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Oversight: They Build What We Accept

Jim Sorenson
Office of Asset Management


Construction Oversight: They Build What We Accept

(Slide 1)

Jim Sorenson
Office of Asset Management Excellence in Stewardship
Field Engineers Conference
New Orleans, Louisiana
August 9-10, 2004

  • Today we want to talk about OPPORTUNITIES and CHALLENGES.
  • As Stewards, Innovators and Leaders what can we do to be the most value added, the most effective, a resource sought out by our State partners.

  • We hear much about the vital few, Major or Mega Projects, Highways for Life and other program initiatives. But what of the core areas that have made BPR and FHWA great These are your key areas, construction, contract administration, and today maintenance and system preservation (applied asset management).
  • Today we have 17 Major Projects, projected to reach 30. You all are dealing with nearly 30,000 federal aid projects. The number of AE or field engineers has remained fairly constant over the years, only the titles and program interests have increased.
  • What are our demographics:
    • Engineers
    • Specialists
    • Others
  • How many years with FHWA:
    • Less than 5 years
      • How many of you had Highway Construction in college
      • Even so the classroom for experience needed is on the project
      • More than 20-25 years
  • How many here today feel you are Leaders in your field
  • Remember virtually all Federal-aid funds result in infrastructure construction, preservation and maintenance. Environment, Historic, ITS, Safety, all must eventually become part of the system and that is still our core responsibility, done right, done economically and efficiently to provide the service the public expects and deserves.
  • What is our role in Construction today?


(Slide 2)
  • Program Administration
  • Technology Deployment
  • Technical Assistance
  • Strategic Initiatives
  • Project Development
  • Project Delivery
  • Maintenance/Operation
  • Oversight
Stewardship has become a hot topic in recent years (this Excellence in Stewardship conference is an example). Several new policy memos, and many discussion papers have been developed in the last couple of years to better clarify our stewardship roles and responsibilities. Capka and King Gee Jan 2003 and Schimmoller Jun 22, 2001

As you all know, Stewardship is an overarching responsibility for managing all of our federal programs in an efficient and effective manner. While the concept of stewardship is easily understood, many questions and concerns remain, particularly with one element of stewardship: Oversight.

Oversight generates so much discussion because it is the primary stewardship responsibility by which the FHWA is held accountable (i.e. - when newspapers, GAO, IG's office, congressional inquires, etc., chastise FHWA it is nearly always due to a lack of oversight), and because the FHWA's level of oversight and methods for performing oversight have changed so dramatically over the years.

Oversight and Quality

(Slide 3)
  • Quality Construction is fundamental to meeting the FHWA's national objectives.
    • Improves system performance
    • Reduces congestion and impacts on the environment
    • Improves safety by minimizing work zone frequency, duration, and disruption of traffic flow
    • Improves the economic efficiency of our highway investments
Oversight is the primary element of Stewardship that ensures we get the quality that we are looking for in our projects. In recent testimony by Mary Peters before the House appropriations Committee, she spoke about the basic requirements of a successful project and said "The project must deliver a quality product that meets all the scope and commitment requirements; it must be delivered on time and within budget; and it must be carried out in a safe manner; ..and we must deliver these project in a manner that justifies public trust and confidence in out ability to be good stewards of the resources entrusted to us."

During the morning session, Jeff Lewis spoke about the Construction Program Management and Inspection Guide. The Guide emphasizes construction oversight as the means for ensuring that highway improvements are constructed to a desired quality.

The Guide and workshops are intended to:

  • raise questions
  • offer open discussions
  • offer answers, solutions and resources, and
  • increase the comfort level in the core program...Construction

We cannot give you the 15-20 years experience needed to comfortably make the risk decisions need but we can offer some guidance and tools for your use.

Who wrote this report...

(Slide 4)

" ...the effectiveness of the control and inspection procedures right on the site where the actual project was being carried out was the spot where we found falsification. But they were doing exceptionally well on design for instance and in other areas in the various phases of acquisition, design work, contract award, all these were conducted on a high level. But at the spot where construction was carried out they were not complying with specification as to design and quality of material. At that point it broke down and some fraudulent reports were written by incompetent young men, underpaid, untrained and inexperienced......It is things such as this that we find over and over again. No matter how well the operation is planned and designed and spelled out in detail, at a given point we find there is a breakdown and at that point the whole operation or project breaks down."

(Slide 5)

"...How widespread is it?....The disturbing this is we cannot prove that it isn't widespread. In the face of this we must maintain the confidence of Congress in this Program.... The thing for you to look at is what is the attitude, what is the degree and level of confidence of Congress in you men, both on the Federal level and the State level..."

Let me read you an excerpt from a speech given during an annual AASHTO Meeting...

Do you know who gave this speech?...

Does this 1963 speech still have a familiar ring today?

Are you experiencing these kinds of problems in your state?

And 40 years later...

(Slide 6)

The Honorable John A. Blatnik, chairman of the House Special Subcommittee on the Federal-aid Highway Program speaking on "Highways and the Congress", at the 41st Annual AASHO Conference, June 1963.

Blatnik's Special Subcommittee ushered in a new era of construction oversight by the FHWA that continued well into the 1980's.

Evolution of FHWA Oversight

(Slide 7)

The Early Years

  • Federal/State Partnership concept evolved
  • BPR oversight included
    • Periodic field checks
    • Technical input into design and construction problems.
During the early years of the Federal aid Program, from about 1920 to the 1950's, the Bureau of Public Roads (predecessor of the FHWA) had built up the concept of the Federal-State Partnership approach, which worked extremely well - provided your Partner was truly your partner and didn't withhold information from you.

Thomas MacDonald, who was Chief of the BPR from 1919 to 1953, believed that the States must retain the initiative in administering the Federal-aid highway program, and the Bureau of Public Roads should make such checks as necessary to protect the Federal interest.

During this period, the BPR was considered the main technical source for State and local agencies. BPR field engineers were frequently called upon to help solve complicated design or construction problems. The open federal/state partnerships were generally based on "common goals" and "value added" expertise that BPR brought to the table.

1960's - The Interstate Era

Evolution of FHWA Oversight

(Slide 8)
  • Federal-aid Highway Act signed 1957
    • Rapidly expanding program, and increased federal/state workforce
    • Serious concerns with financial management, corruption, and lack of project oversight
  • House special investigative committee established in 1959.
  • BPR changed its oversight role
    • Increased project level actions.
    • Began delegation some oversight responsibilities to the States
In 1957 the Federal-Aid Highway Act was signed, ushering in the interstate development era. Throughout the 1960's, the size of the Federal-aid program expanded greatly to focus on building the massive Interstate System. From 1955 to 1974 Federal-aid highway program authorizations increased over 900 percent, while the size of the FHWA staff increased 68 percent.

The rapid increase in the size of the program, also resulted in serious problems with oversight. Allegations of corruption, financial problems, and lack of project management. In 1959 the House of Representatives Public Works Committee established the special investigative committee under John Blatnik that was mentioned earlier. The committee's investigations found that some of the allegations were valid, but concluded that the Program overall was well run.

As a result of these concerns with oversight, the BPR substantially changed its program execution responsibilities. The Division Office focus changed from recommending and advising to project level actions including detailed reviews and approvals.

While the BPR was becoming increasingly involved in project level actions, it was also struggling with how to effectively manage a program that was continuing to increase in size at a rapid pace. During this period, the BPR implemented systems to rely more heavily on the States for project oversight. This included the Secondary Road Plan and Certification Acceptance.

Evolution of FHWA Oversight

(Slide 9)

1970's - Today - Increased State Flexibility

  • USDOT and FHWA formed, 1967
  • Continued delegation of oversight responsibility to States
    • Certification Acceptance initiated, 1973
    • Process/Program reviews
  • Legislative changes - ISTEA, TEA-21 offered States more independence.
  • Recent concerns with lack of oversight
    • Some problems associated with major projects
    • GAO and IG reports indicating lack of FHWA oversight.
In 1967 the USDOT was formed, and the BPR became the FHWA. By the early 1970's, due to the increased program size and because other socio-economic and environmental concerns were requiring additional attention, the FHWA faced the dilemma of not being able to maintain their previous level of project reviews, despite the increased size of the FHWA's workforce. Meanwhile, the FHWA was also gaining increased confidence in the States' technical competence and abilities to manage their own construction programs.

In 1973 Congress initiated Certification Acceptance, which reduced the scope of Federal monitoring of Federal-aid highway projects on all but the Interstate System. This was interpreted to be recognition of the increased capabilities of the State highway departments.

FHWA's 1974 Manpower Utilization Study recommended more "coordination and promotion" with less emphasis on monitoring and reviewing project actions. This report also recognized a process review method of monitoring the States implementation of the Program would be desirable. This was the beginning of the transition from project to process/program reviews.

ISTEA (1991) significantly changed the Federal role by offering the Sates more independence on carrying out a significant portion of the program, and shifting the federal role primarily to program level oversight.

TEA-21 further delegated authority to the States by releasing oversight functions under agreement between the FHWA and the State's. TEA-21 also increased federal oversight for major project of over $1 billion, with helped create confusion of the federal role.

Evolution of FHWA Oversight

(Slide 10)

Photo of an old car stuck in a muddy road with three men trying to get it out of the mud

Photo of an interstate

Many changes have taken place in the US highway construction industry over the years, and the quality of the highway in the U.S. has undoubtedly improved over time because of these changes, as these pictures depict. Today, Americans enjoy one of the finest transportation system in the world.

But the needs and expectations of the American people are constantly changing, and as a result transportation agencies and the highway industry are constantly having to raise the bar in order to continue to satisfy their customers. Traditional ways of doing business are constantly being redefined by the publics changing priorities. In the early years, the priority was simply to have surfaced roads to get from farm to market. Later, the bar was raised by the public's need to have an efficient coast-to-coast highway network which ushered in the development of the interstate system. In today's working environment, the bar is being raised again. The public not only wants, but also demands a safe, efficient, long lasting national highway system. In short, the public wants to see continuous improvements in the quality of their highways.

Evolution of FHWA Oversight

(Slide 11)

Cartoon drawing of a man standing at the beginning of the road wondering

So where does that leave us as we move into the future?

Just as the transportation community of 50 years ago faced the task of building a national interstate system, today the transportation community is looking at how to best utilize resources, lessen congestion, improve safety and increase longevity of the infrastructure. FHWA plays a major role in addressing these issues, by promoting innovative practices, and working with our partners to find new solutions to our highway problems. Additionally, since FHWA is accountable for the success of the federal-aid program, we will always have our oversight responsibilities.

We've come full circle in how we conduct oversight, with hopefully a better understanding of our Federal/State relationship and our respective roles and responsibilities. From the strong project oversight of the 1960's to the delegated construction oversight of the 1980's and 1990's, to the renewed recognition of the need for construction oversight today.

With the higher standards demanded by today's consumers it's clear that we must continue to be proactive in meeting the public's expectations for quality and accountability as the guardian of the national transportation system.

The Dilemma for Today's Field Engineers

(Slide 12)
  • Dwindling FTE
  • Loss of expertise by attrition
  • Increasingly politicized highway program
  • Increasing congestion and highway construction delays
  • Increasing public frustration at congestion and construction delays
  • More complex program
  • While our abilities and authority have been stretched - We are still responsible
We all know the dilemma FHWA and the States are facing
  • Dwindling FTE. The FHWA decreased in size by nearly 40% (from 4472 employees to 2800) between 1980 and 2000. Many states are facing similar downsizing problems.
  • Loss of expertise. Most of the old-time field engineers that were around during the 1960's and 1970's have retired. Today's field staff, while more politically savvy and more attuned to the "big picture", have lost some of their knowledge of good construction practices.
  • Politicized Highway Program - increasing earmarks, etc. have made program execution more difficult
  • More complex. The highway program has become increasingly complex, with environmental commitments, urban planning, operational requirements, etc., that are vying for our limited time and resources.

Moving Forward

(Slide 13)
  • Project to Program
    • Reviews based on risk assessments
    • Joint FHWA/State reviews
  • Building our Technical Expertise
    • Training
    • Easily accessible tools
  • Proactive Stewardship
What needed as we move forward with our construction stewardship responsibility.

Continued emphasis on program level oversight. Program reviews should be based on Division risk assessments. Program reviews should be conducted as Joint FHWA/State reviews to ensure full buy-in of the final results.

Need to employ tools and training to build up the expertise that we have lost through attrition.

Proactive Stewardship means we should assess out leadership in delivering the Federal Highway Programs in an effective and efficient manner, and making changes as needed to refine our processes. This includes considering GAO and IG recommendations for FHWA oversight, and working with AASHTO and the States as needed to clarify our partnership roles.

Mary Peters - July 29, 2004

(Slide 14)

Things are certainly different today, but that doesn't have to be bad. I think it is up to us to reestablish in a new role. We certainly have a valuable role to play and much to contribute, it will just be in a different way than in the past. Likely more program than project related, and to be the guardian of a national transportation system, which is uniquely our role.


This Takes You: FHWA Eyes and Ears

(Slide 15)
  • Professional
  • Value Added
  • Improved Work Methods
  • Sharing Technology
  • Pro Active Partners

Truly a Transportation Leader


Available Resources

(Slide 16)
  • Training
    • Conducting Reviews that Gets Results
      • Just-in-time training for Teams to use for conducting effective process reviews
    • Construction Program Management Training
  • Guidance
    • Construction Program Management and Inspection Guide
    • Construction Program Guide Website
    • National Highway Specifications Website
    • Headquarters initiated process reviews
      • QA Reviews underway
      • Potential for expansion to other types of reviews.


(Slide 17)


Ken Jacoby
Office of Asset Management

Jeff Lewis
CA Division

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Updated: 10/27/2015
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