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Highway Quality Compendium

What If We Changed the Way Highways Are Built?

by Charles Churilla

A visionary approach to building roads ... faster, safer, and of better quality.

In 1920, rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard outlined the possibility of rocket flight to the moon. The scientist was promptly ridiculed by no less than The New York Times, which erroneously stated that a rocket could not work in the vacuum of space. But when Apollo 11 landed on the lunar surface in 1969, The New York Times issued a belated apology to the late Professor Goddard. Today, Goddard's words on the importance of dreams are still meaningful, "It has often proved true that the dream of yesterday is the hope of today, and the reality of tomorrow."

Too often, "impossible dreams" are looked to not as inspirational motivators to achieve great things, but rather as the subject of derision as foolish fantasies. Yet, it is just such goals that move us ahead as a civilization. Without impossible dreams and their dreamers, the world would not have electric lights, automobiles, penicillin, or overnight delivery.

The highway community has its own "impossible" dreams, such as roads without traffic fatalities and without congestion caused by construction. Those dreams are matched by the public's frustration with the way highways are built and maintained. Often people ask why roads are constantly being torn up, why roads don't last longer, and why there are so many orange cones and barrels on the highways.

These concerns reflect the feelings of the Nation as a whole, as demonstrated by several national surveys undertaken by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) a few years ago. In Moving Ahead: The American Public Speaks on Roadways and Transportation in Communities (FHWA-OP-01-017), the FHWA researchers concluded, "Improvements in traffic flow, pavement conditions, and work zones may result in the greatest rise in traveler satisfaction. Work zones are especially critical [because] travelers view road repairs as a major reason for traffic delays."

The State of the Existing System

The transportation community has designed and built highways in this country virtually the same way for 70 years or more. Unfortunately, this approach is no longer keeping pace with the growing demand. Statistics reveal the dilemma:

  • According to a Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) study of the Nation's 75 largest urban areas, the average annual delay has climbed from 16 hours per person in 1982 to 62 hours in 2000. TTI estimates the cost of congestion at $78 billion in 2001.
  • Approximately 15,000 highway fatalities result annually from crashes in which substandard roadway conditions, obsolete designs, or roadside hazards are a factor.
  • The average age of the 257,600-kilometer (160,000-mile) National Highway System (NHS) exceeds 35 years, well beyond the original pavement design life.
  • More than 17,710 kilometers (11,000 miles) of NHS pavements are currently in poor condition.
  • Nearly 24,000 of the interstate bridges currently are classified as "deficient."

Clearly, something has to be done because highways are, after all, the backbone of the Nation's transportation system. Nearly all products and services travel over highways, and U.S. citizens depend upon highways to commute to work and for personal trips. But just like a favorite restaurant that now has a 1-hour wait for a table, highways are suffering under their success. The only way out is to find a better way.

Here is a potentially impossible dream: What if engineers were able to build highways that are safer, smoother, quieter, and overall have better quality-in days, not months or years-and have them last 50 years? A tall order? In reality, this dream is no more impossible than Goddard's. A significant number of proven technologies and practices currently exist to achieve safer highways, reduce congestion due to construction, accelerate highway construction, and provide longer-lasting highways. However, a great deal of this innovation and advanced technology is practiced on special projects or has not risen to the level of common practice.

The rate of adoption of new technologies and practices creeps along at a snail's pace. As FHWA Deputy Administrator J. Richard Capka put it, "What is needed is to bring about a leap, instead of creep, in their use." Without dramatic changes in how the transportation community promotes, delivers, and deploys innovations and technologies, the realization of better ways of building highways would take decades.

Can It Be Done?

Innovative technologies and practices employed to speed construction and improve safety and quality already exist and are being used today. Commonly cited as examples of rapid repairs are the replacement of the collapsed I-40 bridge over the Arkansas River in Oklahoma; the reconstruction of the I-65 bridge in Birmingham, AL, after a fire; and the repair of roads and replacement of the freeways and bridges in California following the Loma Prieta earthquake. The impact of these projects mandated that virtually all project-related functions happened simultaneously rather than sequentially and at a greatly accelerated pace. But although such projects might be thought of as excellent examples of how to get projects rebuilt quickly and safely, in actual fact they were simply unique exceptions to how business is typically done. Because they were emergencies, they required immediate action with an associated need for extraordinary staffing and funding.

But what if the transportation community took the best practices and lessons learned on these emergency projects and applied the principles to everyday projects that are developed and delivered by highway agencies and the construction industry across the Nation, every day, as part of routine business? Such projects currently are being built throughout the country-so many, in fact, that a separate article, "The Future Is Now," in this issue of Public Roads describes them. These exemplary projects were delivered quickly with improved safety and reduced construction congestion, and they should last longer. In some cases the initial cost of construction is lower.

If agencies wanted to change how highways are built and delivered, what would it take to bring about rapid change? Guiding principles for consideration in planning a new way of building and delivering highway projects might include:

  • Do the "never been done"-by breaking out of one's comfort zone and changing attitudes from "I can't and won't" to "I can and will."
  • Involve stakeholders-from the transportation community and highway users-in the development and conduct of the program.
  • Utilize proven successes-technologies, materials, processes, and practices-in the financing, design, construction, and operation of highways.
  • Be bold and audacious-break the mold to "leap and not creep." Implementing proven technologies and innovations will result in significant benefits by producing safer highways, reducing construction congestion, and building longer-lasting highways.
  • Keep the focus-on the motorists and highway users.
  • Improve safety-not only during the construction phase, but also to provide a safer highway after the orange barrels are gone.
  • Reduce congestion due to construction-by accelerating the onsite phases of construction process and employing the best technologies and practices in the management of work zone traffic. Note that accelerating construction does not always translate to more people, more equipment, or more overtime. Sometimes it simply means planning the project more carefully and doing more advance work, so that the project can be completed more quickly once the road closure is in place.
  • Extend road life significantly-by increasing design life, using innovative materials, and practicing preservation.
  • Improve highway quality-to levels that represent the best of what the transportation community produces.

Changing the Focus

One approach to bringing about such a paradigm shift is to change the focus. Rather than telling builders and suppliers how to build a project, they should be given a description of what the end product must "look like," in terms of performance standards. The standards should be based on the needs of motorists, such as pavement smoothness levels, safety criteria, and the like. Then, working together, the transportation agency, the contractors, and the suppliers can devise innovative ways of getting the job done.

Figure 3. Pie Chart. Causes of highway congestion. Pie chart depicts the following distribution of causes of highway congestion: 40 percent from insufficient capacity/bottlenecks; 25 percent from incidents (crashes, disabled vehicles); 15 percent from weather (snow, ice, fog); 10 percent from work zones; 5 percent from poor signal timing; and 5 percent from other nonrecurring causes (e.g., special events). The total delay is about 4 billion hours per year. Source: FHWA.

An example is Colorado's Mitchell Gulch Bridge, replaced in 2002. The Colorado Department of Transportation (DOT) had envisioned a traditional box culvert design for the new bridge, which would have required 2 to 3 months of detours and delays on the road. Through the use of precast structural units, extensive planning, and other "value engineering" concepts, the bridge was replaced within 48 hours, over a single weekend. As this project showed, performance standards foster innovation and adoption of best technologies and practices. To be effective, the standards should represent the best of what the highway community has and is able to produce.

With user-focused performance standards in hand, the DOTs, the contractors, and suppliers can work together to develop solutions that show the driving public what is possible. And as more and more projects are built using performance standards and the tools and technologies they foster, perceptions will change about how impossible the dream really is. How many projects? Enough to span a wide range of project sizes, types, and locations. Enough to counter the reaction, "It won't work in my State or under these conditions."

To persuade these organizations to start building highways and bridges with such an approach, however, will require incentives and assistance to encourage and promote innovation. Another key ingredient would be to find ways to make it easier for agencies to undertake projects that would show the highway community, the public, and the media how such projects that meet user-focused performance standards are built. By using innovations and technologies, State and local DOTs will present their customers with a clear picture of their capabilities, and at the same time they will be meeting the expectations and needs of these customers.

But building a few projects will not be enough to bring about the newer way of building and delivering highways. Even if a percentage of the projects were paid for in order to motivate agencies to build them under the new approach, once the money was spent, there would not be a change in culture. Agencies would go right back to building roads the traditional way.

To move the entire highway community into this new performance standard-driven approach, leaders from various areas of the transportation community will have to step forward. These stakeholders will have to participate in developing a program and in delivering the innovations.

If the goal is to be successful in promoting change in the way the industry thinks about and manages projects, Federal, State, and local transportation agencies will need to develop, equip, and train a workforce to embrace these new innovations and technologies. Transferring technology to users in the field should include training for personnel in the public and private sectors; education at the technical, associate, undergraduate, and graduate levels; Web-based information systems that include all the innovative tools and techniques; a lead State (in business, this would be the "early adopter" phase of a product/project life cycle) program similar to the Strategic Highway Research Program implementation effort; and workshop and showcase events.

In the final analysis, clear evidence is essential that the cultural change in how projects are built is worth the energy and investment, as is evaluation of results and clear documentation of the benefits. Widespread demonstration of successes would, in turn, provide the impetus for more extensive application of the innovative methods and technologies in the future. Documentation would involve collecting facts and figures on construction conditions, costs, results, outcomes, and benefits prior to construction, during the work, and after completion of the project. One use for the documentation would be to employ it for teaching the concepts and applications to others in the transportation community.

If a new method of building and delivering highways is to become standard practice, communicating the information, new practices, and new innovations is critical. Without a high level of communication, innovative approaches would remain with those who initially developed or employed them. In addition, recounting the successes and lessons learned by other agencies tends to instill a higher level of understanding and appreciation of the challenges as well as the benefits. There is also a bit of "keeping up with the Joneses" involved, where learning of the successes of one's neighbors can build a friendly spirit of competition and a desire to keep up with the rest of the transportation community. Telling the public about the highway community's push for better roads builds goodwill and shows an appropriate level of response to motorists' needs. Finally, communication has the potential of demonstrating to the local highway builders the benefits of using innovative tools and technologies on more of their projects.

Innovations on the Fast Track

Fostering innovations would facilitate the implementation of innovative technologies that would enhance the safety and speed of highway construction and the safety characteristics, quality, and durability of pavements and bridges.

The purpose of fostering innovations is to:

  • Stimulate investment in innovation and accelerate deployment
  • Provide improved tools to facilitate achievement of performance standards
  • Provide broad access to the innovations that goes well beyond those involved in constructing a few projects
  • Provide an improved technology infrastructure to support highway safety, construction, and quality

To foster innovations, it would be necessary to provide the financial impetus to move proven but underutilized market-ready technologies and methods into practice. Although research and development are important, the emphasis of an effort to foster innovation should not be on research, but rather on innovations, technologies, practices, or procedures that have been used successfully in some venue or have demonstrated a clear potential for successful use in the U.S. highway industry, in associated or similar fields, or internationally.

What Would Success Look Like?

So what would be accomplished as a result of such an effort to bring about changes in building highways and roads? The transportation community might anticipate four major results: First, by building a sizable number of projects throughout the country using new methods, a broad and dramatic improvement in the American driving experience could be demonstrated. Second, a new culture of meeting the needs of the customers could be created. Third, an impetus to build on success would be produced, so that the new approach sticks long after the initial push for change has passed. And finally, an atmosphere that can accommodate and sustain rapid change and adoption of new innovations might be created.

Landing a man on the moon within 10 years seemed a big stretch in May 1961 when President John F. Kennedy issued his challenge to do exactly that. It was even more of a dream back in 1920. Yet space flight and even the concept of lunar exploration have become part of today's reality. Goddard's statement that the dreams of yesterday can become the reality of tomorrow might give the transportation community hope that with leadership, vision, a plan, and the support of a wide array of groups and individuals, a better way of building highways can truly be tomorrow's reality.

Can You Really Cut Construction Time Without Paying More?

Some observers have expressed concern about the feasibility of building highways faster, cheaper, and with better quality without having to sacrifice any of those objectives. Years ago, someone came up with a chart that listed cost, time, and quality as three points of a triangle. And the idea was that you could get a high level of achievement on any two, but the third would have to be sacrificed. If, for example, you wanted to do a high-quality job, and you didn't want to give up any time, you'd have to pay more for it. That approach assumes, however, that highways would continue to be built employing the same methods that have been used in the past. Using traditional methods may mean working nights or weekends to cut construction time, which requires overtime and thus an increase in costs. But, instead, what often happens is that a contractor may find innovative ways of building the project-outside the box-given the right incentive.

A 1999 project in Kansas, described by Martin Miller of the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT), did just that on a 12-kilometer (7.5-mile) section of Interstate 135 (I-135) south of Newton. The project, which won a National Award for Excellence from the American Concrete Pavement Association, was ranked "excellent" for innovations related to construction schedule, public involvement, and overall quality of construction.

The first innovation, an accelerated construction schedule, was suggested by the engineering staff at KDOT District Five after an office review of the construction plans. The project originally was slated to be completed in two construction seasons, but from experience with similar projects, District Five engineers felt confident that contractors working in Kansas could construct it in one season. So contractors were given the option of providing two bids, one for completing the work in 2 years and one for a 1-year completion.

When the project was opened for bids, the winning company submitted the lowest overall bid for the 2-year option ($18.5 million) and also submitted a bid for the 1-year option at $1 in additional cost. KDOT selected the 1-year schedule to reduce disruption to the traveling public.

In addition, KDOT added financial incentives to the contract to speed reconstruction of the interstate ramps at Exit 28 (SE 36th Street). Of the three sets of ramps on this section of I-135, Exit 28 was the most heavily traveled, serving an outlet shopping mall and the surrounding business community. The contract included a 40-day maximum closure for each ramp, a $2,000 per day disincentive for each day over that period. To alleviate local concerns over the impact of an extended closure period, KDOT added a $2,000 per day incentive to the contract for early completion of the ramps. Because of the incentive, the ramps were rebuilt in 23 days, reducing the closure period and resulting traffic disruption by 17 days.

Efforts to involve the public began prior to construction. Monthly public meetings were held at a food court in the outlet mall, near the high-profile interstate interchange. The construction work was one item on the agenda of the monthly meetings already scheduled for outlet store tenants and surrounding businesses.

Two main concerns surfaced during the public meetings. The first was that local businesses did not want the Exit 28 ramps closed during holidays. The contractor adjusted the original ramp construction schedule accordingly. The second concern was, "How will our customers find us during this ramp closure period?" In response, the management of the mall posted signs directing customers from the nearest open I-135 interchange, using local roads. To reduce driver confusion and possible crashes, KDOT put up a variable message board in the work zone giving travelers information on the open ramp. This cooperative signage effort was supported by the county and the city's chamber of commerce.

KDOT also offered incentives related to the quality of construction. A $93,000 smoothness incentive was paid as a result of the pavement profile on the project. A $302,000 quality incentive was paid as well. Due to the cooperative efforts of KDOT and the contractor, and the company's proficiency, the project was completed far ahead of the accelerated schedule and has proven to be a high-quality highway improvement.

When agencies talk about incentives in highway construction, it sometimes appears as though contractors are receiving a lot of extra money when they meet the criteria for the incentives. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that most of these projects still are contracted using a "low-bid" process. Contractors who know how to do the job well will factor the incentives they expect to earn into their bid price, thereby reducing the bid price by the anticipated incentive amount.

Toolbox of Knowledge

Conceptually, a toolbox would provide a central repository of information that transportation agencies and the highway construction industry can use to identify best practices and innovative technological, contracting, and financial tools that may be useful to a particular project, as well as resources for additional information and guidance on the application of those tools. In reality, the toolbox would likely take the form of a Web-based reference tool, which would contain additional resources that agency and highway industry personnel can access for help in identifying technological, contracting, and financing tools and methods that may be applicable to their particular projects.

Charles Churilla, P.E., is a program coordinator in FHWA's Office of Infrastructure. He has been with FHWA for 23 years and, prior to his current position, worked as a geotechnical engineer, pavement engineer, research engineer, implementation coordinator, and research program manager. Before joining FHWA, Churilla worked for the Pennsylvania DOT from 1967 to 1981. He received a bachelor's of science degree in civil engineering from Pennsylvania State University.

Reprinted from Public Roads, May/June 2004.

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Updated: 06/27/2017
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