COVID-19 and Transportation Construction: Part 1 - The New Normal

June 11, 2020

This eight-part series discusses the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on transportation construction and the importance of investing in infrastructure to help rebuild the economy. These weekly Q&A sessions with leading experts in the transportation industry include government agencies, engineering & design firms, contractors, material suppliers, and industry associations.

PART 1 – What does the “New Normal” look like for construction in the public sector?

As businesses are pivoting in response to COVID-19, a “new normal” is beginning to emerge across the construction industry. Although some of these actions are more common across the board (i.e. working from home and increased sanitation measures) others could vary greatly depending upon the role a business or agency plays in public construction. This week we spotlight what the new normal looks like from various perspectives.

What are some examples of the “New Normal” business environment for your organization?

  • Bill Lawrence (Materials and Pavements Manager – Utah DOT): Teleworking was a statewide initiative that was going to roll out in May, which included being done under measurable objectives.  COVID-19 pushed it to all who could a lot sooner, with measurable objectives to be developed later.  I anticipate seeing this teleworking being here to stay.  

  • James Bailey (Senior Vice President - Skanska USA Civil): Increased use of video conferencing, reduced capacity of conference rooms/offices, higher acceptance of working remotely, increase requirements of PPE and increased sanitation procedures.

  • Michael Mangione (Senior Vice President – WSP USA): WSP has pivoted to a near full remote operation and we have leveraged multiple platforms to accomplish the increased virtual meetings and collaboration. We have seen a great sense of collaboration and team since the COVID work from home has begun. WSP has also increased the focus on our employees’ health and well-being, employee morale, mental health, mentoring/relationships and regular team and individual check-ins. The health of our team and our clients will remain the most important element of these operations.

  • Ken Simonson (Chief Economist – The Associated General Contractors of America - AGC): More telework was already allowed for 2 days/week but now more workers will telework, at least part-time. Expecting far less revenue from meetings and conferences, though webinar frequency and revenue (from non-members) has soared. Staff has been able to “appear” before far more members and demonstrate value of membership in multiple ways. Impact on association’s budget not yet clear but expect clampdown on travel, equipment purchases and other discretionary expenditures.

  • Kevin Burke (Executive Vice President – Illinois Asphalt Pavement Association): Some processes have been improved using digital resources (e-ticketing, e-signatures, etc.). However, we still need face-to-face meetings to help build strong relationships between Owners and Contractors.

  • Randell Iwasaki (Executive Director – Contra Costa Transportation Authority): CCTA’s POP “progress on paperless” program has been very successful – we’ve even had a few articles written about us!  What started as a simple idea to reduce the number of paper agendas printed for Board meetings has snowballed into a larger paperless initiative that includes electronic signatures, online bidding for construction projects, electronic inspection and records on projects, moving our daily office operations to the cloud, etc.  In our business continuity plan, we’re working to identify what we need to ensure that our small team has the ability to be nimble and effective in a variety of circumstances.  Our “new normal” includes a fully remote workforce, virtual public board and committee meetings, and re-thinking how we engage the public and our stakeholders on the work being planned, or in progress.  We are investigating on a remote workplace concept to save money on building rental, etc.

  • David Lawry (Past APWA President and Director of Municipal Services for Chastain and Associates): We understand the younger generations appreciate a remote working option with their employment. I believe baby boomers have been slow to react to this desire. CVD-19 has shown remote work can be productive and can be managed effectively. I expect a new norm will be remote working opportunities for many staff.

  • Nick DiBartolo (Vice President – Rogers Group, Inc.): E-ticketing or delayed ticketing is certainly a practical business process that could be carried forward.  Evaluating the true need of how often large groups need to assemble will also continue.

From your firm’s perspective, how has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the construction environment?

  • Nick Goldstein (VP of Regulatory Affairs – American Road & Transportation Builders Association - ARTBA): The first issue for the industry was making sure industry firms could continue working.  Above all, this required contractors adding COVID-19 prevention protocols to their safety procedures.  Guidance issued by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) designated public works construction as essential and, with the urging of ARTBA and our state chapter affiliates, most governors followed suit. It is also important to note that transportation construction is distinct from other forms of construction in that transportation contractors generally work in open air and are better positioned to comply with social distancing than other sectors.  Our contractors also answer to public agencies who own the projects, as opposed to private developers. There has been a degree of good news as some states have been able to accelerate projects because of lower traffic volumes. The industry is now grappling with uncertainty over federal and state transportation revenues and construction programs to varying degrees across the states. ARTBA supports short-term support for state departments of transportation (DOTs) in addition to a full re-authorization of the federal surface transportation program as part of our nation's recovery from COVID-19.

  • Scott Edgecombe – (President, Americas – Tensar International Corp.) As a geogrid manufacturer and engineered solutions provider, Tensar has seen a wide range of changes across the transportation construction industry. Since most road and highway projects were deemed essential, we didn’t see a large drop-off of material deliveries for the first month of the pandemic. Mostly, projects that had already bid and were awarded continued on as planned. As we moved into late April and early May, we started to see some slippage of projects scheduled to bid during this time. Most were pushed back into the third quarter, with fewer pushed back into 2021 or later. These pushbacks were directly related to specific customer types, markets and the intensity level of their shelter in place and social distancing protocols.

  • Randell Iwasaki – (Executive Director - Contra Costa Transportation Authority): The operational aspects of heavy construction have not changed that much, but the work hours have.  Due to the Shelter in Place (SIP) orders in the San Francisco Bay Area, traffic volumes are at unheard of lows, which provides opportunities to work full 8-hours shifts at a minimum.  We are also able to close lanes during what are traditionally AM and PM peak hours on the interstate.  The construction industry is already used to outfitting workers with personal protective equipment that is appropriate for the type of work being conducted, and our contractors are diligently working to ensure their employees are safe.  What has been different is that typically safety plans, etc. are developed for each project, and in California, the Division of Occupational Safety and Health is the regulator.  Now that County Health officers have taken on the role of regulator, some of the new requirements – like a daily sign-in sheet – may not be practical on a 20-mile long freeway widening project.  Also, due to the decreased traffic on interstate and freeways, traffic speeds have unfortunately risen which creates other unintended consequences.

  • Nick DiBartolo – (Vice President - Rogers Group, Inc.): The focus on the health component of our safety and health program is stronger than ever.  We have no company without our employees and our customers.  We continue to follow, or exceed, CDC guidelines for industrial hygiene; construction, for the most part, lends itself to natural physical distancing, so we're poised well to endure a public health emergency. Any and all reasonable measures to reduce physical distance in our customer engagements is on-going, anywhere from e-ticketing to video conferencing.

  • Michael Mangione (Senior Vice President – WSP USA): There have been many impacts to construction as a result of CVD-19. The need for additional personal protective equipment (PPE) and appropriate safe distancing on-site as well as new coordination and work practices have been implemented. It is still early to be determined whether this will result in productivity gains or losses. Some states have temporarily stopped or slowed construction work while others have accelerated projects due to lower traffic volumes and decreased congestion by extending hours of work and increasing lane usage. Obviously, client program funding will be the biggest question moving forward.

  • Mark Lindemann (Geotechnical Engineer – Nebraska DOT): Initially it may have slowed project startups this spring, but the contractors are pretty much proceeding with a "business as usual" stance with the exception of using social distancing methods and PPE.  It should be noted that with Nebraska being mostly rural and located at the center of the country, we are just now beginning to peak with our CVD-19 cases.

We thank our transportation construction panelists for all of their informative feedback this week. Please join us next week for Part 2 when we will discuss the impacts COVID-19 has had directly on projects.

About The Author: Schmitz is Market Manager for Public Roads at Tensar.

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