Markets

Planes and Trains

All aboard for a look at Gomez Construction Company’s work on a high-speed rail station—now arriving at Orlando International Airport.
By David McMillin
August 7, 2023
Topics
Markets

If you want to learn the ins and outs of the more than 7 million square feet of Orlando International Airport, there’s no need to wait in line at an information desk or talk to a gate agent. Instead, turn to Miami-based Gomez Construction Company, which has served as a continuing contractor for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority for more than 20 years. “We’ve probably touched every square inch of that airport,” says Peter Alvarez, a GCC project manager.

The company’s most recent project for GOAA, however, had nothing to do with air travel. Rather, GCC built a train station at the airport for Brightline, a high-speed rail service that runs from Miami to West Palm Beach. While Brightline operates five other stations across the Sunshine State, the new, 37,350-square-foot passenger terminal located adjacent to the parking garage at Orlando’s Terminal C marks the first time a high-speed, inter-city rail station has been built in an American airport. Opened in September 2022, the new station includes a cocktail bar with a panoramic view of the train platform, a children’s play area, a retail shop and a premium lounge.

Initially, the pace of the project matched the 125-mile-per-hour speed of a Brightline train. GCC began reviewing conceptual drawings in July 2021, competing against other companies in the process, and by the beginning of 2022 received a notice to proceed (NTP) from Brightline. Still, it was clear that an on-time arrival might be tough thanks to the slowdowns that plagued construction throughout the pandemic. “We had materials that [didn’t have] long lead items before COVID, like wood doors, overhead doors and custom flooring, that went from five-week lead times to 15-week lead times,” Alvarez says.

With that in mind, Alvarez looked at the project’s many moving parts—29 subcontractors, 175 employees and a freight yard’s worth of materials that included air handlers, fan-coil units, variable air-volume systems, switchgear, custom carpet and more than $800,000 in light fixtures—to see what needed immediate attention. “As soon as that NTP was issued, the first thing we prioritized was what subcontractors would have the longest lead items and release them,” he says. “We awarded contracts, received shop-drawing submittals and moved forward.”

‘A KNOWN UNKNOWN’

It wasn’t long before they needed to pull the emergency brake—the result of one of the project’s biggest challenges and something Alvarez describes as “a known unknown.” He knew in advance that it was going to be an issue, because he had worked on building the original shell facility—which was always intended to serve as a train station—between 2014 and 2018, but he wasn’t sure how it would actually impact the workflow until the new project got underway.

“The passenger station is on level four, but the trains come into the building in an open breezeway on level three,” Alvarez says. “In between the ceiling of the train platform and the deck level is an interstitial space that varies between six feet and three feet. It’s essentially a big crawlspace where we had to run miles of conduit and piping for electrical and plumbing at the station.”

The environment required confined space training, constant safety supervision and a buddy system that had workers operating in pairs. “It was a hard stucco ceiling,” Alvarez says, “so we had to cut some access panels and put safety rigging for working above an active rail line, as Brightline had test trains running back and forth.”

Those test trains posed another serious concern. “When the train is in the station, the top of it is only about six feet away from the ceiling,” Alvarez says. “There was enormous concern that the existing sprinkler heads were not enough to accommodate and that the heat exhaust from the train could cause the heads to trip. We worked with Brightline, GOAA, engineers and consultants to do several tests that included bringing a train in and parking it under the station to monitor potential risks. Ultimately, it did not set off any heads, but we still changed out almost 300 existing sprinkler heads from the existing 286°F heads to 386°F heads as an added precaution.”

LEARNING AND GROWING

Initially, the plan was to finish the job by the end of 2022, but work didn’t wrap up until March 2023. Still, the delay was minor, considering the pivots that occurred throughout the 14-month project. Brightline issued a total of 10 bulletins during construction, including “pretty major changes, like moving walls, moving utilities [and] deleting items,” according to Alvarez. In some cases, GOAA also reviewed bulletins if they impacted adjacent GOAA spaces or systems infrastructure.

Working to accommodate changes and adapting to decisions about relocating, rebuilding and reworking plans is never easy, but for Alvarez, the process offered an opportunity to learn and grow. “I was lucky enough to start the project as preconstruction manager and then take it over as the project manager, which was the first time I’ve really led a program from start to finish,” he says. “The new skills I learned or sharpened are probably too many to count. This will be a project I remember and refer back on for the entirety of my career.”

by David McMillin

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