Communication among engineer, city and contractor resolves unexpected issues.

An equipment operator lifts slabs of old concrete from a hidden room workers found below the sidewalk on South Brown Street while working on the Downtown Streetscape Project in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. 

Adapting to change is something that Mark Barden and Tim Kingman have had to deal with in their careers as engineer and city leader.

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Barden, an engineer with Town & Country Engineering based in Madison, Wisconsin, and Kingman, the Rhinelander Public Works director, have been on their fair share of projects and know that not everything goes perfect every day. And while coming across surprises is never fun, they can come up in any project.

“It’s hard to plan for stuff that comes up as a surprise,” Barden says. “You just have to be able to adapt. That’s what it comes down to.”

Some things were identified in the planning process for the Downtown Streetscape Project, but other things have popped up, Barden adds. “We’re dealing with them as they come along.”

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The project has only reached its midpoint, but crews have already stumbled across several surprises. “We’ve found a few enclaves, like fuel tanks, a number of mysterious rooms, old stairwells coming up in the sidewalk and things like that,” Kingman says.

The fuel tanks, discovered in an area on Stevens Street where an auto repair shop was located decades ago, were unexpected since the most of the crew members working on the project weren’t even alive when the shop was operating. As for the hidden, unknown rooms, many of those turned up on the east side of South Brown Street and the south side of Davenport Street — a corner building with a built-in awning over the sidewalk.

“Some of them came as a surprise to even the shop owners because those rooms have been closed off for years,” Barden says.

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An Alternate Plan

One of those surprises came early in the project when crews discovered an underground vault while working at the intersection of Brown and Davenport streets. Because of the vault’s location, the original plan for a concrete centerpiece in the intersection wasn’t possible.

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“We had an alternate bid already for not doing the centerpiece,” Barden says. “The alternate bid was just crosswalks and bump-outs. Because we weren’t able to do the centerpiece, we added another amenity to spice up the crosswalks a little bit and threw in colored concrete.”

When the final layer of concrete and asphalt goes in next spring, the bump-outs and crosswalks at that intersection will be colored green — Rhinelander’s school colors and the color of the town mascot, the Hodag.

City residents were asked for their opinions on that final design through a survey sent out with four options for the look of that intersection. “We wanted it to be a whole community decision,” Kingman says.

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Resolving Issues Quickly

Rhinelander’s downtown dates back well into the 1800s, when the town was still known as Pelican Rapids. Some buildings have been torn down and replaced, but others have stood for more than a century. It’s been decades since the streets were torn up and the underground infrastructure exposed, so surprises are no surprise. When crews stumble upon underground vaults, rooms and stairways, they deal with them immediately.

“This is the kind of stuff we do on the fly,” Barden says. “We make a pretty rapid move to get that stuff done. There’s a lot of people who have a lot of knowledge on these jobs between Tim, me, people I work with, and the contractor. We can always come up with solutions. It’s a team effort when these things come up.”

Not all issues are remnants of the past, however. After crews recently installed the new sidewalks on the east side of North Brown Street, it was determined they were sloping back toward the buildings. Kruczek Construction tore up that stretch and poured new concrete at its own expense.

“That was a contractor issue and they addressed it quickly,” Barden says. “They found the problem and fixed it, and we were lucky it was still early enough in the process to not back us up.”


Communication is Key

Communication between all parties — the city, contractor, subcontractors and engineers — has been a big component in resolving issues quickly.

“When you have a strong engineer in the community, things tend to get done the way they should and they’re overseen and directed,” Kingman says. “No matter what the obstacles are, you get to the end point.”

Kingman noted that many communities hire contractors, let them make all the decisions on their own, and at the end hope they made the decisions the city wanted.

“The philosophy we have here is more proactive and interactive,” Kingman says. “We’ve found some good success with that.”

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