Tunneling perfection

Strict standards ensure the longevity and safety of infrastructure projects that are meant to serve more than one generation


Ranked one of the 100 fastest growing inner-city businesses, Journey Steel recently took part in a large, multi-month infrastructure project on the Lytle Tunnel, a nearly 1,100-ft.-long vehicular tunnel that carries Interstate 71 under Lytle Park in Cincinnati.

The six-lane tunnel is actually comprised of three tubes, which were completed in 1970. A $32 million project to bring the tunnels up to fire code and modern design standards began in 2015, and minor work was scheduled to continue through December as the project winds down.

According to the Ohio Department of Transportation, the project included lighting, mechanical and ventilation systems upgrades; concrete and tile repairs; and cameras and fire detection system installations.


Exacting standards

Journey Steel’s participation in the project included fabrication and installation of steel support beams. Jason Mullins, operations manager for the company, says federal and large state programs follow the strictest guidelines in structural steel fabrication and erection.

The company’s welders are American Welding Society certified, with some being flux-cored arc welding certified specifically. Mullins is a certified welding inspector as part of the quality control department.

“Because of the gravity of the situation,” Mullins begins, “most of our connections were engineered to be mechanical to eliminate as much of the human error as possible.”

Mullins explains that there are three types of connections that join different pieces together: rivets, which are no longer used in the industry; welds, which are more susceptible to human error, climatic factors and problems with physical or chemical reactions; and bolts, which is the mechanical connection.

“There is much less chance of experiencing human error in a bolted connection provided that you use the correct equipment to install the bolts,” Mullins notes.

The welding, for the most part, was completed in the shop and inspected by the Ohio Department of Transportation prior to going to the job site where approximately 95 percent of the pieces were bolted together. Shielded metal arc welding was performed on the remaining connections.


“Rarely do we see that level of inspection on non-government jobs,” Mullins says.

Every lot of bolts used is inspected by Journey Steel for quality, as required by the American Institute of Steel Construction. But this attention to detail is important on infrastructure projects, Mullins says, because they are expected to be multi-generational. A simple warehouse, he offers as an example, might be built to serve a purpose for 10 years, at which time the company has recouped its cost on it and made a profit, and the warehouse can be torn down.

“That’s not going to happen with an infrastructure job,” he says. “If you build a bridge or a courthouse, you’re trying to make something that extends beyond the normal lifespan. It becomes part of the landscape.”

Journey Steel brought testing equipment to the job site in the Lytle Tunnel, working with its internal quality control team to test bolts with torque wrenches and Skidmores (Skidmore-Wilhelm bolt tension calibrators), to “show that the bolts will do what they’re supposed to.”


Know the code

Standards must be followed in cutting the steel. Journey Steel used heavy-duty saws, pneumatic or hydraulic punches and specialized drill bits. The company also followed the AWS D1.1 and D 1.5 structural welding codes, which was appropriate considering the weight involved above the tunnel. Other infrastructure projects follow different AWS codes; bridge projects follow D1.5 and projects that require seismic standards follow D1.8.

“Each one of the codes is a 300-page document,” Mullins says. “Everything is hypercritical.”


While the Cincinnati area isn’t known for seismic activity, many infrastructure jobs will have a standard for construction that applies to similar projects in other parts of the country, whether they’re seismic or not.

“Your structural connections have to be detailed out and performed in the field no different than if they were in Southern California or Southern Ohio,” he says.


That begs the question: While Journey Steel actively seeks out these large projects, is every company willing to take on an infrastructure job despite the additional hurdles?

“Not all of them want to, to be honest with you,” Mullins says. “A lot of bureaucracy and paperwork is involved. For some people it becomes too trying – either to get paid or get approval on pragmatic fixes. They have to go through a whole series of events before somebody will OK it.”


A unique position

Journey Steel is different in that it is a small certified minority and woman-owned construction company. Based in the city of Cincinnati itself, Journey Steel is the product of Barbara Smith, who has faced plenty of adversity on her way to leading her own company as president and majority owner.

Since the beginning, Journey Steel has committed 10 percent of its profits to programs that support the community. However, the company recently embarked on a new initiative to help with the skills gap, three young adults at a time. Journey Steel is working to have other companies to adopt the program, as well.

Journey Soaring Impact began in the summer of 2016. This vocational program takes three inner-city high school students who have just finished their junior year and mentors them three days a week.

The program is actually the brainchild of Smith’s business partner Tom Garten, who also serves as the company’s vice president. Gartner’s daughter is a schoolteacher who has witnessed many struggling youth in downtown Cincinnati.


“We found out how bad the system is failing them all the way around,” Smith says of kids they worked with previously who were coming out of high school with fourth-grade reading and math skills. “We provided tutoring for students who came out last year and got them up to grade level. They would have graduated without us, but nobody would have been able to hire them.”

By working with the students before they graduate, Smith says they have more time to support them on the many aspects of their lives that will better prepare them for society and the workplace. Journey Steel works with them throughout the summer following their junior year and two days a week during their senior year. Furthermore, Garten’s wife, Sheila, has a background in finances, so she educates them on personal finance issues, including teaching them about what a credit score is and how to save money for a house and car, etc.

The students serve as pre-apprentices at Journey Steel, which has also brought Ironworkers Union Local 44 into the project to assist. Smith said they also work with other union halls, so if a program participant would rather get into plumbing, carpentry or be an electrician, avenues are available for those careers, too.

Smith says the goal is to break the cycle of poverty and to catch kids before they make a bad decision or become discouraged. A secondary goal is to shed light on the lack of women and minorities in the metals fabricating industry.

“To be able to say you’re working on buildings and infrastructure in your community,” Smith says of getting kids established in a trade, “you can point at it and say, ‘hey, I had something to do with that.’”

Journey Steel

Get industry news first
Subscribe to our magazines
Your favorite
under one roof