Location key for material needed to build Interstate-90/39 expansion

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Neil Johnson
Sunday, May 4, 2014

JANESVILLE—The state Department of Transportation estimates the 45-mile widening of Interstate 90/39 between Beloit and Madison will require 8.8 million tons of sand, gravel and limestone aggregate.

That's about 440,000 truckloads.

Or think of it this way: If the DOT gave equal shares of rock to every motorist who drives the Interstate in a year, each person would get 2.9 tons.

That's a lot of rock.

And the DOT estimates don't include the amount of aggregate needed to mix concrete and asphalt for the Interstate's surface, bridge decks and interchanges for the expansion.

The project is slated to start in 2015, pending state funding. It would widen the highway from four lanes to six between Beloit and Madison, and create eight lanes through Janesville.

State transportation officials and state paving industry leaders said the expansion project will use “virgin,” or new, crushed rock along with a substantial amount of material recycled from existing Interstate concrete. Much of the new gravel, sand and limestone that's needed for the $950 million expansion project will come from existing quarries and potentially a few new quarries in glacial, aggregate-rich Rock County.

Half of Rock County's 38 active limestone quarries and sand and gravel pits are clustered along the I/90-39 corridor, according to a Rock County Land Conservation Department nonmetallic mining inventory. Those pits and quarries are  within a 10- to 15-minute haul from the Rock County segments of the planned expansion.

A few of those pits and quarries, such as two owned by Rock Road Companies between Beloit and Janesville and Lycon near downtown Janesville, cover hundreds of acres.

“You've got some very big gravel pit and limestone quarry operations in Rock County,” said Janesville native Kevin McMullen, president of the Wisconsin Concrete Paving Association.

McMullen offers a lower estimate than the DOT for the amount of aggregate needed for the Interstate expansion.

He estimates the needed amount, including aggregate material for the new concrete surface of the expanded Interstate, is 6.3 million tons.

McMullen said the construction of the new concrete pavement for the expansion could require an estimated 2 million tons of crushed stone and sand in the production of concrete. 

McMullen said the total amount of aggregate needed could be reduced by 30 percent if the state crushes and recycles the surface of existing lanes.

“I can't imagine--I don't think anyone could imagine--that there isn't enough capacity right there to have the rock to build this project.”

At least one regional aggregate supplier, Waunakee-based Yahara Materials, seeks to reopen an inactive limestone quarry area along the Interstate corridor near Albion just north of the Rock/Dane County line.

McMullen and others say that despite the wealth of gravel in ready for the immediate taking in Rock County, operators like Yahara Materials could compete for contracts to supply the expansion against other operators who have existing, active pits and quarries adjacent to the Interstate. 

Location is the key.

"The trick to all this, aggregate price, it's not only the cost of crushing the material. it's making useable material available," McMullen said. "One of the major costs is transportation. You're going to have a bunch of people (gravel mining operations) lining different properties along the Interstate. The trick could be the operators that say 'I can get it cheaper to the project than the guy 15 miles down the road.'"


Even though the I/90-39 expansion would be one of the area's largest road projects since the Interstate was built in 1958, some Rock County sand, gravel and limestone operators might not try to supply gravel for it, said Kyle Frank, a supervisor of Janesville-based mining company Frank Brothers.

Not all area operators are located close enough to the project, and not all lunge at large state projects. Frank said some operators simply aren't yet thinking about the I-90/39 expansion because a projected $700 million state transportation budget shortfall could push the project back from late 2015 to sometime in mid to late 2016.

From the state's standpoint, the cost of road-building material is a huge issue. New aggregate brought in to build the base for new Interstate lanes costs between $120 and $300 for a 20-ton truckload, depending on the quality and type of material.

For companies looking to win bids and profit from them, sand, gravel and limestone are heavy, cheap commodities. That means they don't bear transportation costs well. That makes quarry location important, even if there are other nearby pits or quarries located along a road project corridor.

“Being 10 to 15 minutes away on a round trip, that makes a difference in who can get a job,” Frank said.

The state plans to pay for about 70 percent of the expansion, and the DOT typically doesn't handle bids for supplying aggregate until five or six months before a road project begins.

Some companies say they're ready to compete to supply the expansion project whenever it comes.

“In this business, you sell whenever you can. You don't talk about what-ifs and maybes,” Rock Road Companies President Bill Kennedy said.

Kennedy said demand for new aggregate for construction has been down the last five or six years.

“All the box stores and hospitals have been built, and the (new) housing market still isn't worth a darn. With a road project of this magnitude, your antenna definitely goes up in the air,” he said.

One way the state could cut costs is to recycle concrete road surfaces. Crews would tear off the concrete pavement, crush it and reuse it as layers of rock for fill and base under the future road surface.

“You're going to see quite a bit of that on this project. They (the DOT) will probably mandate it because it makes sense,” Kennedy said, noting his company's been involved in some smaller road projects in which that method has cut the volume of new material 60 percent.

Landowner, Crazy Acres Inc. and Yahara Materials are in the process of trying to reopen a limestone quarry just over the County line in Dane County. The site is just east of the Interstate on 105 acres in the town of Albion along Highway 73 and Craig Road.

Yahara Materials wants to operate the limestone quarry in part to supply the I-90/39 expansion and other road projects on Highway 73 and Highway 106, company superintendent Tim Geoghan said.

The town of Albion approved a conditional-use permit for the quarry, but Dane County's zoning and land regulation committee still has to approve it. An environmental study of Yahara Materials' plans to blast limestone out of a knoll and return it to farmland over a 10-year time span is pending.

Neighbors to the quarry oppose it. New pits or quarries typically draw opposition from neighbors who view them as unsightly and fear noise from blasting and digging and dust and traffic from operations.

It's certainly easier to supply gravel from pits or quarries that are already active and permitted, and Geoghan said Yahara Materials owns quarries and pits all around Madison.

“That's too far away. We want to get as close to the projects as we can,” Geoghan said.

He indicated the company is looking to the proposed Albion quarry, an area earlier mined for limestone. It could be a source for rock that meets the state's standards for making road-surface concrete. He said some limestone quarried farther north isn't as suitable, or it's in shorter supply because some deposits are depleted or covered by suburban Madison.

This article was updated May 5, 2014, to include additional information from an interview and a May 3 email from Kevin McMullen.

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