Episode 16 – Project Development Process

Topics: Project Development Process

Talking Traffic Episode 16 – Project Development Process

Hello everybody. Today is Tuesday March 18th, 2008 and this is Talking Traffic episode 2^4, or episode 16 as those person’s more used to counting in base 10 would put it. It’s the day after St. Patrick’s Day and two days before the spring equinox, which makes today a wonderful day to talk about the project development process. Before we get started, I’ll let you know what’s been going on in my day to day life, which is affecting the podcast.

I’ve mentioned in previous episodes that I’m taking a firm grip on life priorities this year. Talking Traffic is a second-tier top priority for me, if that’s not an oxymoron. It falls behind my wife, my work, and training for races. Right now I’ve got plenty of things going on in my day job that are taking up my time, plus there’s an upcoming 1/2 marathon which is not only taking up hours on the weekend, but leaves me a bit drained after training, plus, because I’m a glutton, I’m also mixing in training for an Olympic distance triathlon coming up in May. This leaves my weekday mornings and evenings filled with workouts. All of these together either rob me of time, desire, or energy to write the podcast, which means some of the more research-intensive episodes on the backburner. These topics include Safety, which will be an enormous episode, possibly and two or three parter; The 511 system and Traveler’s Information; Traffic management; Autonomous Vehicles; Speed Speeding and Speed Limits; Road Safety Audits; and of course, more episodes about signals. Right now, I’m doing episodes which I’m more intimately familiar with, which means I can write up the podcast in a few hours and get it done.

Which brings me to today’s Topic: “The Project Development Process”. The Project Development process isn’t precisely traffic related, but it affects you, and I’ll explain why.

People often wonder why it takes so long to get a road project built. They speak of the horror-story projects that linger for 10 years before any dirt is actually moved. They imagine crazy bureaucrats sitting in their lair, cackling, while thunderstorms rumble overhead, until finally the beast is brought to life. They’re not too far from the truth.

The two most common methods for governments to deliver publicly funded projects are called Design-Bid-Build, and Design-Build. Design-Bid-Build is by far the method most frequently employed. You’ll probably have heard the term design-build rattled around in the media as the answer to all “the problems”. Truthfully, it’s just a different way to do the same thing. Design-Build contracts hire a firm that both designs and builds a construction project. Easy. Design-bid-build adds another step by separating the design from the construction process. The designer delivers the plans which are then advertised for bid, which typically is awarded to the lowest bidding construction firm, who then builds the project. Design-Build can be faster to implement than Design-Bid-Build because you’re removing a step from the process.

But, this is only about 1/4 of the story. If the only things holding up a project were the design and the bidding, things would still move smartly along. There are many many more layers of oversight and complexity involved in any publicly funded project, and I’m going to only touch the surface of the process. Hang on tight, because you’re about to enter the whirlwind.

First a project need must be identified. That’s usually done by a government agency or a planning organization. If you live in or near a location with a population of more than 50,000, you’ve probably got a planning agency, but that’s another episode. Once a need is identified, say build sidewalks on main street from 1st street to 4th street, then it must be assigned funds. These funds can come from the local city, county, or state, and any or all of the projects might be eligible for federal matching funds, where the local city, county or state puts up a portion of the money, and the feds supply the rest. Once funds have been assigned, the project is officially “in the program” and preliminary engineering can begin. Preliminary engineering doesn’t mean you start throwing lines on a drawing and designing the project, at least not yet. What it means now, is you can present your concept of the project to the public, while at the same time jumping through the bureaucratic hoops necessary to complete the environmental document.

The what? The Environmental Document. It is the result of a process which examines the project concept for any impacts that it will have on cultural, historical, or ecological resources. Will the project impact a wetland? Are we proposing to bulldoze over a spotted owl habitat? Is there a minority community through which this project will run? Are we proposing to impact a historical property? Will the project affect a stream that houses protected mussels? What will the noise and air quality impacts be after the project is completed? Have we evaluated all reasonable alternatives to this particular concept?

The preparation of the environmental document for a simple project, something like the addition of a few hundred feet of sidewalk, or a traffic signal upgrade, can take six months. For a complicated project, like the construction of a new interstate, can take 3 years or more. The reason it takes so long is because of the number of agencies that get involved, and the necessary delay to allow the public (that’s you) time to absorb the implications and make comments. To go back to our simple project, we might only have to have one public information meeting, which must be advertised 2 weeks in advance, then another 2 weeks to obtain public comments. That’s a month right there, but don’t forget that there is preparation before a public meeting can even be advertised, and then after the comments are received, they must be addressed, and approved, which adds additional time. For one public information meeting, you’re talking 3 months, total, minimum, and it’s hardly ever minimum. For a complicated project, you might need several public information meetings, a public hearing, coordination with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, local planning agencies, local grassroots groups, the Fish and Wildlife agency, local environmental groups, your state Historical Office, … the list goes on. There are numerous sub-studies and reports and approvals that must be conducted, written, or received before the environmental document can even be considered a draft, and it’s only at that stage that design work is allowed to begin. Well, I shouldn’t say allowed, what I should say is that there’s not much point in beginning detailed design work until the project concept has passed muster during the environmental process. Otherwise, you’re likely to be redoing your work over and over again.

Now, you may get the impression that I feel this is all unnecessary red tape that only goes to lengthen project delivery without any corresponding return in value. That is not the case. I do feel that the current project delivery process is overly long, but I hesitate to make loud complaints because I do not have any good suggestions to reduce it. The bureaucratic load that is imposed upon the delivery schedule is there for a good reason: to ensure that the sort of “damn the torpedoes” attitude that caused some early interstate projects to be driven through viable neighborhoods and habitat does not occur without overwhelming reason. The real trick is to keep the current oversight, but streamline the delivery. An interesting challenge involving multiple layers of local, state, federal, and private agencies. Let me know if you have any good ideas.

The environmental document can add years to a project, but don’t let me make you believe I’m being a chauvinist who thinks all transportation designers walk on water. For a balls-to-the-wall, get it done as fast as possible, design of that simple project, you’re still talking about a few months to go from putting eyeballs on the scene to final plans. You have to survey (which takes time), incorporate the data, design the project, calculate quantities, do quality assurance, and of course if you’re a consultant like me, go through reviews by your client. Time time time. For a complicated project, of course, more time is necessary. Two years of design work is not unheard of, and you’ll just have to take my word that I’m not inflating that number.

Once plans are approved, the project can go to the bidding stage, where the project is advertised and interested contractors contribute bids. The lowest bid of a qualified contractor is typically awarded and then construction starts. Oh, did I mention that a 30 day advertising period is typical, and then it takes a few weeks to get the contractor under contract? So, just the bare minimums I mentioned above, for a tiny itty bitty project, we’re looking at 8 months from a environmental scientist starting work to the contractor putting a spade in the ground, and I’ve never heard of a design-bid-build project of any size move that fast. If someone were to come up to the street and ask me how quickly a project like that would be under construction, I’d say 15 months from the beginning. Why? Because there are always delays. Always.

The Design-Build process, with no bid in the middle there, shortens this process by having the contractor and designer selected upfront, as a team, and they can work hand in hand to get construction started as quickly as possible. For example, you don’t’ need to have detailed sign designs before bulldozers have cleared the land. You can get the bulldozers pushing dirt around, and grading out the roadway while you work to keep ahead of them. As long as the designers are one step ahead of the contractor, things are going well. This, of course, doesn’t exclude the environmental process, it merely means that the environmental document is completed before the Design-Build team is selected. How much does it shorten up a project compared to design-bid-build? I don’t know. Most design-build projects are big ones, and I don’t have much direct experience with those sorts.

You may have heard the term Public-Private-Partnership or Public-Private-Initiative, commonly abbreviated as PPP or PPI. These terms refer to the same thing, which is a method of trying to decrease the time it takes to get an expensive project in the ground. I’ve been talking about the time it takes to develop and deliver a project, but don’t forget that these things cost money, LOTS of money, and it’s coming out of yours and my pocket. Transportation funding is a bucket that is getting smaller due to the inflationary reduction in the fuel tax value, plus the fact that people are driving more fuel efficient cars. This means there is less money to push at large projects. PPP’s are designed to bring private money in to help out, and ensures the private companies who finance the projects are paid back through toll revenues or some other income stream. PPP’s are generally big projects and are design-build. They have to be, because the Private side of the public-private partnership is a conglomerate including design firms, contractors, and financiers. The whole PPP thing is still being figured out, but for the context of this podcast, PPP’s are design build contracts.

Anyway, what have we learned today? We’ve learned that there are two typical methods of developing and constructing transportation projects. Design-Bid-Build, and Design-Build. we’ve also learned that there is a lot of planning and politicking before a project is even allowed to be funded. Once funded and into design, there’s a huge hurdle called the environmental document, which ensure that projects, like Google, are not evil, and after the environmental document, there’s the design then bid (maybe) then build. Very very complicated. Whenever people get together to discuss the ridiculous length of time it can take to go from start to finish on a project, everyone always laments the delays that occur. Aside from sometimes unfortunate administrative snafu’s I’m not seeing a great deal that can be done to shorten things right now. A lot of what causes delays is mandated by law, and must be addressed by legislators, not engineers.

Thanks for listening to Talking Traffic. Today’s episode is released under a creative commons, attribution, non-commercial, no-derivatives license, which means you can freely share it amongst your friends as long as you don’t change it, don’t’ sell it, and you credit me and talkingtraffic.org. Next week’s episode (and yes there will be one) may be another grab bag episode. We’ll see. If you have any suggestions for it, you can send an email to Bill at Talkingtraffic.org or leave a comment on the show notes at www.talkingtraffic.org. Comments, complaints, suggestions, diatribes, or ASCII art are always welcome. The music you heard was by Five Star Fall and is found on magnatune.com.

Until next week, take care.

Theme Music: Five Star Fall, Mercurial Girl, Magnatune.com

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