ALBEMARLE COUNTY, Va. (WVIR) - Crews with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) have been keeping a relatively low-profile for months as they work on a major traffic project in Albemarle County.

Since last fall, workers have been coming out at night for a new Grade-Separated Intersection (GSI) at Route 29 and Rio Road.

Construction on the GSI is slated to shift into high gear on Sunday, May 22, and drivers will see major traffic pattern changes that will affect travel through the project during the summer.

The construction began in October of 2015. By day it was business as usual at the site...but after dark, the unusual happened.  Until now, most people only saw remnants of the late-night handiwork, as they drove over big steel plates in the road during the day, and perhaps noticed the orange barrels and the low concrete barriers alongside the road.  

Huge steel plates cover large sections of road, and what is underneath the steel will soon affect anyone who drives that part of Albemarle County. Hidden below the steel plates is a large trench where work on a through path down Route 29 is happening.  

NBC29's Sharon Gregory takes us under the steel for a look at a project that's anything but run of the mill.

VDOT crews begin their ritual around 8:45 p.m. with a rolling shutdown of Rt. 29 at Rio Rd., streamlining it to one lane in both directions so they can access the trench below.

“That’s a tremendous challenge in terms of mobilizing everybody: getting them out there, getting them working,” VDOT Communications Manager Lou Hatter said.

Jason Tracy is the Lane-Corman Joint Venture project manager who says the operation design is rife with challenges.

“It’s not your typical project. We're basically building it from the top down. Imagine building a house. You start with your foundations, and you know you, start with your walls, and your walls start with your studs. Well, right now, we're starting at the top,” he stated. “We haven't done any foundation work yet, and we're installing our studs. During shutdown period, we'll be going through excavating all the ground and building the walls.” 

One of the first orders of business in the top down approach was to secure Rio Rd. as the ‘roof or bridge’ over a through path down Route 29 that, for now, exists only in concept. “So we excavated this trench and brought the crane in and drove the pile into the middle of that trench,” Tracy stated.

Then, crews excavated underneath the road to fortify Rio Rd. and started building the walls, walls that become visible only after dark. When the steel plates are removed, an intricate weave of rebar is revealed.   

Soon, nobody will go inside the trench, because concrete will fill a large portion over the rebar.  “Concrete pours like these must be done precisely. That is because workers all the way in Virginia Beach are the ones crafting the box beams that will go on top of it. They must smooth it out at a specific grade for all the pieces to fit together perfectly,” said Tracy.

Jason Tracy describes the next steps in the process:

“They're going to pour this concrete.  ...They're going to put another form over here and you're going to have concrete sitting right here over top of these so, these when I was saying earlier, these are like your studs in your wall.  This is the stud.  

...The bridge beam is going to sit right here. And then 75 foot over there…the trench, the concrete and the bridge beam is going to sit on that side and then all the traffic below.

There'll be a deck that we pour, a concrete deck that we pour on top of that, and that's what the traffic will be riding on.” 

Aside from the "top down" construction challenges, contractors face intense deadlines. The deal with the state is to finish excavating the fly-through part of Route 29, and reopen the intersection in fewer than 103 days, or risk losing $9 million.

“People talk about fast tracking a project. This project is what's called ‘flash tracked,’ and what that means is that we are moving at a significantly faster pace with the design and the construction of these projects than is typically the case with a highway improvement project,” Hatter stated.

They're under the gun to go fast, but for now 6 a.m. is the next deadline for crews. They must ready the road for the day's traffic.

Once construction is completed, you can stay local to turn on Rio Rd., or be part of the traffic below and drive under the new Rio Bridge.  Here is a glimpse at the future drive on 29 toward Charlottesville:

The primary reason for this GSI is to ease traffic at Rio and Route 29. VDOT says that's because it handles so much traffic that - as is - it is in danger of failing.

A lot of people think it is supposed to make the commute on Rt. 29 through Albemarle County and Charlottesville faster.  VDOT says it might help a little, but that is not what it is meant to do. The GSI is simply meant to ease congestion at the intersection. 

VDOT admits construction is going to be a headache, but it's a necessary evil to make that intersection work better. Drivers will not be able to make any left turns on or off Rio Road in any direction, but VDOT has prepared maps on how to get around:

One last bright note: the construction companies of Lane-Corman say crews just might finish ahead of deadline.