Utility engineering helps agencies and contractors avoid unseen expenses and delays
Transportation project design and construction, even under the most ideal circumstances, is a challenge for all concerned: the agency who’s paying for the project, the engineer who’s designing it, the contractor who’s building it, and the travelers who are waiting for it to be finished. Hitting an existing utility line with a backhoe, which the contractor didn’t know about or that was incorrectly marked, and suddenly you have to deal with all kinds of expensive repairs, cost overruns and project delays.
In trying to manage utility issues, transportation agencies face numerous obstacles, including the lack of accurate information about utility facilities that may come in sudden conflict with the project and the resolution of those conflicts. Impacts of these inefficiencies include, but are not limited to:
- Damage to utilities, along with costly and time-consuming repair.
- Delays in project completion, leading to increased project costs.
- Unnecessary utility relocations.
- Frustration for travelers.
- Overall negative public opinion about the project.
That and other similar scenarios repeat themselves with frustrating frequency at project sites across the U.S. Problems with utilities, in fact, are routinely among the most common causes of transportation project cost overruns and schedule delays. However, many project owners, consultants and contractors are still unaware of the risk they are absorbing by not assigning utility issues the importance that is necessary.
A growing emphasis on utility engineering at transportation agencies aims to change this state of affairs. To capitalize on this trend, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) has established a Utility Engineering Program under the leadership of Cesar Quiroga, P.E., a TTI senior research engineer. “Utility engineering is now a recognized specialty within the civil engineering profession,” says Quiroga, who recently completed a term on the board of governors of the newly established Utility Engineering and Surveying Institute (UESI) at the American Society of Civil Engineers. UESI boasts close to 3,000 members, several hundred of whom are based in Texas.
“Our goal is to bring about a paradigm shift from treating utilities as an afterthought in project delivery to considering the utility process as an integral component that covers all phases of project delivery—starting as early as planning and continuing through preliminary engineering, design and construction,” Quiroga says. The paradigm shift also includes post construction because effective practices and techniques can be used to improve utility permitting and data collection and management throughout the life of both transportation and utility facilities. The vision is to promote utility engineering through leading edge research, technology transfer and strategic partnerships.
The new Utility Engineering Program at TTI capitalizes on the long history of utility-related projects that Quiroga and other TTI researchers have led over the years. Indeed, TTI researchers have played a critical role on most influential utility-related initiatives as well as research and implementation projects that have taken place at the state and national levels. Recent examples include:
- Utility conflict management (UCM) training and implementation for Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) districts.
- Feasibility of mapping and marking underground utilities by state highway agencies.
- SHRP2 R01A and R15B implementation assistance.
- Identification of utility conflicts and solutions.
- Development of web-based training and instructor-led training on utility investigations, 3D utility data, and utility conflict management.
UCM has evolved over the past decade to identify and resolve utility conflicts in the delivery of transportation infrastructure projects. “The return on investment from UCM principles is huge,” Quiroga says. “The old, traditional solutions just won’t cut anymore, and by applying what we’ve learned, we can truly transform our practices to save time and save money.”
The absence of such a practice has produced an abundance of construction site failures. In one case in San Antonio in July 2016, contractors on two separate jobs drilled into major water lines on back-to-back days, straining repair crews who narrowly avoided a complete loss of water pressure. The resulting loss of service to 120,000 customers all at once, officials said, would have been “catastrophic.”
In July of this year, when bridge contractors broke through an underground transmission cable on Ocracoke Island on the North Carolina coast, all non-residents were ordered to leave. The result was a temporary crippling of the island’s economy at the peak of tourism season (over and above the cost of the utility repairs themselves).
Conversely, the application of UCM practices can translate to a significant savings and disaster prevention. In Maryland, officials were able to avoid relocating a gas line, saving more than $500,000 and as much as six months in project delivery time. Planners in TxDOT’s San Antonio District similarly avoided the relocation of an existing water main, saving more than $1 million.
TxDOT has been a leading implementer of Federal Highway Administration-funded utility research, helping the Department transform the way it manages the utility conflict resolution process in its projects. “The new approach adopted by TxDOT staff, consultants, and utility partners consists of early coordination, extensive communication, and designing to avoid or minimize impacts to our utility partners,” said Anna Pulido, P.E., TxDOT’s utility manager for the San Antonio District. This process produces a successful project that lets on schedule with no construction delay claims related to utilities,” she added.
Officials in Delaware have also seen the benefits. “Designers, coordinators, utility companies, and construction engineers all seem to be onboard,” says Eric Cimo, P.E., a utility engineer with the Delaware Department of Transportation. “The utility conflict matrix paired with utility coordination via our electronic utility permit application and training initiatives geared toward stakeholders have all added to what I believe are positive developments in the field of utility engineering and utility management.”