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‘A science nerd’ helps realign U.S. Highway 550

Andrea Meduna credits her dad for nurturing passion for science and numbers
Andrea Meduna, project engineer for the U.S. Highway 550 realignment, discovered Southwest Colorado while working on transportation projects. She’s particularly fond of the Paradox Valley after working on the bridge replacement in Bedrock. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Andrea Meduna has a side job as a math tutor.

Her main gig as project engineer for the $98.6 million U.S. Highway 550 realignment in Southwest Colorado helped provide some real-world inspiration to her niece, Breanna, whom she’s helping on Skype.

Meduna's sister, Colleen Barnes, recently asked for her older sister’s assistance saying, “We’re struggling with linear point equations.”

Meduna took a selfie in front of the 600-foot Gulch A Bridge, one of two bridges that will link the realigned highway to the Grandview interchange, and texted it to her sister and niece with a one-word message: “math.”

Barnes texted back, “I’m glad somebody’s good at it.”

As project engineer for the Highway 550 realignment, Meduna is on-site ensuring quality control is up to snuff. She also ensures completed work meets the original design requirements and construction processes meet state standards and specifications.

Pointing to the 2½-inch thick “Standard Specifications for Road and Bridge Construction, CDOT 2017” reference binder, she said: “That’s our bible. Everyone has a copy of it in their vehicle.”

The realignment is the sixth and biggest Colorado Department of Transportation project for Meduna, who works for Wood Environment and Infrastructure Solutions, a contractor on the realignment.

However, in total size and dollar value, the realignment doesn’t equal work she did in the mining industry between 2007 and 2016, when she worked as a consultant with Newmont Corp.’s gold and silver mines.

While the realignment might not be as big as past mining projects, she said its complexity presents even more challenges.

“There’s really not a whole lot to mining. You’ve got piping, earthwork, tailing facilities, leach pads, whereas in this project you’ve got asphalt, concrete, conduit. It’s got lighting. You’ve got public safety, transportation and traffic control. You’ve just got so many more moving parts,” she said.

Andrea Meduna, project engineer for the U.S. Highway 550 realignment, says she’s worked on bigger projects in the mining industry, but the complexity of the highway realignment creates its own challenges. “There’s a lot of moving parts,” she said. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Nancy Shanks, public information officer for the realignment project, said an unusually high number of women are involved in the project.

Besides Meduna, Shanks said 14 other women are currently working on the project or playing a role in its completion, including Bridget McDougall, assistant project engineer; Emily Byers, an environmental protection specialist; and Michelle Heinrich, construction project control manager.

The replacement of the historic Bedrock Bridge in the Paradox Valley in 2017 is Meduna’s favorite project.

The bridge replacement corresponded with a high snowpack year, and it was the first time rafters could run the Dolores River in 10 years.

Meduna strung buoys across the river so rafters could anchor themselves until construction crews could get to a point to let them float safely under the bridge.

“We would open and close the river to the rafters because you can't have suspended loads above them with a rafter going underneath. That's just terrifying. So we did a river closure,” she said. “You might have to wait 15 or 20 minutes, until we got to a good place, and then we’d let you go down the river. It was fun to do, a fun challenge to solve, and it worked really well.”

The number of tourists who stopped to inquire about the site, which was used in a scene in “Thelma and Louise,” Meduna said, was astonishing.

“I really had to go watch the movie. I hadn't seen it before.”

Meduna, who graduated from Metropolitan State University in 2001 with a degree in civil engineering technology, said her lifelong interest in science drew her first to biology and then to engineering.

She credits her father, Russ Meduna, a petroleum engineer, for nurturing her “science nerd.”

“I got a lot of stuff from my dad,” she said. “He would point out a geologic feature, and say, ʽHey, don’t you think that’s cool.’ And then he’d explain it. We spent a lot of time at the (Denver) Museum of Nature and Science and different national parks.“

Her father also helped her hone her math bona fides.

“He would give us a sheet of math problems that we had to do before we could go outside and play in the summertime,” Meduna said. “My sister hated them.”

Many of Meduna’s CDOT projects have come in Southwest Colorado, and she has a temporary residence in Durango for the three-year duration of the realignment project.

Occasionally, her husband, Mark Carter, also an employee at Wood Environment and Infrastructure, visits her in Durango, but they have two dogs and a cat, so it’s easier for Meduna to return to see him on the Front Range, where they have a home in Centennial.

When they manage to get together in Southwest Colorado, a pleasure drive to Bedrock is now a regular.

“It's just so beautiful through there. It’s still one of my favorite places,” she said. “It’s the only place I’ve been able to use the excuse that I was stuck in a cattle drive when I was late for work, and it was true.”

parmijo@durangoherald.com

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