April 13, 2010

One does not have to look hard to know that there are no smoke and mirrors in Magic Valley. Everything is in its purest form, from the trickling of the Snake River to chiseled canyon walls to the grunt of American stimulus dollars.

One does not have to look hard to know that there are no smoke and mirrors in Magic Valley. Everything is in its purest form, from the trickling of the Snake River to chiseled canyon walls to the grunt of American stimulus dollars.

W.W. Clyde, a large Utah-based highway and bridge contractor, is taking on a fresh strategy of battling economic recession in one of the most scenic nesting places for nature in the U.S. Work on Rte. 93 in Twin Falls, Idaho, however, did seem to spring out of nowhere. Benefiting from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA), a plan spurred by President Barack Obama to improve the nation’s infrastructure system and boost severely dehydrated employment levels, the Idaho DOT was able to give the project an early entrance onto the national scene, and W.W. Clyde quickly found itself in the middle of its own perfect storm.

“I think the stimulus money has helped,” Dustin Olson, operations manager at W.W. Clyde, told Roads & Bridges. “Of the projects we have right now, 75% of those are somewhat funded by the stimulus. I think from a short-term perspective [ARRA dollars] have helped get some work out on the street.”

But did the stimulus aid actually pull workers off the street and into a piece of heavy-highway equipment? W.W. Clyde, like most contractors, used the measure more to retain employees than to rejuvenate the payroll.

“It has allowed us to maintain our current employee assets to build the work that we have right now,” said Olson. “It has not sent us into a hiring mode at all as far as from our standard practice.”

Utah and Clyde

The state of Utah has been the aggressor when it comes to dishing out ARRA money. According to the latest update on the obligation of stimulus funds by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), the silver state leads the nation when it comes to the percentage of ARRA funds released into the work force (68.4% as of Feb. 28).

“Utah has a strong commitment to transportation and it’s ability to drive the economy,” said Olson. “Having that commitment allows them to be proactive and to get jobs out on the street that are actually going to help the economy.

“The spending has been really strong in Utah, and I think we are seeing that with a lot of outside competitors coming in the state. Some of these contractors who are not our competitors do not usually bid Utah work, but they are doing it now because the state is producing the work.”

W.W. Clyde is having no problem inviting those outside contractors in. If the fit is right, the Utah builder is forming joint ventures with other companies as a way of getting a piece of the action.

“We have gotten a couple of large projects with an out-of-state contractor that we felt was a good fit for us,” added Olson.

The fight for ARRA dollars also has forced many contractors across the nation to wrestle with bid figures, as with more competition comes a drop in price. W.W. Clyde is no exception to this new rule and has taken on proposals with a keener business sense.

“With every project you have to know the hot buttons or the challenging areas and try to manage or over-manage them the best way possible,” advised Olson. “You have to understand where your potential losses are at and put an increased focus on those areas and try to get through them by mitigating or eliminating the loss.”

W.W. Clyde was able to land three stimulus jobs last construction season, including the work on Rte. 93 in Twin Falls, and hopes to land two or three more for the upcoming season.

The work in Twin Falls involves the widening of Rte. 93, from two lanes to a four-lane divided highway, and the construction of a new bridge, which is not covered by ARRA money, over Rock Creek Canyon. Due to the environmental sensitivities, the 500-ft-long, 120-ft-high span carries the largest of challenges. Since the canyon walls are “essentially vertical,” getting access to the site has proven to be difficult. W.W. Clyde also is dealing with multiplates that were used to build a fill over the river after the first bridge, which was wood, burned down in the 1970s. The contractor needed to remove the material and will have to re-establish the channel for Rock Creek, which calls for the design of a streambed.

W.W. Clyde is just starting work on a second stimulus-funded job just down the road from the Rock Creek Bridge. According to Olson, the work will include a flyover box-girder bridge.

As for the type of work that is being branded with stimulus funds, Olson said Utah is doing both road overlay work and bridge construction, and the movement has helped improve the infrastructure network across the state. “You feel the investment in transportation when you drive around. There are a lot of work barrels, and in my mind that is a good thing.”

Slow but steady

Despite being ready and willing to work, Virginia continues to lose its allowance. Due to a decline in gas-tax revenue at both the state and federal level, the state has been forced to slash more than $4 billion from its upcoming six-year transportation plan.

With proposed and needed road and bridge projects continuing to pile up, Virginia was hoping to make a dent in the load with its allocation of ARRA money.

Although funds have been a little slow to reach the contractors’ hands, as of Feb. 28 Virginia was tied with Louisiana for last on ARTBA’s stimulus numbers in terms of outlays as a percent of total apportioned (7.3%), it was all part of a plan.

“Our governor wanted an open and transparent selection process,” Mal Kerley, chief engineer for the Virginia DOT, told Roads & Bridges.

That process also allowed citizens of the state to nominate projects, and VDOT received over 1,700. The Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) used the following criteria to select the projects: structurally deficient and functionally obsolete bridges, deficient pavement, BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) projects and projects taken out of the original transportation plan.

According to numbers provided by VDOT’s CFO Reta Busher in mid-March, the state has 68 ARRA projects on the docket for a total of $576.7 million. Of that, 53 projects have been advertised for a total of $514 million, and 42 projects have been awarded for a total of $287 million.

Crumbling pavement saw the bulk of the work late last year. According to Kerley, the CTB authorized $110 million of work right out of the gate, but Virginia also looked into removing bridges from its structurally deficient list. Working with the Federal Highway Administration, VDOT was able to identify a total of 119 spans that were in desperate need of attention.

“We put those projects on the street also,” said Kerley. “Those were design-build projects, and you are starting to see some work in there.”

President Obama made Virginia the face of ARRA funds when he visited the Fairfax County Parkway project early last year. Stimulus dollars have given life to Phase 4 of the project, and Phase 3 work has since been advertised.

However, in terms of executive-level projects related to stimulus dollars, Virginia’s Fair Lakes tops the list. Valued at about $92 million, the job aims at straightening one of the worst-performing interchanges in the state. The project entails widening Fairfax County Parkway from four to six lanes and the construction of a split-diamond interchange. Two new bridges also will be built, and aesthetic enhancements will be included.

As for job creation, Virginia claims it has added 600 to the mix, but the stimulus might have performed a little better in terms of payroll preservation.

“I have talked to several contractors who were looking for ARRA to keep them in business and not lay off people,” mentioned Kerley.

Waiting on the feds

The bridge over the Osage River in Missouri is considered the big brother of the stimulus movement. It was the first to break ground in February 2009 and is expected to be completed this July.

“It will be in place and used well before we could have ever paid for it ourselves,” Pete Rahn, director of the Missouri DOT, told Roads & Bridges. However, Missouri, like most states, needed a much larger crate of monetary relief to be air-dropped from the federal government. MoDOT canceled bid openings for the months of February and March, and on March 10 announced it was going to follow through on 400 layoffs and a cut in service to save a little over $200 million so it could keep its maintenance program in place. Personnel loss will cover $80 million, with the rest coming out of areas like capital improvement, fleet expenses, mowing and litter pickup.

“This is a five-year strategy, and I am hoping we do not have to operate this way for five years,” said Rahn.

MoDOT did receive some relief when the Senate passed its jobs bill that included a $19.5 billion cash infusion in the highway and transit programs on March 17. Without the fix, Missouri was in line to lose $243 million. According to Rahn, MoDOT had expended 63% of its stimulus money as the first quarter was coming to a close in 2010, and the state will have its entire block of projects in the construction or completion phase by the end of the upcoming construction season.

Using ARRA dollars, MoDOT began the breaking of a bottleneck last construction season with the commencement of work on the interchange at I-70 and I-435. Labeled the No. 1 traffic congestion producer in Kansas City, the $48 million job involved extending a third lane of traffic through the interchange. Prior alignment reduced three lanes of traffic to two at the interchange before it returned to its original form after the ramp network.

State Rte. 141 was another stimulus gem in 2009. Marked as an economic development project for St. Louis County, crews began the four-lane limited access extension that will serve as a major connection between interstates in the St. Louis area.

Replacement of the Troost and Tucker bridges will highlight ARRA work in 2010 in Missouri. The Tucker Bridge is going to serve as a major connector to the new Mississippi River Bridge.

MoDOT was able to mix simple projects in with complex ones during the ARRA allocation process, but contractors relied on the work to retain basic operations. MoDOT surveyed its 12 largest contractors and asked them how much work came from the state agency traditionally and currently. The average for past work was 42%, but now it represents over 90%.

“If we were not out in the market with our jobs they would not have work because there is not work going on at the local level and there is not work going on in the private sector,” said Rahn.


There is ARRA-related productivity at virtually every level at the Oregon DOT. Staying true to its multimodal approach, ODOT spent 36% of stimulus dollars on nonhighway projects, which includes bicycle/pedestrian, port, rail and transit. The agency even sidestepped the ordinary by dedicating some of the funds toward the purchase of two passenger trains that service the Amtrak line that runs through Eugene, Portland, Seattle and ends at Vancouver.

“Most [of our strategy] was about getting the money out quickly, but the second aspect of our approach was about multimodal funding,” Travis Brouwer, senior federal affairs advisor for ODOT, told Roads & Bridges. “We try to be very multimodal in our overall strategy, so we really branch out.”

ODOT also tried to reach out and touch as many contractors as possible during the ARRA allocation process, dedicating a high amount of funds to several smaller projects as opposed to a few big ones that would only benefit the building giants of the region.

The coverage happened fast. Before the bill was worked out in Congress ODOT had about $180 million in jobs at the ready. According to the ARTBA stimulus spending update, Oregon had more than 35% of their stimulus funding already committed to contractors, and according to Brouwer all of the ODOT projects will be completed at the end of the 2010 construction season.

“Most of the local government jobs, which received $100 million [of the $334 million ARRA total], are just going forward this year. So overall we are probably a little over 50% done now.”

Most of the highway work went to preserving roads, but as much as 28% of the funding is dedicated to major modernization projects. The only area ODOT failed to effectively serve was its bridge program.

“We had only a handful of projects that we thought we could move forward within the time frames of the bill and the even more stringent time frames that we put forward,” said Brouwer. “We were hoping to do more bridge work with a second stimulus bill, but that has not materialized.”

Oregon, unlike other state DOTs, is not looking doom straight in the face in the absence of a new long-term highway bill. The state legislature passed the Oregon Jobs and Transportation Act in 2009, which, thanks to a 6-cent increase in the state gas tax and a spike in other fees like the weight mile tax on truckers, will generate $300 million in fresh funding every year.

“It certainly helped us have a brighter future even in the absence of any federal funding increases in the long term,” added Brouwer. “It is a very good place for us to be right now.”

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