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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.

What Is Subsurface Utility Engineering?

SUE is a relatively new interdisciplinary approach to managing the risks that existing underground utilities create on projects involving excavation. Many of these risks are a direct result of inaccurate, incomplete, or imprecise information on the location or existence of existing utilities. Just as important are the timing and distribution of this utility information. SUE utilizes new and existing technology to collect and manage utility data, and transmits this data to the right parties, at the right times, in order to decrease project risks.

A pending ASCE standard titled Standard Guidelines for the Collection and Depiction of Existing Subsurface Utility Data defines SUE as: “A branch of engineering practice that involves managing certain risks associated with: utility mapping at appropriate quality levels, utility coordination, utility relocation design and coordination, utility condition assessment, communication of utility data to concerned parties, utility relocation cost estimates, implementation of utility accommodation policies, and utility design.”

An engineer has many sources of information on existing utilities. Utility owner records, public records, private records, interviews with knowledgeable sources, visual site indications, historical books and newspaper archives, subsurface geophysical information, test holes, and Geographic Information System (GIS) systems are some examples.

How Do These Records Differ?

There is one obvious difference between these records: Quality! Different types of records have different quality. Some records have very high quality, and tell us everything we need to know about a particular utility at a known point, location, depth, backfill type, and utility composition. Other records may have a very low quality, and tell us next to nothing about the utility, other than its potential presence somewhere in the general area.

Until recently, there was no mechanism for engineers or surveyors to differentiate these differences in quality on design or construction plans, or in GIS databases. All utility information was depicted as being the same. The end result of low quality information being portrayed the same as high quality information resulted in all the information sinking to the lowest common denominator of quality, in other words, untrustworthy information.

Engineers and surveyors recognize this and completely disclaim responsibility for utility information that they depict on documents. They attempt to push liability to the utility owner or the constructor. Some court rulings uphold these disclaimers. Others do not. In a Commonwealth of Pennsylvania ruling (PennDOT v. I.A. Catalso), the owner of the construction plans (PennDOT) was found to be responsible for any costs associated with poor or missing utility information on the plans. This prompted the following statement from William D. Pickering, P.E., PennDOT State Utilities Engineer, on a 1995 FHWA film: “In Pennsylvania, the project owner can be held legally responsible for the accuracy of the information on the bid documents. Consequently, we want a competent professional to obtain that information for us.”

Usually, the finger of blame points everywhere for problems associated with poor utility information and only the lawyer’s profit. A recent Indiana (Lafayette) court case assessed damages at 30 percent, 30 percent, and 40 percent, respectively to the city, the engineer, and the contractor.

How Can Responsibility Be Better Defined?

One of the advantages of applying SUE to a project is that responsibility for wrong or missing utility data on plans is better defined. The SUE provider becomes individually and corporately responsible for negligent errors or omissions of the deliverables and no longer disclaims utility information, but instead, claims responsibility for it – within certain guidelines. These guidelines involve defining and then obtaining and depicting the “quality level” of utility information. In other words, if the engineer can verify that a particular utility depiction on the plans is very accurate, why not say so, rather than disclaim the good information along with the bad? By taking responsibility for data, contractor bids are lowered and there is certainly a better incentive to get right information on the plans.

The ASCE recognizes that national standards for these quality levels need to be developed and promoted. They have, therefore, formed a national consensus standards activity to draft such standards. Once in place, these standards may influence how the insurance industry and the courts view utility data liability. Membership of the committee includes people from engineering, construction, insurance, utility owners, academia, Federal agencies, the military, labor unions, equipment manufacturers, and providers of SUE.

What Are Utility Quality Levels?

It would be quite easy to develop literally hundreds of different quality levels if one were so inclined. However, such a large number would be unwieldy and, therefore, probably not effective. In developing quality levels, a natural grouping emerged that addressed how data was collected and how that data could be endorsed by a licensed professional.

Quality Level D (QL D) utility data is that information that is collected and depicted on documents that comes solely from utility owner records, or conversations, or indirect visual indications. It is the lowest quality level and everyone should be very careful when using it for any purpose. The only aspect the engineer can be held accountable for is investigating appropriate sources of information and interpreting the records as best as can be done. It has a good application for project planning / route selection, where the planner needs to get an overall “feel” for the utility congestion. An example of its use and pitfalls is as follows: A water record from 1960 shows the water line 2 feet off the edge of the road, with one valve on the main. The road in 1960 was two narrow lanes; now it is two wider lanes with a turn lane. The engineer plots the water line 2 feet off the edge of the road, but is not known whether (a) the edge of the road is at the same place now as in 1960, (b) the water line record was correct as far as its geometry, (c) the water line is still in service or abandoned, or (d) the water line underwent changes in conjunction with road improvements or other events.

Quality Level C (QL C) utility data is better and entails the use of visible utility features. It addresses the problem of where the old road edge might be by using the water valve as a survey point. All visible utility structures that indicate a utility below the surface are surveyed to project control and placed on the plans at the right positions. Then, the utility record’s geometry can be used to place it on the plans. The water line that would have been plotted 2 feet off the edge of the road is now plotted through the surveyed water valve. If the water valve is 6 feet inside the turn lane, then the water line is plotted parallel to the road (following the record geometry) but 6 feet inside the turn lane. Of course, if the water valve cannot be found, this utility can only be plotted to Quality Level D standards. Quality Level C data still does not address utilities for which there are no records, utilities for which the records are wrong or incomplete or not updated, or utilities which have no visible features that can be surveyed. The survey of the visible utility feature is endorsed by a licensed professional. Liability revolves around the appropriate utility records search, the survey, and the best interpretation of the records information.

Quality Level B (QL B) utility data provides a significant upgrade in quality from QL C data. It involves the use of surface geophysics to identify, interpret and field-mark underground utilities, combined with a survey of the field markings, and subsequent reduction onto plans or into the digital database. There are many different types of surface geophysics that will work under certain conditions to identify underground utilities. The key to liability here is that the appropriate methods be used. Appropriateness of method is part of the professional geophysicist or competent engineer’s role, along with interpretation of the data, and education of the client for budgetary purposes. The key is to pick those techniques that, given the environmental and site conditions, will give the educated client the best “bang for the buck” in identifying the most, or the most critical, utilities for the project mission. Not all utilities may be found through surface geophysics.

After utilities’ approximate locations are marked on the ground surface, the engineer / surveyor references them to project control and reduces them onto plans or into the database. Other information might be interpreted from the surface geophysics, such as approximate depth and utility type. Utilities for which records exist, but which could not be found through the surface geophysics, are depicted at a lower quality level.

In the water record example, if the water line had bends in it that the records did not reflect, the surface geophysics would detect them. If the valve were paved over, the surface geophysics would detect it; survey would place it on the plans correctly. If the water line was abandoned and in poor condition, the surface geophysics might detect the new waterline, and give clues to the condition of the abandoned one.

Liability for Quality Level B data is generally confined to surface geophysics method selection, education of the client, correct interpretation of the surface geophysics, correct marking of the utility on the ground surface, survey of those markings, depiction on the plans or in the database, and evaluation of all appropriate records to see if utilities must be depicted at a lower quality level. The appropriate professional affixes his or her stamp on the deliverables; insurance covers all aspects of the end work deliverables. QL B data is most useful in the preliminary design stage of projects.

Quality Level A (QL A) data is the highest quality. No matter how well the surface geophysics are applied and interpreted precise information on elevation, size, material type, condition, configuration, and so forth of the utility cannot be verified without exposure. So QL A data is that data that is gathered, surveyed, and depicted through excavation or exposure of the utility. It takes all interpretation out of the utility information at that point. In our water line example, the exact horizontal location, depth, condition, and other data at the point where it is needed is gathered.

New excavation technologies such as air / vacuum methods protect the utility from damage during exposure, limit the work zone, and reduce costs. Quality Level A measurement data is endorsed by the licensed professional.

What Are the Advantages of Using Quality Levels?

Instead of all utilities depicted the same on a document, those utilities for which better data are available can be portrayed in such a manner that designers and constructors can minimize their impacts. The subsurface utility engineer is responsible for depicting the utilities at the correct quality level, and following the established industry procedures for collecting and interpreting that data. If the engineer makes a negligent error or omission, he or she may become responsible for the resultant problems with design or construction.

Being able to obtain higher quality utility information results in project savings through better design and construction. The FHWA has performed widespread studies that show average savings in excess of 462 percent of every $1 spent in upgrading utility information to its highest necessary quality. Project owners and utility owners can select the amount of risk they want to underwrite on a project by selecting the quality level of utility information that they procure, or by requiring the project engineer to provide it to them.

From “Subsurface Utility Engineering in Washington State,” Washington State Technology Transfer Issue 71, Summer 2001.

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/.
The District Utilities Office (DUO) of the GDOT is responsible for initiating and coordinating the EDD process for a given project, consisting of various EDD submissions. Each submission contains a higher percentage of completed highway design information and requires that a higher percentage of utility information be provided to the DUO prior to the next submission. An example is shown below for the first submission:

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:

  • Recognize the shared goals of the stakeholders and act as a team to accomplish those goals.
  • Identify early, proposed highway projects that affect existing utility facilities to allow highway planners to explore highway alignment alternatives to avoid major utility relocations prior to project design.
  • Identify design alternatives to minimize utility impact and relocations on highway projects already in design progress.
  • Coordinate the construction schedule of unavoidable utility work with the highway construction schedule to reduce the disruptions to the public and prevent conflicts between contractors. This may include the highway contractor performing some or all of the relocations.
  • Refine the coordination process for continued efficient communication.

The operating principles that support successful communication are summarized below:

  • Monthly, short meetings are better than quarterly, long meetings.
  • Hold the meetings in a convenient location; make sure the accommodations are suitable for the purpose of the meeting.
  • The people who attend should have decision-making authority.
  • The same people should attend every meeting. If this is not possible, the person coming as a substitute should have the authority and the background information that the primary participant has.
  • Use good meeting management skills, or include a facilitator to keep the meeting focused on the desired results.
  • There should be an agenda jointly developed and shared before the meeting.
  • Try to share materials/handouts for review before the meeting to save time.
  • There is mutual commitment to start and end on time.
  • The group should agree on a decision-making process, e.g. consensus, majority vote, etc.
  • There should be a record/minutes of the meeting. Actions should be verified before the meeting ends; the record should be shared with all stakeholders.
  • Someone should have responsibility for follow up, to make sure that agreed upon actions are completed by the date selected.
  • Group members should share contact information (telephone, cellular, fax, e-mail).
  • Establish rotating or shared leadership of the meetings.
  • Periodically, assess the effectiveness of these meetings, either verbally or with a written survey. Discuss problems and take corrective action.
  • Use a common base map (GIS or CADD).
  • Use all of the available technology tools to share information between meetings – web sites, electronic bulletin boards, established groups for e-mail, on-line or print newsletters.

III.5 Regulations

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 https://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.

  • Does your agency currently use the Subsurface Utility Engineering (SUE) process, as defined by the FHWA, to obtain information about underground utilities?

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.

  • If so, do your in-house designers and/or design consultants use the SUE information in the design of highway projects to avoid or minimize utility relocations?

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.

  • If not, do your in-house designers and/or design consultants use any other sources of underground utility information in the design of highway projects to avoid or minimize utility relocations?

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.

  • At what point in the development of highway projects does your agency notify utilities of upcoming projects that may have utility conflicts?

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.

  • What other coordination activities does your agency engage in with utilities affected by proposed highway construction?

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.

  • Who in your organization determines whether to relocate conflicting utilities or to design around them?

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.

  • What are the factors that might contribute to the design being revised as opposed to the utility being relocated?

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.

  • Are Life-cycle Cost (LCC) considerations or other economic models used to evaluate relocation re-design issues?

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.

  • What types of design changes have been made by your designers in order to avoid or minimize the need to relocate utilities?

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.

  • During the design process, are there design practices that are implemented during the preliminary design stage to lessen the possibility of a utility conflict? If so, can you name some of these design practices?

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.

  • If a utility conflict cannot be avoided and the utility needs to be relocated, do you have any methods in place to help minimize the cost of relocation?

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.

  • Does your agency have any requirements concerning the placement of new utilities to help avoid future conflicts?

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.

  • Does your agency have any policies or other strategies concerning utilities that may be pertinent to this study?

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.

  • Does your agency have any policies on shared databases?

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.

  • Does your agency do anything else other than the items previously mentioned to avoid or minimize the need to relocate utilities to accommodate highway construction?

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:

  • The utility should be recognized as a “stakeholder” in the highway project.

  • State agencies should provide more reimbursement for utility relocation work.

  • Utility reimbursement should be based on their performance to relocate their facilities within an agreed upon schedule.

  • Utility reimbursement and performance should be studied as to the benefits to the overall project. This should include team building, improved coordination and communications, and impact on construction cost and schedule. Currently, some utilities keep track of their “negotiated savings” which are the savings to the utility resulting from negotiation of highway design alternatives or re-design vs. utility relocation. Project savings statistics such as these will aid the national effort to avoid utility relocation.

  • The State Utility Office should hold the State highway designer(s) more responsible for addressing utility conflicts and suggesting resolutions. Unnecessary relocations must be avoided, and when they occur due to lack of communication or coordination by the State or municipality, the designer should somehow be held accountable, thus providing an incentive for identifying conflicts and exploring alternatives early in the design process.

  • State DOTs have set standards for placement of facilities in the ROW. Many of these standards, such as increased bury depth, have been implemented to accommodate future highway maintenance (such as installation of signs or other minor excavation or drilling) or expansion without disturbing the utilities. Utilities complain that some of these requirements increase installation and maintenance cost.

  • Improve notification to utilities as to when projects are funded and scheduled for bid. This will aid utilities in budgeting and scheduling relocation work on a timely basis. The State should be responsible for initial contact on funded projects at the 0 percent design stage.

  • It is difficult to obtain permits for parallel utility encroachment in many existing ROW. This has caused the utility to obtain private easements adjacent to the ROW.

  • Utilities are required to provide the location of their facilities at their own expense. Agencies have the authority to retain SUE consultants to perform the same work. Utilities should be paid to provide this service as are the consultants.

  • Utilities prefer to receive electronic plan information for locating and design, however, states are not always using compatible software. The State should be responsible to set up compatible electronic plan transfer system.

  • Municipalities should be held to the same standards and level of coordination and communication as implemented by the State.

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Updated: 06/27/2017
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