Trenchless Tunneling Masters

Midwest Mole, Inc.

In construction, one of the most challenging tasks is excavation. Working in widely differing soil conditions, crews face everything from undocumented gas and water lines to rocks, roots, crumbling century-old cast iron sewer pipes, and other obstacles, hazards, and surprises.

For years, they were limited to above-ground, dirty, dangerous, and destructive excavation methods. Today, clients have another option: trenchless technology. And Midwest Mole is one of America’s premier trenchless technology experts, successfully tackling highways, utilities, railroad, municipal and private sector projects in the Midwest as well as the Washington DC and Virginia area.

“Our culture is hard work,” says Midwest Mole’s Chief Executive Officer Dan Liotti, P.E. “We’re the specialty underground contractor, and we operate both as a prime contractor and as a subcontractor.”

Many times trenchless installations can be more cost-effective and far less destructive than old-fashioned methods of using an excavator or backhoe to dig open a trench, trenchless technology uses specialized equipment to tunnel below the surface, making it ideal for installing service lines for electric cable or pipes for water, gas, or sewage. Advances in machinery have made trenchless technology a popular and safer choice, and the company has amassed an array of specialized auger boring machines, tunneling machines, directional drilling machines, pipe jacking, slip lining, and other equipment.

Unlike regular excavation work, trenchless technology is highly specialized, requiring considerable knowledge. “The only way to learn our business is to grow up in it, so to speak,” states Liotti. “Almost all of our field foreman started as laborers out in the field, working on crews for another foreman, learning the business. It takes about five or six years working on the crews to gain the knowledge it takes to be a foreman.”

Based in Greenfield, Indiana, Midwest Mole was started by Len Liotti in 1982 when he realized the potential for trenchless work – a relatively new technology at the time. He was joined by his son Dan three years later, but the fledgling business was small with about fifteen employees, including field crews and Len’s wife, Jane Liotti managing the office. Soon word of the company’s superior work and professionalism spread, and customers embraced trenchless technology.

In the early years, Jason Miller, the young son of David Miller, a foreman of Midwest Mole at that time, joined the company and learned everything possible about the business. After working his way up, Miller became company president about seven years ago. Miller’s rise from field staff to head of the business serves as an example of hard work, dedication, knowing the industry inside-out, and commitment to the company and clients while maintaining family and friendship values.

“What Jason has been able to do is a great story,” comments Liotti. “Understanding the business from the field aspect allows him to bid, negotiate, and build work. The most successful people in our industry have been brought up in it. It’s hard to come in from the outside and manage and run an organization since we are so specialized.”

Midwest Mole, which has grown to about one hundred full-time employees, is known for the quality of its trenchless technology services and its high employee retention rates. Almost forty staffers have been with the company for at least five years, and twenty-four for more than a decade, “So twenty-five percent of our workforce has been with us for more than ten years,” says Liotti.

Its average project size is around $300,000. It undertakes smaller works of about $10,000, but it is not unusual for the company’s larger jobs to be in the $5 million to $15 million range. The company was recently awarded its largest project as a prime contractor, worth $20 million.

The company self-performs about ninety percent of its projects and will, on highly specialized projects, serve as a principal contractor and hire experienced subcontractors. It focuses on highway, railroad, municipal, utility, and private sector clients, and the bulk of the work relates to the sewer, stormwater, and water needs. Midwest Mole also takes on some non-public and commercial jobs.

The company works for many well-known clients and often works for CSX Transportation, a Class 1 freight railroad operator, even handling emergency railroad work for CSX. “We can get a call on a Saturday night, and CSX needs our crews to be somewhere Sunday afternoon. With our own fleet of trucks, we are able to load our specialized equipment and get out to the job fairly quickly,” says Liotti. Owning its specialized equipment makes it highly responsive and able to meet client budgets and strict timelines.

Most of the company’s work involves boring or tunneling using unique trenchless technologies including directional drilling where rigs sit on top of the ground and a rod is steered beneath the soil, coming out at another end, often hundreds of feet away. Trenchless installations are usually performed under railroad tracks, interstates, roads, and airport runways, where disrupting the surface with a trench would be quite undesirable. With the various technologies at the team’s disposal, installations can range from two inches in diameter for small conduits up to ten feet in diameter for storm water and sewer lines.

One of the company’s most recent works is a 2,100-foot tunnel created as part of an Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) improvement project along the SR37 corridor. There are plans to rehabilitate the corridor and turn it into a freeway, and Midwest Mole is responsible for site access construction and “building a detention pond and outlet facility to Shoemaker Ditch.”

The company is working limited hours to keep noise and disruption to a minimum as it uses an Akkerman eighty-four-inch boring machine to construct the tunnel while facing underground challenges such as boulders, groundwater, and different soil conditions. The work will benefit Fishers, Indiana, just north of Indianapolis and one of the top five fastest-growing small towns in the country. Including all site restoration, the work is expected to be completed by May 2020.

As well as the SR37 corridor project, Midwest Mole recently completed a $6 million project at the National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington, D.C., a site that welcomes over twenty-five million visitors annually. The task saw the company replacing virtually every waterline in the D.C. Mall, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument to the Reflecting Pool, while serving as a prime contractor. The work presented a number of challenges, ranging from government paperwork to working around existing utilities and the public, especially during spring’s National Cherry Blossom Festival.

“We spent tremendous time and the money and hired some specialty contractors who specialize in locating system utilities by using newer technologies to find existing utilities,” says Liotti of the work, which uncovered some sections of century-old cast iron pipe. “Due to the age of the area, we wanted to be sure we didn’t drill through existing utilities.” The horizontal directional drilling (HDD) project was completed on time and within budget and was featured on the cover of a special supplement of Trenchless Technology magazine.

Like many other Midwest Mole works, the National Mall and Memorial Parks’ project were completed with the strictest consideration for the safety of crews, the client, and the public. The company has a safety program which includes a full-time safety director who educates employees on how to protect themselves, their co-workers, and the work environment.

Over thirty years after its founding, the business keeps receiving praise and awards from long-time and new customers alike for its quality, on-time work and outstanding customer service. It has received many awards for safety, including the 2017 ‘CCS Zero Injury Award’ and the ‘MICCS Zero Injury Award’ for 2016 and 2015. Dan Liotti was also named Trenchless Technology Person of the Year in 2015. In many ways, the award was a tribute to not only Dan but also to his father Len, as father and son appeared on the cover of an earlier issue of Trenchless Technology in 2002.

Midwest Mole is embracing the future and investing in people and equipment. The trenchless technology industry is small, with just three or four companies in each state performing the highly-specialized work, and demand keeps growing. To keep pace, the company purchased an office building in Alexandria, Virginia, which opened earlier this year to serve the D.C., northern Virginia, and Maryland area.

This big believer in technology is also developing a new website. “We have always been on the cutting edge of technology, and I think it’s helped us not only to be organized but responsive to our customers too,” says Liotti. The company also ensures its employees have up-to-date devices.

Midwest Mole continues to make its presence known, both attending and taking part in trade shows such as the North American Society for Trenchless Technology (NASTT) and the aptly named No-Dig.

Having been in business for over thirty years, Midwest Mole has faced and overcome countless challenges, from soil conditions to underground obstacles and continues to earn the respect of clients.

“We are very responsive, professional, and do quality work,” says Liotti proudly. “We’ve got a core, hard-working group of employees that are dedicated and understand our industry. They have the trenchless world in their blood. Things change constantly. Some people thrive on that, other people don’t. And fortunately, we’ve got a great group of people who thrive on challenges and perform well. Along with our safety culture, we can complete any task that is presented to us in our industry.”

Building the Next Generation

As thousands of experienced workers retire across North America every day, it is small wonder many industries are concerned about the future. It has been a decade since the oldest members of the baby boom generation started leaving their jobs, removing from the workplace decades of experience and skills that are tough to replace. The situation is so dire that, when younger workers are not available or knowledgeable enough to take over, retired staffers are often called back to work on a part-time basis.

November 16, 2019, 11:48 PM EST