On time, on budget and a minimum number of headaches—in a nutshell, those are the marks of a successful transportation project.
That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway, but in tough economic times “good enough” isn’t good enough. Transportation agencies should be asking more from their consultants, and consultants should be stepping up to demonstrate new ways to execute projects. Times may be tough, but opportunities abound to do more for less and reach goals previously unimagined.
You have four months
A project to expand a section of I-44 in Missouri demonstrates how when an agency and its consultant are on the same page, and both are tuned in to finding better ways to get things done, some pretty extraordinary things can result. To take advantage of available funds, the project proceeded from the formal consultant selection process to bidding in just over six months. Multimillion dollars in savings led to multimillion dollars in additional improvements and then another million dollars of savings on top of that. By the end of this year motorists will have a new and safe stretch of highway to travel.
It’s not surprising that the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) is leading the way in developing such projects, ones that end up surpassing even their own expectations. Their Practical Design philosophy is built upon the idea that conventions should be challenged and procedures should be flexible. As consultants become comfortable working in this manner, the result is often a project that is better, faster and cheaper.
Taking a closer look at the I-44 project, which involved expanding a 5-mile rural section of interstate in Franklin County, demonstrates how roads get built in the Show Me State.
Toward the end of 2008, federal dollars tied to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) were being allotted to jump-start the economy by funding construction-ready projects. The I-44 project had yet to be designed, but MoDOT decided to take advantage of a small window of opportunity to get the much-needed improvements made.
Rather than having projects “designed and on the shelf (and maybe never be built),” MoDOT has adopted a unique philosophy that challenges the consultant community—find the transportation project with the greatest need and let the consultant rise to the occasion.
Once funding was secured for the I-44 project, the challenge was issued and the race was on.
Within three weeks of the initial solicitation, a consultant had been selected and a notice to proceed was issued. Crawford, Murphy & Tilly Inc. (CMT)—a Springfield, Ill.-based firm with an office in St. Louis—had four months to submit the final design plans.
“We were excited to have CMT as our design consultant,” said Tim Hellebusch, P.E., MoDOT resident engineer. “With the short time frame that was thrust upon us as a result of the ARRA funding, I was confident that MoDOT would receive a set of plans that was constructable, accurate and of best value.”
Letting innovation breathe
Fast-track projects certainly present a formidable challenge, although one that many in the engineering industry have grown accustomed to meeting. But opportunities to innovate are often lost in a heated pursuit of a by-the-book design under the pressure of a looming deadline. While it’s true that there’s not a lot of time to stop and think when a schedule has been accelerated, there is always time to think on your feet. That’s what CMT’s Kevin Fuller, P.E., and his team have been trained to do.
“We knew we could get the project designed on time. But could we do it cheaper?” said Fuller, the CMT project co-manager.
Through numerous MoDOT projects, CMT’s St. Louis staffers have become major proponents of the Practical Design philosophy and some of its most proficient practitioners, resulting in the saving of millions of taxpayer dollars.
Too often, projects are subject to strict protocols that while usually well-intentioned and sometimes necessary, can stifle innovation. On the I-44 project, a less formal communication structure between MoDOT, CMT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) served as a catalyst for expediting efforts.
The formal inquiry process and monthly meetings were replaced with more direct and immediate correspondence.
“Tim Schroeder was instrumental in making this happen,” Fuller said of the MoDOT project manager. “Everyone was aware of the urgency and was willing to stop what they were doing to get decisions made.”
One of the many benefits of the continuous communication was that it allowed the FHWA to cut their standard review time down by four weeks. It also allowed more input by more parties while the plans were still being developed.
“Normally, construction personnel comment after the plans are already complete,” said Cassie Reiter, P.E., CMT project co-manager. “For this project, construction and maintenance personnel were part of the team from the beginning, which helped the design process move forward faster.”
Flex the flexibility
MoDOT believes that a flexible process is necessary to maximize a project’s success. This flexibility is extended to design standards, where consultants are allowed to adapt standards to fit each specific project and project location if real benefits can be demonstrated. The consultant was able to identify several opportunities on the I-44 project.
To accommodate demand, MoDOT required that two lanes of traffic in each direction remain open during construction. In addition, the entire reconstructed roadway had to remain within the existing right-of-way. The initial plan, then, was to construct two temporary driving lanes in the existing median.
The consultant knew that MoDOT’s plans included adding a third lane in each direction at some point in the future. They were able to demonstrate that constructing those third lanes as permanent lanes during the ongoing project would only cost an additional $4.5 million as opposed to the $17.3 million (not adjusted for inflation) it would cost to construct as a stand-alone project later on.
MoDOT was agreeable to the alternative that will eventually save millions in future highway funding, but it did add some new challenges for the design team.
The existing two-lane roadways were each crowned in the center with drainage structures located in the median for water that flowed in that direction. With the median virtually eliminated by the two additional lanes, shoulders and median barrier, an extensive and costly sewer system would be required.
The consultant proposed raising the centerline of the entire six-lane facility at the tangent sections so that storm water would drain toward both outside shoulders. Sewer structures were still required at curved sections where banked pavements would direct flow to the center, but by eliminating the need for them at the tangent sections, a savings of approximately $4.1 million was realized.
“This method deviated from the standard thinking, but was an acceptable practice that required buy-in from both MoDOT maintenance and FHWA,” Reiter said. “It saved a considerable amount of money and material as well as construction time.”
Milling it down
Additional project savings were realized thanks to an approved alteration in the pavement specifications.
Original specifications for the reconstructed pavement called for an 8-in. overlay of the existing pavement. To avoid vertical clearance issues under bridges that span the interstate and minimize grading work, CMT proposed milling down the existing asphalt 5.75 in. before placing an unbonded concrete overlay atop the original concrete pavement. The addition of the 8-in. overlay then only resulted in a 2.25-in. increase in the pavement height.
This milling-down strategy helped alleviate clearance issues under bridges and minimized grading work, resulting in project savings of over $1 million and allowing for an addendum to add acceleration and deceleration lanes at one of the area interchanges.
Dropping the textbook
The 8-mile project was originally slated for $44 million in funding. When that figure was cut to $25 million, MoDOT and CMT had to figure out how to get the most out of the reduced amount, eventually revising plans to cover a 5-mile section of improvements, rather than the original 8 miles. The winning bid came in at $17.7 million.
In the end, the project did come in on time and well under budget. Forgoing a textbook approach in favor of one that rewards creativity probably did lead to a few extra headaches, but that’s a small price to pay when your goal is saving taxpayer’s money.
“[MoDOT’s] philosophy is ‘if you can find a way to save money, our ears are open,’” Fuller said. “