When a group of experts got together a few years ago to study transportation innovations, they were stunned to learn many interstate highway project took 13 years to complete.
“We were shocked to find that project time-to-completion could be over a decade in some cases, and we said we really need to find ways to shorten project delivery time,” said Cornell University Prof. Rick Geddes, who served on the National Surface Transportation Police and Revenue Study Commission in 2008. “Anything that can be done to streamline the (environmental impact) process and bringing incentives into the contract for contractors to complete the project more quickly, all of which is good.”
Since then, the Department of Transportation has been working to do just that through the Every Day Counts initiative. With cost overruns and delays bedeviling every aspect of government at one time or another, the two-year-old initiative aimed at increased efficiency through innovative practices has been a welcome success.
Because of the progress, DOT is now moving the program out to states.
The initiative employs accelerated bridge construction (see video above), “warm mix” asphalt, which sets more quickly, and traffic signals that adapt to changing traffic conditions, all of which are modern techniques key to the speed DOT is striving for. And they’ve become particularly important to address traffic during the busy summer tourist season.
Now, Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez hopes to translate the accelerated bridge construction model to more places around the country by showcasing already-completed projects.
States have submitted more than 125 ideas for making EDC better and more relevant at the state level. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials also have been weighing in on the initiative with their own ideas. From this pool will come the next set of goals, to be announced next month.
Building on his experience, Mendez hopes to spread the fast road and bridge-building technologies so that they are no longer considered unusual.
“It will be the norm to have a bridge replaced in a weekend,” he said. “This is not just an idea or a concept, but it is being done. Some people are more averse to risk. But they can learn that it is doable. Hopefully every major bridge will be replaced in one or two weekends not three or four years.”
In addition to faster completion, Mendez said the practice involves off-site work away from busy highways and therefore increases worker safety. Despite the skepticism that accompanies any new way of doing things, he’s working to break through those habit-formed barriers to innovation, especially when it comes to bridges.
Mendez shared his innovative ideas recently in Pittsburgh at the International Bridge Conference. At that meeting, he stressed that 42 states are already using prefabricated bridge elements in their bridge construction techniques and that others are showing interest.
The techniques are being used on other federal projects, such as the Disney Bridge in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park and the Strawberry Creek Bridge in Great Basin National Park.
The DOT initiative is also streamlining environmental impact statements and studies, one of the most time consuming aspects of many federal road construction and other outdoor projects. Plans include incorporating environmental documents into the earliest planning stages of each project as well as minimize duplication of effort while still protecting environmentally sensitive areas.
Officials expect to add efforts and innovations to the Every Day Counts initiative later this summer.
Geddes said Every Day Counts appears to be a successful model for streamlining the environmental impact process and offering contractors incentives to complete projects more quickly, including constructing modules off-site and then moving them into place at the construction site.
He also noted that the Highway Administration is engaged in education and training of state and local transportation officials, as well as federal contractors, to help improve project delivery and operations.
“FHWA does have podcasts on accelerated project delivery methods and other resources they provide to assist in training folks,” Geddes said.
Meanwhile, Congress dickers over the next overall transportation bill, holding up cash flow for innovation. Secretary Ray LaHood hopes an agreement will be reached by the June 30 deadline.
Disagreements are over tangential issues such as expansion of offshore and Arctic oil drilling, approval of the Keystone crude oil pipeline from Canada to Texas, which environmentalists have criticized, and regulation of coal ash. House and Senate conferees have yet to agree to a compromise version of the bill, which some lawmakers also are touting as a job-creating engine.
“America is one big pothole,” LaHood said in a speech to the National League of Cities, urging completion of the bill. “We need a bill to fix up our roads and bridges and get them in a state of good repair.”