 percent of his time on stormwater with this project -- and a full-time mechanic, who services the equipment.

"Equipment is such a big part of our success," Johnson said. "Our goal is to keep the equipment in progress each day."

The largest subcontractor on the project is Lunda Construction Co., which has been on the job since day one. Lunda has had crews working on Highway 59, the bridge, the retaining wall along Highway 10 and the Roosevelt Avenue underpass.

Johnson said Lunda is from the same town (Black River Falls, Wis.) as Hoffman, so the two companies have worked together on previous projects.

Most of Hoffman's projects are closer to home, although the company has been working with the Minnesota Department of Transportation for several years. Detroit Lakes is the farthest from home yet.

"To travel from our home office, it has to be a pretty big job," Johnson said.

According to regulations, half of the operators on the project must be hired through the local union 49, which includes Minnesota and the Dakotas. They range in hometowns from the Twin Cities to Detroit Lakes and White Earth. Not so locally, there are men helping out from Rochester, and as far away as Nebraska.

Since a portion of the crews are from out of town and can't go home each night, they become an extended family of sorts, spending the week together and only getting to go home on the weekends. Johnson said that's why they try to finish up early Fridays to get home at a decent time, and be able to spend Saturdays and Sundays at home.

But starting in July, Saturdays may not be an option. If rain deter work, crews may have to work some Saturdays to stay on schedule.

In keeping with the family sense, a "bunch" of the guys camp in the same location and eat supper together.

Some, like Loew, will travel not home to Wisconsin over the weekends, but instead to a different location. Loew drives to Ontario, Canada, where he and his wife and kids operate a resort. He said it's about the same distance to the fishing resort as to home in Wisconsin.

And rather than the construction workers returning home, some families will come to the Detroit Lakes area to spend the weekends or week.

With the official start date of April 16, Johnson and Loew came to Detroit Lakes in late March-early April to familiarize themselves with the city, project, people involved and to attend some meetings.

"As much as we (he and Loew) know (about the project), we still learn something new every day. You have to keep an open mind," Johnson said.

Working throughout the summer, crews will be town until October or November, depending when the ground freezes. In late fall, crews will mainly be working on clean-up, preparing for what the land will look like in spring.

Hoffman's target date for finishing the project is Sept. 30 of next year.

Besides the monthly public meetings at city hall, Johnson and Loew are involved in weekly meetings with Detroit Lakes staff, utilities, MnDOT, DL Police Chief Kel Keena, state patrol and some sub-contractors if they are a major part of the construction that time period.

Johnson said the meetings have been successful and working with MnDOT and BNSF railway have been great.

"I can definitely feel all (entities) pulling in the same direction."

Loew agrees.

"I compliment the community -- the businesses for understanding, and MnDOT and the city for getting things pushed through in a timely manner," he said. "They've been more than helpful."