The practice of burying or placing utility lines without adequate documentation has caused large-scale problems across the country. It’s also helped create a new program devoted entirely to the issue. The Utility Engineering Program, formed last year at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) to capitalize on the Institute’s two decades of leading-edge research and technology transfer initiatives, is designed to help state departments of transportation (DOTs), cities, counties and others overhaul and prioritize underground utility procedures and management.
For more than a century, water and sewer lines, telecommunication lines, and even oil and gas lines have been placed along roadside rights-of-way. Utility companies would simply request a permit from the landowner (the city, county, state or federal government). Because use of the right-of-way was deemed in the public interest, the permits were almost always granted.
“But it’s become obvious that, for the most part, we really don’t know what utilities were placed decades ago, or exactly where they’re located in the right-of-way,” says Senior Research Engineer Cesar Quiroga, who manages TTI’s Utility Engineering Program. “That problem is a huge operational, maintenance and safety issue, but it’s also causing a lot of construction delays and additional costs when utility lines are cut or have to be relocated when they’re discovered late in the project. And these impacts are happening all too frequently.”
Just a few years ago, utility relocation alone for a bridge project in Georgia cost taxpayers $5 million. One reason the price tag was so high: it was only during construction that the project engineers discovered they could have realigned the bridge slightly without relocating any utilities. By then, it was too late because the utilities had already been relocated.
On a daily basis, DOTs and local municipalities are dealing with cut utility lines and costly relocations, not to mention frustrated motorists, slowed down or stopped entirely when work zones are set up for longer than might actually be necessary. The elephant in the room here is cost added to a construction project resulting from delays.
The work Quiroga and his team do can help DOTs troubleshoot costly project interruptions, like those in Georgia. Recently, using robust utility conflict management principles in performing an implementation project, Maryland identified 114 utility conflicts, avoided a $500,000 gas line relocation charge, and saved an estimated six months of project delays.
“Because of lengthy construction delays and costs in relocating existing utilities, DOTs, highway contractors, design consultants and others involved in roadway projects have begun to embrace utility engineering,” Quiroga explains. “Those DOTs that have begun to implement utility engineering principles are already reaping the benefits.”
Quiroga and TTI are at the forefront of the utility engineering movement, defined by the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Utility Engineering and Surveying Institute as “a branch of Civil Engineering that focuses on the planning, design, construction, operation, maintenance, and asset management of any and all utility systems, as well as the interaction between utility infrastructure and other civil infrastructure.”
Considering the number of research projects funded and conducted, TTI’s program has become the nation’s leading university-based utility engineering research group. Related TTI projects recently completed or under way include:
- Utility Conflict Management Training and Implementation for TxDOT Districts (TxDOT).
- Feasibility of Mapping and Marking Underground Utilities by State Highway Agencies (Federal Highway Administration).
- Identification of Utility Conflicts and Solutions (Second Strategic Highway Research Program).
- Engineering Guidelines for Installing Temporary Pipelines with the Right-of-Way (TxDOT).
- Web-Based Training on Utility Topics (National Highway Institute).
“We’ve actually been doing utility research for almost 20 years,” TTI Research Engineer Edgar Kraus explains. “The difference now is that it’s a formal program within the TTI organizational structure. DOTs across the country are realizing the benefits of utility engineering, and there are plans at several universities to make it part of their curricula.”
The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is a leader when it comes to accounting for utilities during construction projects. Two years ago, the department began educating its employees, local governments and utility industry representatives through a course developed by TTI. And now, TxDOT is implementing those concepts by bringing designers, planners, as well as utility coordinators, engineers, and company representatives to the table before projects even begin.
“TxDOT has embraced these changes across the state,” explains Charon Williams, director of TxDOT’s Utility Accommodations Program. “With TTI guiding us, we’re already reaping the benefits, saving millions of dollars for taxpayers, and we’re saving time on projects through emphasis on avoiding or minimizing the impacts on utilities.”