June 2021 Vol. 76 No. 6


1990s’ Wild Ride: Decade of Fast-Changing Highs, Lows, Twists and Turns

75th Anniversary

Change was the theme of the 1990s, not only in terms of ups, downs and surprises, but diversification as well. Oil pipelines were taking a back seat to the boom in underground utility installation from gas distribution, sewer/water and cable involved in both new construction and rehabilitation. 

Technology – both traditional and trenchless equipment and techniques – continued to advance to the point of having the most important impact on the industry, especially in terms of increasing quality and reducing construction costs. Innovation also expanded to encompass refinements and improvements, and new and different applications and combinations of technology. 

Significant events in 1991, for example, included increasing use of electrofusion for joining service laterals and mains in repair projects. 

Another trend that year was a growing reliance on natural gas that led Pacific Rim countries to propose a 5,000-mile, $10-billion pipeline system. Domestically, gas projects included the Kem River, Iroquois (370 miles in upstate New York) and Mohave (374 miles from Arizona to California). 

FERC Order 636 was issued in 1992, culminating deregulation of the interstate natural gas industry. Intending to increase competition and lower rates for customers, it unbundled utilities’ transportation, storage and marketing functions. 

Safety regulation, however, was growing, with enactment of the Pipeline Safety Act of 1992 to increase the safety to humans and the environment from the transportation by pipeline of natural gas and hazardous liquids, and for other purposes. 

Birth of the UCTA 

The Gulf Coast Trenchless Association was founded that year. Later morphing into the Underground Construction Technology Association, its goal was to support research, development and education in traditional, trenchless and rehabilitation technologies, and promote the use of these technologies. 

The major domestic project was the $1.6-billion, 740- mile, 42-inch Pacific Gas Transmission/Pacific Gas & Electric Pipeline Expansion project, running from Northern California to the Canadian border. 

In 1993, uncertainty was plaguing the construction market. Energy companies, concerned with low prices, deregulation, various environmental issues and the faltering economy, sharply reduced spending plans. 

However, two major projects commenced, including the 150-mile, 26-inch Empire State Pipeline, from Buffalo to Syracuse, N.Y., and the Florida Gas Transmission Phase III interstate pipeline expansion project, which called for 815 miles of 36-, 30- and 26-inch, and smaller line, in four Southeastern states. 

Important technological innovations also emerged, such as the first successful uses of robotic systems for sewer repairs and applying directional drilling to environmental remediation projects. 

By 1994, considerable new business was found south of the border. Mexico was liberalizing its gas distribution practices and Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil listed aggressive pipeline construction plans. But natural gas prices hit record lows and several companies canceled pipeline programs, including Alberta Natural Gas’ $37.5 million expansion from British Columbia to the west coast of the U.S. 

In the U.S., increasing popularity of cogeneration plants was bringing new business to pipeline contractors. 

A newer rehabilitation technology, pipe bursting, and an established cured-in­place pipe (CIPP) rehabilitation technology, saw strong growth and popularity in the industry. 

UCT launches 

In early 1995, the first Underground Construction Technology (UCT) International Conference & Exhibition was held in Houston. Offering educational sessions that explored real-world issues and solutions, hands-on exhibits and networking opportunities, it immediately became – and remains today – a highly valued annual event. 

An interesting domestic project that same year was the 560-mile gas distribution system for Northern States Power Co. in Minnesota. Completed by Mueller Pipelines, it featured use of coiled plastic pipe and successfully addressed numerous environmental concerns created by wetlands located throughout the project. 

In 1996, the federal pipeline safety bill, Accountable Pipeline Safety & Partnership Act, passed, elevating attention on this critical issue. 

The “information highway” was covered extensively in the magazine, including an article about installation of a state-of-the-art, hybrid, fiber-coax network in Chicago, Detroit and Columbus, and a large fiber-optic installation project in Oklahoma. 

Contracts were awarded on the $380-million, 785-mile, 24-inch-diameter, crude oil Express Pipeline, from Alberta, Canada, to Wyoming. 

An especially significant trend starting in 1996 was project owners and contractors “partnering” or joining into alliances, to work more closely together than they ever had, and finding positive results as they shared risks, as well as rewards. 

50th anniversary 

Pipeline & Utilities Construction celebrated 50 years as “the leading magazine of the underground construction industry,” covering traditional/open-cut and trenchless approaches. 

The magazine greeted 1997 with a new name. Underground Construction better reflected its broadened focus on the diversification of the industry and detailed coverage of all facets of the utility construction and rehabilitation markets. 

A 7.5-mile, 96-inch-OD raw water transmission line was completed for Colonial Water Authority of Texas. 

While trenchless rehabilitation was growing, there were still times when the only solution for deteriorating sewer lines was complete replacement the “old-fashioned way.” Such a project, in Knoxville, Tenn., included excavating and installing approximately 20,000 LF each of 18- to 60-inch storm sewer pipe; 8- through 60-inch sanitary sewer pipe, including 1,100-foot-long tunnel for 24-inch carrier pipe; and water pipe ranging from 2 to 8 inches. 

Cable installation was generating a tremendous amount of work. Projects in 1997 included installation of a $100-million, 542-mile digital fiber-optic network along the highway system in New York, primarily with plowing equipment and rock-wheel trenchers to cut through difficult soils. HDD was also used to bore under surface obstructions, such as on-off ramps, bridge abutments, railroad tracks, streams and rivers, and uneven terrain. 

Safety was front-and-center in 1998, with the One-Call Notification Act establishing the program to protect people, property and facilities, and the environment from excavation damage. It outlined required elements, including minimum standards and provisions for implementation and enforcement. 

Rhode Island completed a 10-mile, $33.4-million water project linking three Bristol County communities to fresh water supplies in nearby Providence. A five-year, $30-million combined sewer overflow (CSO) project for Massachusetts Water River Authority would involve both construction – 8,200 feet of new 36- to 66-inch-diameter pipe – and rehabilitation – 2,300 feet of 18-inch sewer pipe with 24-inch sewer pipe – in a tight, urban residential neighborhood. 

Natural gas started flowing to many new markets with completion of the $1.2-billion Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline. Its purpose was to facilitate the transport of Sable Island gas through Canada and Northern Maine to key U.S. markets in the Northeast. 

Telecom boom 

Large cross-county telecommunication projects were the norm with no end in sight. Williams completed its 250-mile fiber-optic construction project from Houston to Dallas, the latest route in one of the largest networks in the U.S. At more than over 19,00 miles in the ground, with 17,000 miles lit and in-service, it was scheduled to expand to 32,000 miles by December 2000. 

Enron began construction of a fiber-optic line, extending from Salt Lake City to Houston. 

Level 3 Communications was formed, in Omaha, to build  
the world’s first telecommunications network using Internet Protocol packet switching technology, which promised to make more efficient and cost-effective use of available fiber, compared to the existing circuit-switching technology. Domestically, long-haul segments will cover 15,000 route miles across the U.S. The company expected to complete all local systems in metropolitan markets by the end of 2001. 

Underground Construction conducted the first-annual survey of municipal personnel and reported results in a feature story. Now in its 24th year, the survey provides quantitative and qualitative details about municipalities’ infrastructure spending and other critical subjects that are not tracked and published anywhere else. 

In the last year of the 20th century, the overall industry had an optimistic – but realistic – outlook. 

After being in-the-works for several years, the Alliance natural gas pipeline finally kicked-off in 1999. Its now-$4.5 billion, 1,900-mile line from Canada to the U.S. was one of the largest construction projects in North America. 

HDD was thriving and maturing, with the U.S. market soaring to 9,000 rigs. CASE made a big splash entering the trenchless industry, by introducing two new directional drill models and a new mixing system at UCT 1999. A third rig model was to be introduced later in the year. 

Michels Pipeline Construction pushed the directional drilling envelope to achieve a new length-width record: a 24-inch, 6,041-foot bore. Amazingly, it was largely drilled through solid rock, as part of a 67-mile extension to the 37-mile Cardinal Pipeline in N.C. 

Other innovations were demonstrated by a pipe bursting contractor who made a record-length run for upsizing 24-inch to 26-inch on a sewer project. Grouting techniques installed replacement trunk sewer lines inside primary-lined tunnels that crossed fault lines. A new liner product was introduced that used HDPE pipe as inner and outer liners, then filled with cementitious grout. Divers used sliplining for underwater siphon repairs. 

It was an active, optimistic year for Underground Construction, too. The magazine introduced the “First Look” feature to provide readers with an exclusive, comprehensive preview of cutting-edge equipment and technology new to the marketplace. With the launch of the UCT Seminar Series, two Advanced Municipal Sewer & Water Workshops were held during the year.  

In addition, the first monthly “Editor’s Log,” column by Editor-in-Chief Robert Carpenter started welcoming readers to each issue and addressing timely topics and trends.

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