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Avoiding Utility Relocations
III. Synthesis of Current Practices
Government agencies have been developing systematic approaches to managing utility conflicts within highway construction projects since the 1970s. Historically, however, most of this effort has been focused on the damage prevention component of the problem and not on the avoidance of utility relocations. In the last decade, the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT), the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), and American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) have played a major role in promoting practices that reduce and avoid utility conflicts and relocations in highway construction projects. In developing DOT utility accommodation policy and procedure documents, State agencies have adopted these practices, as well as incorporating new ones based on experience on projects in their own State. The current practices of most states place emphasis on communication and coordination with utility owners supplemented by the collection and distribution of accurate utility location information, in all phases of project development (planning, design, and construction).
III.1 One-Call Systems
One-call systems represent the first nationwide concerted effort to address utility damage prevention issues. A one-call system provides a single statewide toll free “call before you dig” phone number that anyone (contractor or individual) planning to excavate must contact prior (24 to 48 hours) to performing the excavation. The one-call system provider is responsible to notify the affected utilities (subscribers) of the scheduled excavation activity, who, in turn must respond to mark the horizontal location of their facilities at the site before the excavator begins to dig. It is mandatory for utility owners/operators to participate in the one call system for the State(s) within their service territory. Current state-of-the-practice for one-call systems can be found in “Common Ground, Study of One-Call Systems and Damage Prevention Best Practices (August 1999)” published by the USDOT, in conjunction with the Office of Pipeline Safety.
Use of the one-call system can reduce or prevent damage to existing utilities during construction, thereby reducing project cost. The discovery of a utility conflict at the construction stage doesn’t, however, reduce the impacts to the project resulting from an unplanned utility relocation or design revision to avoid the relocation. Often, such impacts are attributed to insufficient or poor quality utility location information available to the project designers and it would seem logical to utilize the one-call system to obtain the utility information for project design purposes as well as for construction. This is not the case, however, and although the one call system is an effective damage prevention tool, it is not an accepted means of obtaining design level information. In fact, in many areas this is discouraged or even prohibited. This can be attributed to inherent one-call system errors (no depth information, tolerance, ignorance of abandoned facilities, short response / turnaround time, limited education and training of employees, availability of equipment), but the primary reason against using the one-call system for design is the lack of acceptance of liability.
Engineers accept a certain liability for the accuracy of data contained on their plans. When this data is obtained from sources not under the control of the Engineer, such as utility records and as-built plans, responsibility / liability disclaimers are often used to protect the Engineer from a third party relying on such information. In the case of the one-call system, individual utilities are required to mark the approximate location (the accepted tolerance is two feet on either side of the mark) of their facilities for an immediate (2 days maximum) excavation. If the utility is hit outside the tolerance of the marks, the utility would clearly be responsible. If the same marks had been referenced by survey to the construction plan and used for design and the utility was hit during construction, the responsibility is less clear. Since the original marks naturally fade with time and leave no permanent field record, it would not be possible to determine if the marks were in error or if the survey was in error.
Although the one-call system markings are not being used for design purposes, the one-call subscribers (utilities) are typically contacted on an individual basis by agency designers and required to verify their facilities on agency design plans. The means, methods, and liability for locating one’s own facilities during this process is assumed by the individual utility. The DOT project designer must evaluate the need for additional subsurface investigation to either supplement or supplant the utilities’ effort, or to locate suspected abandoned facilities. In the recent past, such additional investigation was a difficult and expensive task because of the limited number of private firms with the required expertise and equipment willing to assume the liability for locating. As demand for accurate and complete subsurface information continues to increase throughout the country, more and more firms are becoming qualified to perform the service. The professionals at the helm of these firms are setting standards for the industry and their services are now recognized as a new branch of Engineering called Subsurface Utility Engineering (SUE).
III.2 Subsurface Utiliry Engineering (SUE)
The greatest potential for avoiding utility relocations requires collection of high quality location data very early in the design process, and preferably in the planning stage. SUE holds the key to obtaining and delivering this information to planners and designers. SUE is becoming more widely used and is now accepted and promoted by engineering organizations and Federal and State agencies as a means of reducing overall project costs and liabilities. The FHWA has been involved in promoting the use of SUE because of the waste involved in unanticipated utility conflicts involving Federal dollars. AASHTO has also recognized SUE as a best practice and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Standards Committee has developed standard guidelines for the collection and depiction of existing subsurface utility data.
The following description of SUE was taken from the Washington State Department of Transportation’s Technology Transfer Newsletter and was written by Jim Anspach, a leader in the field.
III.3 Electronic Document Delivery
With the widespread use of computer-aided drafting and design (CADD) systems, and Geographical Information Systems (GIS), information collected by SUE providers can be easily shared with project designers. These systems also make it possible for utilities to keep more detailed and accurate records of their facilities and make this information available to other agencies. Highway agencies and utility companies across the country have invested heavily in state-of-the-practice electronic information technology. Base mapping as well as project specific data is now almost universally digitized or created in some type of CADD format. The coordination issue now becomes how to share this information. Proprietary rights and security protocol often prevent open access to data bases maintained by DOTs and utilities. Open access would also place the burden on the utility or agency as the case may be, to navigate the other’s database to find the required information, all the while having access to unrelated proprietary information. The solution may be to electronically transfer data base information to the necessary users.
Electronic Document Delivery (EDD) is the use of electronic files to communicate highway project design information and status over the Internet to affected utility companies. Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) is how a standard web browser transfers files from remote web servers to PC users. Transferring files using e-mail is also a common practice. HTTP and e-mail, however, do not provide the fast and efficient transfer of large files as required by many of today’s business internet users and subsequently, a growing number of companies are using File Transfer Protocol (FTP). FTP is being used because of its capability to transfer files as large as 20mB. Other advantages of FTP include the ability to resume transferring after interruptions and the availability of various security and file management software support applications.
Electronic Document Delivery using an FTP site is currently being used by the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT). The following information was obtained from the GDOT Utility web site http://www.dot.state.ga.us/operations/utilities/.
1st submission (identify existing utility facilities): the DUO transmits conceptual project electronic reference files (preliminary alignment plans and general project information) and blank utility files on the FTP server site. The utility companies are notified by mail or e-mail that preliminary project information is available on the site and of the time frame in which the utility must respond. The utility researches its records and places its existing facilities in the blank electronic file, sends it back to the FTP server within the allotted time period and notifies the DUO of such.
Coordination continues with the 2nd (identify utility relocations), and 3rd (utility review) submissions until completion of the highway and utility design which is represented by the 4th submission (final plans).
In addition to FTP sites, other Electronic Document Delivery and Web enabled Document Management systems currently exist to support file transfers and updates with minimal intervention. One such system is Bentley’s ProjectWise (http://www.bentley.com) which provides a common platform for the management of content created by MicroStation and AutoCAD files as well as other business file formats such as Microsoft Office XP. Another is the peer-to-peer (P2P) method for project sharing at the workgroup level. Groove Networks, Inc. (http://www.groove.net) offers a P2P computing platform for secure business collaboration across multiple organizational and technological boundaries. Groove and other platforms are utilizing an Extensible Markup Language (XML) which deals with defining a common language to describe objects as they exist in disparate systems. While simple file translations are currently possible, XML offers the promise of total data fidelity between different systems so that data will never have to be entered or edited more than once. Desktop applications such as Microsoft Office and AutoCad, among others, now support XML data. In 1999, Autodesk initiated LandXML which provides a specialized XML format for land development professionals (http://www.landxml.com).
III.4 Communication and Coordination Meetings
Many jurisdictions have adopted a proactive approach to utility coordination that involves regular coordination meetings among utilities and the DOT staff, both on short and long term work plans. The main objectives of meetings and the justification for the dedication of necessary staffing is to:
The operating principles that support successful communication are summarized below:
Most State DOTs have already developed, or are currently developing, Utility Accommodation Policy and Procedure Manuals. These manuals deal with all aspects of utility accommodation within the public ROW, including planning, design, permitting, construction, maintenance, ownership, relocation, and reimbursement. Links to various DOT utility department web sites can be found on the FHWA web site, Office of Program Administration, Utilities Program http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/programadmin/utility.html. Federal utility regulations are contained in the Code of Federal Regulations (23 CFR Part 645). Federal guidelines can be found in the current edition of the FHWA publication “Program Guide: Utility Relocation, Adjustments, and Accommodation on Federal-Aid Highway Projects.”
III.6 Agency Survey
The policies and practices of most states are continuing to evolve as the value of avoiding utility relocations becomes more evident. In order to evaluate how the State agencies are utilizing the various current practices, Nichols Consulting Engineers (NCE), on behalf of the FHWA, conducted a survey of State agencies around the country. The survey questionnaire, as well as a summary of the responses in a spreadsheet form, can be found in Appendix A.
Surveys were sent to more than sixty (60) agency utility coordinators and other State Department of Transportation personnel responsible for utility issues. Private sector representatives from universities, utilities, consulting firms, and SUE providers were also contacted. Both the agency and private sector contact lists were provided by the FHWA.
There were 44 responses from 37 State agencies. In some states, more than one district responded. There were six responses from the private sector and one each from a county and a city. The following evaluation of survey responses is based on analysis of the State responses. Although the other information provided was useful and informative, the survey was geared to capture aspects of utility issues as they relate to State and Federal highway construction. Following are the questions of the survey and a brief analysis of the responses.
Of the 44 agencies that responded, approximately 70 percent said they used SUE. About 40 percent as a standard practice, 20 percent on occasion, and the other 20 percent had conducted a trial project, pilot projects, or were just implementing SUE contracts. Notable Response: “My district is currently using SUE to some extent on each and every project within our district work program,” Florida Department of Transportation District 2.
Almost all agencies used their SUE data to provide designers with information that would help avoid relocations. Some admitted that the information may not get to the designers soon enough to alter the design but they would know for sure whether or not the utility had to be relocated. Notable Response: “Yes, our designers have been instructed to design around utilities whenever possible,” Montana Department of Transportation.
Agencies who did not use SUE relied on historic data, one-call locates, and utility as-built plans to acquire utility information for design. Notable Responses: “We place this responsibility upon the owner of the utility. We send plans to them of our surveyed data and they are required to mark up any corrections and or confirm the accuracy” New Hampshire Department of Transportation. “Other sources of information (besides SUE) are generally not reliable enough to allow one to confidently re-design around utility conflicts,” Colorado Department of Transportation.
The design process was broken into the 30 percent, 60 percent and 90 percent design completion. The scoping plans that include topography and ROW are at 0 percent design and at 90 percent design, cost estimates are being prepared and the design is pretty much set.
About 70 percent of the responders said that they got utility information into the design process before the 30 percent design stage and many started coordination well before that. “Got utility information” means it was solicited from utilities, acquired through the one-call system, taken from as-built plans, obtained through SUE, etc. Notable Response: “Upon initiation of the design process, the Houston district began an electronic distribution of our project award schedule on a monthly basis. Per Houston district policy, designers are required to communicate and coordinate with the utility entities themselves,” Texas Department of Transportation, Houston District.
After initial contact most agencies said they continued regular, often monthly meetings through the rest of the design phase and through construction. Other agencies conduct utility field inspections to evaluate the accuracy of the plan data. Notable Response: “Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) includes some utility work in construction contracts.” The MDOT contractor is responsible for utility work, thus minimizing potential conflict and delays.
In about half the cases, responders indicated this is a cooperative decision between the design engineer and the utility coordinator, with utilities and contractors involved along the way. In about 40 percent of the cases, it is the ultimately at the discretion of the design engineer. Notable Response: “Joint Effort, utility coordinator, designer and utility representative. Usually a mutual cost-driven solution,” Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
Half the respondents cited a combination of cost, schedule delay, and safety as factors to determine whether a utility should be relocated. After this combination of factors, about 35 percent said cost was the driving factor with schedule following at 10 percent. Notable Response: “Path of least resistance = move the utilities, NOT re-do the design,” Texas Department of Transportation.
About 70 percent of the agencies said LCC were not used in evaluating the relocation vs. re-design with 28 percent saying they did evaluate them. Notable Response: “All cost comparisons are based upon current dollars,” Illinois Department of Transportation.
There was a big response to this question with about 58 different strategies suggested. These are discussed in detail in Section V. The gist is that the earlier the designer gets good / accurate information, the greater the range of strategies available. If the location of utilities is known prior to the start of the design, bridges and alignments can be moved. At 30 percent on, there are fewer options for re-design. Notable Response: “We look at every avenue to minimize the need to relocate utilities,” Connecticut Department of Transportation.
Approximately 90 percent of the agencies cited practices that they used. About half of these involved good coordination procedures and the other half involved using locate/designate/SUE procedures to get accurate data. Some indicated cost/benefit procedures drove some of the design decisions. Notable Response: “Each utility owner is required to develop a utility work schedule that identifies their utility within our proposed project and provides a disposition of what is going to happen to that facility during construction, i.e., locate, protect, relocate, adjust,” Florida Department of Transportation.
Twenty percent of respondents indicated concerns for both the taxpayer and the utility ratepayer and cited good coordination and a cooperative spirit to realize cost savings. Sixteen percent advocated including the relocation work in the highway contract. Another 20 percent responded with “no”, or said the burden lay entirely on the utility. The remainder of respondents cited a variety of responses. In about 10 percent of cases, State law forces the utility to pay relocation costs in most circumstances so the agency indicated limited incentive to search for savings. Notable Response: “Communication, cooperation, trust and good working relationship allow alternative solutions to be investigated,” Kansas Department of Transportation.
There were a wide variety of responses to this question. About 20 percent indicated a preference for utilities locating as close to the ROW line as possible. Thirteen percent indicated they looked at each case with the future in mind. Seventeen percent each said the permit process drove the location decision or it was handled by the agency Utility Accommodation Policy. Seven percent preferred that utilities relocated outside the ROW. Notable Response: “We buy the minimum amount of ROW to keep costs down, therefore, the chances of hitting utilities in the future are pretty good,” Ohio Department of Transportation.
Twelve percent recommended starting to work with utilities as early as possible. Fifteen percent referenced their Utility Accommodation Policy and several provided websites where the policy can be accessed. More than half had no response to this question. Notable Response: “Continual training of new highway designers on the importance and value of good utility coordination,” Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
About 15 percent of agencies indicated that they did have database sharing policies of some kind. These were primarily related to sharing of CADD files. This could be done on a case by case basis or under agency policy. Seventy percent indicated no policy was in force. Notable Response: “Started on GIS program which will use highway inventories, USGS Quad maps (1:24,000 scale), and these will be available in the future to the public on a web site,” North Dakota Department of Transportation.
There were few responses to this question but those that did provided some valuable input. Agencies suggested getting utilities to provide accurate as-built plans, place utilities in a separate corridor when ROW is available, provide utilities with future project information, and establishing a final scoping report that has a section to address utility concerns. Notable Response: “Just continually emphasizing coordination, communication, and cooperation,” Texas Department of Transportation.
III.7 AASHTO Best Practices
The AASHTO Highway Subcommittee for ROW and Utilities recently completed the assembly of guidelines and best practices for ROW and utilities. The utilities guidelines and best practices were put together by a subgroup consisting of representatives from the Montana, California, Colorado, and Pennsylvania Department of Transportations and from the FHWA’s Office of Program Administration. All State Departments of Transportation had the opportunity to provide input, and many took advantage of this opportunity.
The utilities guidelines and best practices have been submitted to the AASHTO Standing Committee on Highways. It is not certain yet what use will be made of them. A summary of these guidelines and best practices is contained in Appendix C.
III.8 Municapal VS. State Issues
The underground environment of urban city and county streets is typically more crowded than State Highways, requiring a higher level of utility coordination. On the other hand, municipal projects are generally planned and implemented in much shorter time frames than State projects, making it more difficult to obtain advance utility coordination. In addition, many utility companies have service territories that cover many municipal jurisdictions, requiring the utility to keep in contact with many different people and monitor a tremendous amount of project planning and design information with limited staff. The consensus from the utility community is that the municipalities are not providing the same level of advance planning information and are not as sensitive to the issues affecting the utilities operations and budgets, as are the States.
III.9 Utility Perspectives
Based both on the responses to the written NCE Agency Survey by private utilities and other informal telephone inquiries to utilities performed by NCE, the following is a list of general comments from the utility community regarding utility relocation: