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Avoiding Utility Relocations


This manual, Avoiding Utility Relocations, was prepared for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in accordance with Research Development and Technology Transfer Order DTFH61-01-P-00237, pursuant to recommendations in 2000 by the AASHTO Highway Subcommittee on Right of Way and Utilities and by the AASHTO/FHWA European Scanning Team on Right of Way and Utilities.

The purpose of the work was to develop a manual that encouraged highway designers to avoid unnecessary utility relocations in the designs for which they are responsible. This was accomplished by identifying both the value of avoiding relocations on highway construction projects, and the technologies and techniques that can be used to achieve this goal.

Nichols Consulting Engineers, Chtd. is responsible for the development of this manual. Any questions or comments should be directed to:

Federal Highway Administration
C. Paul Scott
Highway Engineer (Utilities Coordinator)
Office of Program Administration
400 Seventh St., S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20590
Nichols Consulting Engineers, Chtd
Patricia L. Lees.
1885 S. Arlington Ave.
Reno, NV 89509
775.329.5098 (fax)

Nichols Consulting Engineers would like to acknowledge the following individuals who contributed to the preparation and review of this document.

John N. Munson, P.E. Nichols Consulting Engineers
Patricia L. Lees Nichols Consulting Engineers
Kenneth G. Blom, P.G. NORCAL Geophisical Consultants, Inc.
Jerome S. Nelson, P.G. Consulting Geophysicist
C. Paul Scott, P.E. Federal Highway Administration
James Anspach. P.G. So-Deep, Inc., Subsurface Utility Engineers
TBE Group, Inc. Civil and Subsurface Utility Engineers

Executive Summary


Conflicts between underground utilities and the alignment, grade, and drainage of new and expanding streets and highways are now all too frequent in this country. The environments of the urban and sub-urban underground are a complex web of utility lines including electric, telephone, cable TV, fiber optics, traffic signals, natural gas, water, sanitary and storm sewers, and it is nearly impossible for a road project to be free of conflict. The proliferation of underground facilities has reached the point where project budgets and schedules can no longer support the multiple unplanned and unnecessary relocations typical of highway projects.

From the utility’s perspective, an unexpected request, or order, to move a facility means unscheduled work and unplanned expense. Even scheduled work on a highway project that is delayed due to a change in the DOT’s program or project plan may mean that supplies purchased for that job can’t be used, or equipment is mobilized to the wrong location. If a facility must be moved, it may mean service disruption, and even higher user costs as the expenses for relocation are passed through the system. In the worst cases, the unplanned work may lead to litigation between the agency and the utility, the utility and the contractor, or the contractor and the agency. Unplanned and unnecessary utility relocations must be avoided.

The problem is that highway designers have little motivation to avoid utility relocations under the typical design processes. Designers are usually rated on how fast they get the project designed, and efforts to “design around” existing utilities to avoid relocation often involve consideration of several alternatives, including cost estimation and comparison. This extra work extends the design time and increases the design budget. The same applies when an outside design consultant is used, as the additional time spent on design alternatives is clearly extra work, and it is often difficult for the consultant to negotiate design change orders. When the designer works only with where the utilities might be, or where they ought to be, the likelihood of encountering an undocumented facility during construction is much higher.


The information from practitioners points to a needed shift in the utility-related design process. Historically, utility information has been added to the highway plans at the 60% design stage for the sole purpose of determining where the conflicts will require relocation of utilities. At 60% design, there is little that can be done to ameliorate a conflict, short of a major plan revision. A major plan revision at this late stage could significantly delay the target bid date, and would therefore need to demonstrate significant project cost or construction schedule savings to be approved.

In the past, the utility relocation might have been the sole responsibility of the utility company. Depending on the terms under which they are located in the right of way, they would have been ordered to move, within a specific time frame that supported the construction schedule. They may have been given the option to use the contractor working on the government project, but the expense would be theirs. Recent changes in the practices related to reimbursement have shifted many of those costs from the utility to the federal funding available for the project. Funds diverted from programmed projects to utility relocations on other projects thus affect the entire workload and funding allocations for a DOT.

The alternatives that surfaced in this study center on identifying the potential conflicts early in the design process – at the 30% design stage, or sooner. At that stage, the creative solutions listed in the report are feasible, and can be accommodated in the design and construction work ahead. Utilities, while a tangible part of project cost and schedule, need not be a problem or a contributor to project cost overruns and delays.

To “design around” utilities, we must know where they are. The technology exists today to verify the presence of almost any type of buried utility, and to positively determine its location, size, and composition using non-destructive excavation methods. There are professional licensed engineers, geologists, and surveyors who have specialized in the use and interpretation of these technologies, known as Subsurface Utility Engineering (SUE). These specialized consultants accept the liability for the interpretation and subsequent reliance on the results of their investigations by highway designers and contractors. There is documentation to support project savings of $4.62 for every $1 spent on SUE. The FHWA advocates the use of SUE, as well as programs for effective and continued communication, coordination and cooperation among DOT planners and designers, and the utility owners and operators within their jurisdiction.

There is a nationwide need to change current practices. This manual was prepared to identify the practices that support the collection of accurate and complete subsurface utility information and promote effective communication and coordination between highway agencies and utilities in the planning, design, and construction phases of highway projects. FHWA hopes that this manual encourages transportation professionals to look for innovative planning, design, and construction methods that avoid or minimize utility relocations.


Research for this manual included:

  • A mail survey asking for current practices, policies, and strategies of State and municipal highway agencies (utility divisions), and private utility companies across the county.
  • Review of State DOT’s published utility accommodation policy and procedure manuals.
  • Investigation into state-of-the-practice technologies for locating utility facilities.
  • Review of related publications and internet information sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT), the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), and the American Public Works Association (APWA).
  • Review of other related publications and internet information from the private sector.
  • Informal telephone interviews with DOT and utility personnel and professional subsurface utility engineers and locators.

Key Findings

The key findings of this manual are:

  • Conflicts between utility facilities, both above and below ground, and the alignment, geometry, grade, and drainage of new and expanding highways are all too frequent.
  • Conflicts with utilities are a major cause of delays to highway contractors. The inability to accurately and comprehensively identify the locations of underground utilities, and the lack of adequate communication and coordination are measurable contributors to construction problems (cost overruns, delays, change orders, redesign costs, claims).
  • It is imperative to identify potential utility conflicts early in the development of highway projects and to incorporate the most efficient and cost-effective accommodation possible into the highway design. Every effort must be made to “design around” as many utilities as possible.
  • Subsurface Utility Engineering (SUE) is a proven, cost-effective engineering process for accurately identifying the quality of subsurface utility information needed for highway plans, and for acquiring and managing that level of information during the development of a highway project. The efficient use of SUE information allows designers to avoid utility relocations. The use of quality levels in the SUE process allows designers to certify on the plans that a certain level of accuracy and comprehensiveness has been provided.
  • Good communication and cooperation between highway agencies and utilities are essential throughout the development and construction of highway projects. It has been typical in the past to design projects without consideration of the utilities, and then to relocate conflicting utilities. Consultation with utilities early in the developmental stages may result in minor plan changes to avoid them, or even major plan changes that subsequently avoid costly, time-consuming, and unnecessary relocations

Design Alternatives:
Following is a summary list of the design changes that have been used to avoid utility relocations as reported by the agencies responding to a mail survey by Nichols Consulting Engineers:

Geometric/Alignment Changes

  1. Grade
  2. Alignment
  3. Widen one side of highway as opposed to other
  4. Offset location of centerline for short distances
  5. Move ramps

Drainage/Ditch/Culvert/Inlet/Curb Changes

  1. Move storm drains
  2. Low head storm pipe
  3. Alternative type inlets
  4. Alternative storm drain (oval, etc.)
  5. Ditch culverts
  6. Narrow ditch widths
  7. Redesign ditches from flat bottom to “V” bottom
  8. Adjust flow lines
  9. Ditch grade changes
  10. Use paved ditches
  11. Change from ditch cross section to gutter
  12. Adjust manhole locations
  13. Extend storm pipe runs to avoid ditch cuts that impact utilities
  14. Concrete slabs over utilities in ditch bottom
  15. Revise or eliminate portions of the drainage design
  16. Install closed drainage and curbing
  17. Use rip-rap on ditches
  18. Add curb and gutter
  19. Alternative curb and gutter

Slope/Retaining Wall/Barrier Changes and Additions

  1. Barriers
  2. Guard rails instead of moving poles
  3. Change backslope rate
  4. Add retaining walls to the design to reduce slope encroachment
  5. Remove slope rounding
  6. Change retaining wall types
  7. Impact attenuators on above ground appurtenances

Structure/Bridge/Footing Changes

  1. Move bridge bents
  2. Move bridge end that would conflict with pipeline
  3. Alternative foundations
  4. Move bridge ends
  5. Structural box modifications
  6. Structure footing redesign
  7. Abutment modifications to allow bridge occupancy
  8. Customized foundation design
  9. Move bridge pilings
  10. Change bridge type
  11. Use protective casings
  12. Pre-bore and batter pile driving to miss utilities


The message from this manual is that there are many opportunities to reduce and resolve the conflicts between highway construction and the utilities located nearby. The opportunities fall into two categories: system changes and operational changes.

To take advantage of a system change, the highway agency could look at:

  • planning – When does the agency look for potential conflicts between proposed road work and existing and planned utilities?
  • communication – What methods are in place to assure frequent and meaningful
  • conversation and problem solving?
  • design – When are utility locations added to the plans? Is information from SUE incorporated into the design process?
  • construction – What innovation is permitted in the field?
  • maintenance – How are ideas from maintenance staff incorporated into future designs?

To take advantage of operational changes:

  • Is there a set of typicals that details “non-traditional” design choices?
  • Are designers rewarded for avoiding a relocation?
  • Do designers keep a “catalog” of design alternatives?
  • Do all members of the agency understand the value of coordination among the stakeholders, and look for opportunities to prevent problems?

This manual provides ideas in each of these areas. We hope that it is an additional resource for highway agencies and utilities, supporting their mutual commitment to the continuous improvement of services to the traveling public.

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Updated: 06/27/2017
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000