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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 62· No. 3 > Maintaining the Customer-Driven Highway

Nov/Dec 1998
Vol. 62· No. 3

Maintaining the Customer-Driven Highway

by Jim Sorenson, Ed Terry, and Dan Mathis

As the vast U.S. highway system grows older, highway agencies are shifting their focus from building new roads and highways to preserving their investment in the existing system. This means less new construction and more maintenance, rehabilitation, and major reconstruction projects. But those projects disrupt traffic flow, causing traffic delays that aggravate motorists and businesses and increase risk to both the traveling public and the highway worker.

That's why highway agencies are now taking a hard look at their maintenance and construction operations, seeking ways to minimize traffic backups and travel delays caused by maintenance and rehabilitation projects. Agencies want to get in and get the job done safely, quickly, and efficiently - and then get out and stay out.

In a 1995 nationwide survey sponsored by the National Quality Initiative, highway users - our customers - identified "pavement condition" as the top priority for improving the nation's highways. In addition to better, smoother pavements, they also want fewer traffic delays and disruptions caused by work zones.

Rehabilitation of the section of Interstate 70 was completed nearly two months ahead of scheduled.

Traffic delays are not only inconvenient and annoying, but they also come at a steep price. On many urban highway reconstruction projects, delays cost road users more than $100,000 a day in lost time and late deliveries. By the year 2000, one-third of U.S. businesses are expected to be operating on a just-in-time delivery basis. If deliveries are disrupted by travel delays, those businesses - and the U.S. economy - could be significantly affected.

Meeting the Customers' Needs

To address the problems of traffic delay and disruption, the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Office of Program Quality Coordination recently conducted a national quality improvement review on "Meeting the Customers' Needs for Mobility and Safety During Construction and Maintenance Operations." The review assessed the effectiveness of state and federal policies and procedures for reducing traffic congestion and delays caused by construction and maintenance. Areas reviewed included work-zone traffic control plans, materials selection, contracting procedures, and the level of public participation in traffic management policies and decisions.

The review team met with 26 state highway agencies, as well as local transportation departments and industry and user groups. Through these meetings, the team identified the best traffic management practices and policies that states are using to cut down on work-zone congestion and to minimize accident risks for drivers and highway workers. These practices include:

  • Oregon Department of Transportation's (DOT) used innovative contracting procedures to award a contract for rehabilitating a bridge on Interstate 5. To ensure that work was done efficiently and within a short time period, the contract award was based upon both the price of bids and contractor qualifications. Previously, all contracts had been awarded solely on the basis of the lowest bid.
  • New Jersey DOT used traffic impact reports to identify the effects of road construction on traffic flow and to recommend mitigation techniques, such as performing work at night and providing the public with shuttle buses and other transportation alternatives.
  • North Carolina DOT initiated the IMPACT program, a public information effort that informs motorists, businesses, and residents of upcoming road construction and encourages them to use alternate routes.
  • New Jersey established a state trooper unit that is assigned full time to state DOT construction projects to assist with traffic control and increase work-zone safety.

The best traffic management practices and policies are highlighted in the team's review report, released in the fall of 1998, as well as in the quality section of FHWA's Web site (www.fhwa.dot.gov/quality/bprac.htm). To encourage widespread use of these practices, the states, FHWA, and industry are considering setting up a construction and maintenance steering committee. FHWA has also developed a traffic management model that FHWA field managers can use to measure progress and improvements in various areas of work-zone traffic management.

Building on the lessons learned from the review, FHWA is launching a major new initiative to address the timing and quality of construction and maintenance operations and their effect on the traffic flow and safety of highway systems. As the first step in this initiative, FHWA's Highway Operations Division is developing an agency-wide, five-year program to identify and implement strategies for cutting user delays and disruptions during construction and maintenance operations. The program, "Optimizing Highway Performance: Meeting the Customers' Needs," will involve several FHWA headquarters and field offices, as well as contractors, suppliers, and highway users.

Customer-Oriented Highway Construction

Both FHWA's review of state traffic management practices and its "Optimizing Highway Performance: Meeting the Customers' Needs" program ask the question: "How can we better serve our customers?" FHWA, along with the National Asphalt Pavement Association, took this question directly to state and federal employees, equipment manufacturers, contractors, and others at a fall 1997 workshop in Lake Geneva, Wis. In addition to reducing traffic congestion caused by work zones, the answers included increasing public awareness of the highway construction process and building longer-lasting pavements.

Workshop participants hammered out a range of strategies for meeting these goals. The suggested strategies include using nontraditional work schedules, such as evening and weekend road closures; upgrading product performance; and improving communications with the public. Many of the strategies and goals developed in the workshop are in FHWA's five-year "Optimizing Highway Performance: Meeting the Customers' Needs" program.

A section of Interstate 405 closed for rehabilitation.

To improve communications with the public, highway agencies are using such technological innovations as portable traffic management systems that consist of video detection cameras and a series of variable message signs. These signs post real-time traffic advisories to keep drivers better plugged in to current work-zone and road conditions. Workshop participants also proposed more use of videotapes and other media to describe the construction and rehabilitation process and to teach drivers how to safely navigate through work zones. Such videos could be shown in driver education classes, customer service offices at departments of motor vehicles, kiosks at rest areas, and even in truck stops along the freeways and highways.

Upgrading the performance of hot-mix asphalt (HMA) is another means of minimizing disruptions caused by construction and maintenance work. After all, a pavement that lasts longer will require fewer repairs and thus cause fewer delays over its service life. Highway agencies and contractors increasingly recognize that the quality of each step in the HMA construction process from design to compaction is critical to achieving a high-performance pavement. Also, the careful design and placement of pavement drainage systems is critical to improve pavement durability.

Highway agencies and contractors have also found that the performance of HMA pavements can be improved through increased use of existing technology. For example, the Reed tachometer, a device that has been available for many years but is not widely used, can verify the correct dynamic input of vibratory compaction equipment, thus ensuring proper compaction density.

Innovative Contracting Procedures

As FHWA noted in its quality improvement review, some states are turning to innovative contracting and maintenance procedures to cut the time from start to finish in pavement rehabilitation projects.

For example, using a new bidding procedure for a major rehabilitation project on Interstate 70, Indiana DOT was able to reopen the road to traffic sooner than expected. Bidders had to take into account the cost of traffic delays caused by the construction. The cost of traffic delays was based on the number of days that each bidder would take to complete the work; the number of peak-period lane closures and nonpeak-period lane closures during this time were calculated and multiplied by a cost figure set by the Indiana DOT.

A contractor that could do the job in less time would thus have a lower cost for traffic delays. As an incentive, the contractor would be rewarded if the job took less time than estimated in the proposal; conversely, if the job took longer than proposed, a penalty would be assessed.

As a result of this new bidding procedure, the I-70 rehabilitation project was completed nearly two months ahead of schedule and with one-third fewer lane closures than expected. Motorists saved between $1 million and $1.5 million in fuel, vehicle wear and tear, time, and other user costs.

Washington state DOT had similar results during the summer of 1997 when it completely closed a 9.6-kilometer stretch of Interstate 405 on two consecutive weekends for rehabilitation work. Motorists certainly didn't like having the road closed, but they preferred a shorter period of major inconvenience to the prospect of a seemingly never-ending series of delays and backups. And by cutting a full construction season off what was to be a three-year contract, the project saved the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment, traffic control, personnel, and administrative costs.

The project's success depended heavily on communicating with neighboring communities and businesses and on getting the word out to the local media so that motorists were alerted well in advance and had time to adjust their plans to accommodate the road closure.

"We had a very positive response from the public," says Kim Henry of Washington state DOT. "We definitely will [follow this plan] again for other projects."

Another innovative contracting method being used by some states is lane rental. Under this method, a rental fee based on road user costs is assessed the contractor for those periods of time when traffic is obstructed through lane or shoulder closures. The intent is to encourage contractors to schedule their work so that traffic disruptions are kept to a minimum, especially during peak traffic periods.

Meeting the Challenge

As demonstrated by the efforts by states, FHWA, industry, and others, construction and maintenance operations can be done more quickly with fewer delays, but doing so requires broad-based change that must begin early in the project development process. To provide better service and meet customers' expectations, highway agencies must move beyond traditional methods of operation and try new strategies involving contracts, materials, and improved communications. State highway agencies, contractors, and FHWA must also challenge themselves to think "outside the box" and be innovative in choosing construction methods and cutting the time spent on the roadway for construction and maintenance projects. We can no longer afford to settle for "the way we have always done things."

FHWA's "Optimizing Highway Performance: Meeting the Customers' Needs" program is stepping forward to meet this challenge. Working with everyone from contractors to state transportation departments to industry associations, FHWA's program aims to build better pavements with the least amount of disruption to drivers. Highway rehabilitation will never be an easy undertaking, but through accelerated construction and maintenance, it can be more efficient and cost-effective. On the customer-driven highway, motorists expect no less.

For more information, contact Jim Sorenson via telephone, (202) 366-1333); fax, (202) 366-9981; or e-mail, james.sorenson@fhwa.dot.gov.

Jim Sorenson is a senior engineer in the Highway Operations Division of the Federal Highway Administration.

Ed Terry is an engineering specialist in FHWA's Office of Program Quality Coordination.

Dan Mathis is assistant division administrator of FHWA's Illinois Division.

Workshop Focuses on Urban Highway Renewal

Rehabilitating aging urban expressways is one of the most pressing needs facing state departments of transportation. But until recently, the subject had received relatively little attention on a national basis. However, in February 1998, the Transportation Research Board (TRB), the California Department of Transportation, and the Federal Highway Administration sponsored a workshop in Irvine, Calif.

The workshop brought together engineers, contractors, construction managers, and others to work in small groups to brainstorm proposals for rehabilitating a segment of an urban concrete freeway in California. The segment presented significant design, construction, and traffic maintenance challenges.

The challenge to the groups was to develop proposals to build new pavements without disrupting the local community and economy and without putting major constraints on the access, mobility, and safety of highway users. The proposals focused on lower maintenance pavements with much longer life spans - more than 40 years. These plans featured improved design options, innovative contracting procedures to encourage efficiency and improve quality, and techniques to improve traffic flow and safety in the work zone.

Joe Mickes, chief engineer of the Missouri Highway and Transportation Department, said the workshop was "the most useful I've ever attended" and that his agency is already changing its approach to urban freeway projects.

The teams' proposals are now being refined, and a full report will be published by TRB later this year.

For more information, contact Bruce Green at TRB via telephone, (202) 334-1430); fax, (202) 334-3471; or e-mail, bgreen@nas.edu.

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