"App"-solutely Helpful

July 27, 2015

NWX app mitigates the public impact of Northwest Extension Project. 

While Phoenix-area residents eagerly await the completion of a major extension of the city’s light-rail system, known as the Northwest Extension, they can use an application developed by the project’s joint venture contractors to stay connected with local businesses and get project updates. 

The NWExtension or NWX app, developed by Sundt Construction Inc. and Stacy and Witbeck and available for free download at the Apple iTunes store and Android Marketplace, contains route information, construction updates, information about community groups, traffic impacts, business promotions, and more. The app was made available late last year and, as of this writing, has been downloaded nearly 700 times—mostly by members of the public who are directly impacted by the $158.7 million transportation construction project.

The project consists of coordinating major utility relocations, widening the roadway to accommodate a 40-ft-wide track alignment and concrete paving to support new double tracks along the route. Sundt/Stacy and Witbeck also is installing the tracks, constructing three new train stations with passenger platforms, building a Park-and-Ride lot, constructing three traction power substations to supply electricity to the trains, installing new intersection signals and crossovers, and constructing the concrete foundations for the overhead catenary system that will feed electricity to the trains.

The "NWExtension application aimes to keep the public abreast of the daily impact of Phoenix's rail system construction project.

The Northwest Extension is expected to serve approximately 5,000 riders per day when it is completed. The project is Sundt’s fourth for Valley Metro Light Rail. In 2008, Sundt/Stacy and Witbeck completed more than half of the original 20-mile “starter” section of the transit system, as well as the system’s maintenance and operations facility.

Most of the 3.2-mile extension is taking place along 19th Avenue, a busy corridor lined with businesses. Mitigating impacts to those businesses is one of the team’s top concerns, as is keeping motorists informed about the construction activities that affect them. The NWX app is able to address both of those priorities by packaging all of the information together in a format that’s portable and easy to use. For example, app users can find out about traffic detours while checking to see if any of their favorite restaurants and businesses are offering special promotions. Maps, lane-closure information, project milestones and community events are all housed in the same place.

Breaking new ground

The NWX app is a “first” in the construction industry. After coming up with the idea, Sundt/Stacy and Witbeck discovered that no one had ever before developed an app for a construction project. They were surprised, considering what a good fit such technology is for a project of this kind. 

“An app is ideal for transit-oriented development such as light rail,” said Sundt Project Manager Fred Locke. “With this kind of project, there are a lot of people affected by what the contractors, subcontractors and utility companies are doing, and the conditions change constantly. Finding ways to keep them in the loop is always a challenge. Websites are OK, but they aren’t as portable as apps. People these days live on their phones and expect information to be delivered to them that way.”

Locke, who has managed several transportation projects for Sundt, said he sees great potential for transit-oriented apps in the future, but limited use for other kinds of construction projects.

“When you’re working in remote areas where there aren’t as many motorists or businesses impacted by construction, there isn’t as much need to communicate things like road closures. But I can see an app being very useful during construction of major university facilities, for example, where there is a large campus community to inform and engage with. And that’s an audience that really likes new technology, so an app would appeal to them.”

A real bargain

Minimizing the impacts of construction is a hot topic in the construction industry—and something more and more municipalities are looking for from contractors. How to keep traffic flowing and businesses operating while major roadways are built, rail lines are installed and bridges are erected takes innovation and a willingness to think outside the box. Apps may become an important tool in the process, and for companies like Sundt/Stacy and Witbeck, it has the potential to be a significant differentiator.

“We work to help businesses in any way that we can during construction,” said Cade Rowley, business development manager for transportation construction projects at Sundt. “That includes looking for new ideas and tools, like a phone app, that other contractors may not be using. This is definitely an important development in the way we can engage with those who are impacted by, and interested in, transit-oriented development.”

Shelly Marena, the Northwest Extension project’s administrative assistant, took the lead in developing the NWX app, even though she had never created one before. Marena is taking college classes in computer science in addition to working full time. 

“I thought it would be a great benefit to local businesses, so I didn’t let myself get intimidated by it,” she said. “I have a passion for computers, and programming comes easily to me. But I think even for someone with less of a feel for computers, it would be doable. I figured it couldn’t be that hard, since a lot of people I know have developed their own apps. I used a program available online . . . that walks you through the process. You can stick with [a] template or add your own customizations with html coding. It took a couple of weeks to develop the app itself, and a few months to meet with all of the stakeholders and gather their input. That’s really been the most time-consuming part. All together, I would say the app took about six months to fully develop.”

Besides Marena’s time, the cost to develop the app included registration fees with Apple (amounting to a few hundred dollars) and the price of the development software (approximately $1,100). Most of the items created to promote the app, such as brightly colored bracelets and brochures containing the logo and QR code, were fairly inexpensive and primarily paid for by the project’s owner, Valley Metro Light Rail, and/or the city of Phoenix. Further, Cox Communications has produced a public service announcement about the app that will air on a city television channel in order to boost public awareness. 

“The money invested in developing and promoting the app has been worth it,” Locke noted. “Most of what we produced had to be done anyway. You’ll never replace brochures, door-hangers and giveaway items. Not everyone has a smart phone, so the app can’t completely take the place of traditional communication tools. Instead, we just added the information about the app to the materials we were creating anyway. I wouldn’t say the app has saved us money, but it’s not cost-prohibitive either. Relative to the benefits, it’s a bargain.”

The public has spoken

Stacy and Witbeck Project Manager Erik Yingling said there’s no denying that having an app is beneficial and unique. But he advises others who are thinking of developing a transit-oriented app to carefully consider the time and other resources they have to devote to development and maintenance. Having a computer-savvy person on the project team who is passionate about technology, like Marena, is a big advantage. 

“It has definitely been time-consuming. We attend public meetings, hand out brochures and give presentations on how the app works. Our partnership with Valley Metro and the city of Phoenix has been crucial in getting the word out about the app, along with the television public service announcements, website and Facebook support,” said Yingling. “There was a lot of back and forth with Valley Metro and the city of Phoenix initially in order to get the content right. Shelly did a great job and spent a lot of time working out the bugs and perfecting it. She also spends a considerable amount of time every week updating the information to ensure that it’s current.”

So far, the response to the app from the business community has been overwhelmingly positive. 

“The project team has done a phenomenal job helping us out—way above and beyond what anyone would expect,” said Luis Granda, who works for a company that until recently owned a car wash on 19th Avenue. “I think the app is an incredible idea. I have it on my phone right now. I know that our customers have downloaded it and that it has helped our business because it has so much great information.”

As the project progresses toward its April 2016 completion date, Marena continues to improve the app by adding weekly updates and looking for ways to make it user-friendly. She recently added the project’s Facebook page to the app, and she stays alert to other information users might be interested in. 

“I’m always looking for ways to make it better. It’s updated frequently to ensure that it’s very timely and accurate,” Marena said. “I think people have come to depend on it when they’re planning their day. Rather than driving to the project area and discovering that a road is closed or re-routed, it makes so much more sense to quickly check the app and see what’s happening right at that moment.” TM&E

About The Author: Williamson is division manager for civil construction at Sundt Construction Inc.

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