A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 7

Day 7

Night Meeting for the Downtown Master Plan

Geneva Downtown on State Route

I'm late getting this post up because I attended a meeting of our Downtown Master Plan Committee. We are in the process of having a plan prepared for our downtown area which is a big deal for us because we have such an awesome downtown and want to make sure it stays that way. My main input to the plan is more on issues related to engineering such as traffic and infrastructure. Tonight we discussed the 33 areas that were targeted for potential redevelopment within the study area. But at the end we also talked about one of the main routes through our downtown. It's a four-lane state route with approximately 20,000+ ADT and diagonal parking on both sides. We have sidewalks on both sides that are about 10 feet wide abutting buildings constructed to the street line. The point of discussion was that our planners have gotten feedback that people feel uncomfortable walking along this road. However our records show minimal accidents in this area, (see photo on left) particularly related to the parking or pedestrians. But the planners felt they had to address these concerns and suggested some alternatives to the section. One of the designs had some of us concerned about the possible result of losing major amounts of parking for the sole purpose of picking up a few more feet of sidewalk with no proof of an increase in safety. 

Based on my experience with walking these routes regularly at night, people can't feel too uncomfortable because this busy route is always filled with people walking or congregating on the sidewalk. And that's one of the things we really like about the area. There's always so many people walking everywhere downtown – even on this busy route. As someone who has not lived here long, I think the reason people say they don't like the busy route as much is because the other main route through our downtown is a unique and charming roadway with five-foot sidewalks, a grass parkway, and buildings set back about 25 feet or more (see example of this part of our downtown below). It's hard for any other downtown road to compete with that one. And adding a few more feet to a traditional downtown sidewalk is not going to transform it into this other type of street environment. But the planners are convinced it will make all the difference in the world. While for us engineers we cannot justify negatively impacting the traffic to increase the perception of a nicer looking road.

Stream and pond in downtown Geneva, IL

And in a way, taking that stand is a little ironic for me because if you read my blog regularly, you know I am somewhat anti-car. Not that I hate them or anything; I just feel they are in their decline as a mode of transportation. The more I read and the more I consider the future of transportation, I am convinced we are on the brink of beginning the transition to a new system – one made up of something along the lines of PRTs co-existing with rail, bicycles, and pedestrians.  And I start to wonder each time I design and build something for cars, just how long a life it really has. So part of me wants to plan for something beyond a reliance on cars as the primary mode of transportation. But as much as I am ready to ditch my car for a pod tomorrow, the engineer in me understands that's not the reality of today. So for now I accept the fact that people still love cars and want to use them and my job is to provide the infrastructure for that in the best, safest, and most economical manner. Of course the engineers are only one voice in the entire process – many more have to weigh in before the draft plan is prepared. 


The rest of the day

Today was really busy; well most days are busy, but for some reason today seemed even more so. I started out again trying to keep up with emails but had to pull away to work on finalizing the property owner information for the parking lot we are constructing. I wanted to send the map and legal documents over to our city attorney at the end of the day, but will have to wait because I decided to have the interns check over our work one more time to make sure it is correct. Too often, I notice people get so busy and need to push work out the door that mistakes are made. I hate when I do that. So I've been trying to make a concentrated effort to have everything in our office checked by someone if possible. This is how it used to be when I first started working in engineering, and I think over the years this quality assurance check has been neglected more and more in our industry.

Road Project

In the morning, I ran out with the project engineer for our road project. He wanted to show me the condition of the concrete pavement that had been under the asphalt we ground off. One road was unusual in that it seemed to have no cracks. Most older concrete pavements I've seen have cracks so it was interesting to see one that did not. The other road we looked at was cracked in a typical fashion. Over the years, the city had been using an area reflective crack control before placing the asphalt. But last year the contractors told us in the future we will pay more for grinding if there is crack control material under the asphalt. So this year we did not use it. The engineer discussed using a crackfililng material. I was hesitant to do so because another engineer had shared a negative story with me about paving over asphalt that had been crackfilled. So I called him to again hear the story of his experience. He said the hot asphalt will cause the crackfilling material to bubble up through the new asphalt and damage the new pavement. Instead of using crackfilling material, it's best to use a type of sand mixture if you must seal the cracks. We discussed the matter a little more in our office and decided not to fill the cracks.

Annexation Inquiry

A person who lives nearby but not in our city called to see if it was possible to hook up to our water and sewer. This is a common call most engineering departments get every now and then. In our city, we require a property owner to annex into our city if they want to hook up to our utilities. So I explained this and how they could run utilities to their home. They said they would look into it more and call back if they decided to go forward. Fortunately in this case, I had already looked at how to serve this area. But if you get these calls and have not done this, it can be time-consuming because you have to look at all the maps and sometimes the elevations of the area to figure out how someone can get to utilities and how much it will cost.

GIS problem

One of our GIS users had a problem with their map that unfortunately I was not yet able to figure out. We have a line feature class that in my map shows up as a line. However, in their map, it is showing up as a polygon. I could not find this problem talked about anywhere online so will have to keep looking into it tomorrow.

Miscellaneous Tasks

  • The frames I had picked out last week for those inlets on our road project were delivered today.
  • We met today with members of other departments to discuss the project I talked about above where we are designing a new parking lot in our downtown.
  • And finally I had arranged for several engineers in our office to listen to the webinar on PROWAG that was hosted by AccessibilityOnline. It was very good and informative.



CCDD Update – Get the Scoop on CCDD & Let IEPA Know What You Think

If you’re involved in construction in Illinois, you are probably well aware of new CCDD law passed last year and made effective immediately by our state legislators and governor. Many of us have been struggling to understand this new law because it was created with little guidance but severe penalties for noncompliance. Fortunately the Chicago Chapter of APWA is helping to spread the news about CCDD by hosting a traveling seminar throughout the region. So, if you live or work in the Chicago Metro region, here are two possible seminars you can attend – just click on the title to go to the registration page (I know I’ll be at the one on the 27th!). You don’t have to be an APWA member to attend:

Continue reading “CCDD Update – Get the Scoop on CCDD & Let IEPA Know What You Think”


Think We Don’t Need to Teach Local Government in School? Read This!

A few days ago, I noticed a Tweet indicating someone was extremely angry about a video on YouTube. Normally I would not click on something like this, but for some reason I followed the link and found myself watching a man who was very upset that the “government” was pulling out a basketball pole in the street on which he lived. What was even more interesting were the comments that followed. They along with the video serve as a perfect example of what happens when we fail to teach information about local government in high school. If more people understood government and their own responsibilities the response to this would have been very much different. We would not have allowed ourselves to be manipulated by journalists angling for a story for more readers.

Let’s get into the analysis of just what is going on here:

The Uploader
First the video, which is 4:05 minutes in length, seems to have been posted by what appears to be a professional news agency, http://www.delawareonline.tv/. The editor and camera person is Daniel Sato. The company’s website identifies DelawareOnline as “Part of The News Journal Media Group.” Looking further into this, the News Journal online paper identifies itself as owned by Gannett. Based on all that, you would think professional journalists would have definitely researched a story like this to make sure they accurately conveyed the news. And even Gannett’s website claims “everything from our trusted brands. . .” Unfortunately, after looking into the whole situation more deeply, it appears to just be another example of journalists becoming sensationalists – doing whatever it takes to get readers instead of seriously reporting news. And focusing on their favorite target – the government.


The Opening Act

So onto the video: it begins with John McCafferty explaining how DelDOT was removing basketball poles from his neighborhood. He claims the pole near his home was there for 60 years. The video also shows his wife perched on top of the basketball pole – he claims she climbed up there because the trucks had come to take the pole. While he is explaining, the trucks return. This is the first apparent break in the video, and it occurs at about 1:23 minutes in.

DelDOT Arrives

A representative from a government agency arrives. She explains how they had notified him by certified letter that he needed to remove the pole. His answer was that he had responded to the letter, as did his state representative – however, based on the pole still located along the road, it’s obvious he did not comply with the terms of the letter. There is another break about 1:51 minutes in. The woman asks him to move the car he has parked in front of the pole. He does not immediately comply and indicates his wife will go back up the pole. The woman makes it clear Mr. McCafferty and his wife could be arrested if they exhibit disorderly behavior. There is another break in the video at about 2:13. They then have a discussion about allowing him to keep the pole. However there is another break in the video at 2:33.

The Crew Moves In

At this point the DelDOT crew moves in to remove the pole which is located about one foot behind the back of the curb. Meanwhile Mr. McCafferty yells to the crew throughout the process. It’s difficult to determine if there are breaks in the video during this operation. It becomes apparent that the crew is taking the pole and not leaving it with Mr. McCafferty. He becomes very agitated at this point because he indicates he has been lied to and told he can keep it. Now they are telling him he has to come to their place to pick it up. He is told to go into his home at that point. There could be another break around 3:14 when the camera shows his wife come out of their home. Mr. and Mrs. McCafferty yell at the crew from the front of their home. Mr. McCafferty indicates the first amendment gives him the right to say what he wants. There could be more breaks as the camera follows the crew’s trucks as they leave the area.

Violence and Misunderstanding

The response in comments and on the web are amazing. The majority believe the state has broken the law, taken something that was legally McCafferty’s and located on his private property. They feel he had rights to have the pole there. Some indicate he should sue the state and has every right to do so.  Of course there is the typical blaming of liberals and conservatives for it all. What is worse are the numerous statements trashing the state representatives and many advise violence be taken as a solution against the government and their representatives.

Some Background Facts

Because I work in government and have had to deal with things like this, I realize no one really knows exactly what is going on unless they actual research all factors in this situation. And because the camera person edited what he wanted us to see, I cannot know what happened that he did not share with us. Anyway, while I cannot know every detail, I did some research – obviously more than the many people who are emotionally reacting to this and found out some information. Information the “professional journalists” failed to either find or share:

The Pole is Not on His Property

109 Hilldale Ct in New Castle County, Delaware

I did a search for John McCafferty and found only one living in that community on a cul-de-sac. Here is a screenshot of the property highlighted in red. If this is the correct property, it appears the basketball pole, which was installed one foot off the curb in public dedicated right of way, is not on his property. It almost looks like it is in front of his neighbor’s property, but this is difficult to tell for sure. So here is the first misconception most people don’t understand – you do not usually own the sidewalk or the land between the sidewalk and the road. And it appears in this case, if this is in fact the correct location, Mr. McCafferty does not. Based on the comments on YouTube, most others didn’t realize this could be a possibility.

We are Not Allowed to Place Permanent Objects in the Right of Way

Normally we have no rights to place permanent objects in the public right of way unless allowed to do so by the laws of our communities. In this particular case, DelDOT appears to have jurisdiction and ownership of the area in which the pole was located. And they recently passed a law regulating what can be placed in this area, normally called the clear zone. They even had brochures and other public relations material printed up to let people know about this law.

Safety is a Factor

The clear zone is important in road design to ensure safety. Should an accident occur, negligence on the state’s part to regulate their laws over this area could result in the state becoming liable. Some commenting tried to bring up the safety element, but most laughed it off. It makes me think of the old saying, “it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.” Most people focused on only someone getting hurt playing basketball, but I’ve seen instances where people lose control of cars on quiet back roads like this, go off the road, hit some object like this, and are killed. Local government is sued on a regular basis due to people who experience accidents – even if caused by no fault of the government. So people who work for government have an obligation to protect the public interest by following the law and not being negligent. And a child could be hit here – do we really as a community want to encourage our children to play in the street? The video even shows that the family is also comfortable with climbing up on the pole – definitely not a safe action or good behavior for children to witness.

The other part of this that a lot of people don’t realize is that the right of way is often where utilities are placed. I can’t say in this case there is phone, cable, gas, or sewer under the grass in that area, but there’s a good chance there could be. And in places other than this particular one, there could also be water mains. This is another reason the public right of way is usually kept clear of permanent objects. Not only can they be damaged by installation of poles, but it becomes a hazard if crews need to move in to repair damaged utilities.

John’s Lived There for Five Years

The other item of note about John’s property, if this is the correct location, is that the home in which he lives was built in 1959. Perhaps the hoop was put up before homes were built there, but it isn’t quite the 60 years he threw out there. I’ve had some responsibility for metal poles over the years in our parks and can say that pole is in great shape for a 60 year old pole. Anyway, John bought the home on 9/30/2005 so has only lived there a little over five years. But perhaps he grew up in that area and therefore knows the history of the pole.

We Can’t Do Whatever We Want

Another facet of all this is the perception that because we live in the “United States of America” we can do whatever we want. The truth is while we have some rights, we give up those rights when we don’t abide by the laws set by our elected officials. When we move into a community we must follow the rules of that community. We don’t get a choice of what laws to follow, and we cannot interpret those laws to suit our own purpose. However, if we don’t like it, we are free to move along and look for another community that might have laws we like better.

Two Solutions:

Although there’s probably a lot more to dig into here, I am finishing up by first addressing the attitude expressed by many in the comments that the answer to this is to rape, maim, or kill government personnel. That somehow the crew that showed up was personally responsible for making that law. But instead laws are approved by our elected officials who introduce and vote on them at the request of us! So someone asked for the law that says they cannot have basketball poles in the public right of way. If for some reason the majority of the public now decides they are perfectly happy having these poles in the right of way, encouraging their children to play in the road, and paying any and all legal fees for any subsequent lawsuits brought about due to their placement in this area, well then all they need to do is petition their elected officials to change the law. And some who commented did suggest contacting elected officials.

The other solution which seems so very much easier to me and doesn’t involve the entire state working themselves into a frenzy, taking up legislators’ time over basketball hoops, and removes any and all liability from taxpayers is to just have John and his wife install a basketball hoop on their own property. What is so amazing to me is that this very obvious, simple, and practical solution is not even thought of by the majority of people. Is it right that our first reaction as a country is to spend all this time and energy getting upset, contacting legislators, writing papers, threatening government workers, pounding chests about perceived rights, etc instead of just saying “Hey, John, maybe you can just put it on your own property?” And if that many people feel that strongly about it, maybe they can send him a donation so he can buy a new one and hire someone to install it on his own property.



U.S. Army Corps Revamps Permit Application Process

Those of you who navigate the U.S. Army Corp of Engineer's (USACE) permit application process might want to check out their new, online site designed to guide applicants through each step of filing a permit application. Visitors to the Website, located at http://www.usace.army.mil/CECW/Documents/avatar2/index.html, are greeted by an avatar who explains the site and offers advice for moving through each step. He encourages users to first watch a video that goes into more detail about how to apply for a permit using this interactive, online method.

USACE Permit Application SiteThe narrator in the video covers each section of the application and shows examples of how to fill out each piece of information. A transcript of the narrative can also be downloaded for further reference. After viewing the video, users can move on to filling out the permit application. A progress bar is provided to show how much is left to be done. The applicant can print out the application after all steps have been completed. 

Although I thought the new, online permit process was a great improvement, one other aspect of the site that impressed me were the sections titled "Why we are involved" and "FAQs." These sections give a  explanations of how the USACE is involved in this process, why the process exists, and other information an applicant is probably wondering about. I think this is very important because those of us who work for government sometimes get so used to all the rules and regulations that we end up taking this knowledge for granted. And then we forget that non-government employees are not going to just know the rules, the process, and the terms. So it is encouraging to see a government agency placing information on a site like this that explains why someone is going through the process.


Illinois’ CCDD Law Update

Most people working in the construction industry in Illinois are now aware of the new Clean Construction and Demolition Debris (CCDD) law that has rocked our world. With no notice and still no mention of it in the Illinois EPA news feed, this law has shut down jobs in a time when they are most needed and flooded EPA information sessions with angry, upset contractors, engineers, and others working in the industry. Since my last post on this subject, Illinois – Land of Nonengagement, I have learned more from those lucky enough to have attended these sessions. Here is a list of comments and observations they have shared:

First, not everyone is allowed in the sessions. As I pointed out before, the IEPA started out with only a handful of sessions to help explain this law to everyone. Even though I signed up, I was sent an email telling me there was no room. More sessions were scheduled, and I again sent in my request to attend. However, I never even received back any confirmation or invite or an email telling me they had no room. So professional engineers are tasked by the law with having to sign off that CCDD is clean, but we have no way of finding out what this means.

  • People attending said there was really no guidance offered at these sessions anyway. No handouts, 10 minutes of upfront introduction and basic information about the law, then 50 minutes of angry, upset people yelling, complaining, and arguing with the IEPA representatives about the complete lunacy of this law.
  • They said about four IEPA representatives ran the meeting with two trying to talk to everyone and two on laptops typing furiously as people expressed their frustration. Some felt that the group probably studied questions and statements from earlier groups to help answer the same questions that came up at later sessions.
  • Contractors at the meeting worried that they will bear the ultimate responsibility as they already have on jobs currently under way when this law hit. No owner of a project is going to sign off on these certifications; instead the contractor will have to provide a professional engineer's signature on each load hauled off a jobsite. He will also face the consequences of any dirt being rejected at the dump which means he will then lose that driver for a significant part of the day as he takes the load to a landfill. The bottom line to all this is much higher costs for all projects which will be paid by taxpayers for public projects.
  • Right now, the way the law is written, dirt hauled from home construction would be covered by this. So the cost to build homes goes up since the dirt on the site must either be tested to ensure it is clean, or the contractor will just tack on an amount to deal with any surprises. So all home construction just went up.
  • Many expressed the thought that all this will lead to "fly dumping" or the practice of sneaking out into the night at secluded areas to get rid of loads. Then the government, or taxpayers, pay to send out someone to dispose of this dirt in a landfill.
  • Others said many will just not bother with trying to get the certification – they will just take all dirt to a landfill. This just means we will need more landfills to hold dirt for no good reason. So we need more landfills to open up. And because it costs significantly more to landfill dirt, costs of all projects will go up.
  • IEPA reps could not tell anyone what the parameters were for ensuring dirt is clean or what defined contamination. They said it is up to the professional engineer to make that decision. Wow – that sure puts a lot of burden on our profession. And because we are so conservative, the tests we would take would greatly increase the cost of the project. Because who wants to put their license on the line for a load of dirt? Again this means higher costs for each project to pay for all that testing. And this does not allow for any uniformity which seems to increase the chance for litigation.
  • The IEPA reps also indicated that they felt the law governed moving dirt on a project. Someone asked if they removed dirt at station 1+00 could it be put back in the ground 100 feet away at 2+00 – they said no. That dirt would have to be hauled off the jobsite. What? That means all those years of learning the guiding principle of earthwork – mass balance – goes out the window! Based on what they said, we can no longer balance cuts and fills.
  • The other concern expressed is that at the dump, there will be someone with a device used to determine contamination. But this device only picks up volatile contaminants. If there are other wastes in the dirt such as heavy metals, no one can tell this without extensive testing. So if an engineer signs off on it, not knowing about the metals or other non-volatile contaminants, it is accepted at the dump, and then years later they test this area of the dump and decide it's a problem, is that engineer liable? No one at the session could answer this.
  • Some I have talked to said they were told by the IEPA to just sign it based on what they knew to the best of their knowledge about the excavation and tried to assure them it wasn't a big deal. But we rely on our professional engineer's license as the foundation of our career. Few of us want to jeopardize our whole career for one load of dirt. We are not trained to be so flippant and uncertain about what we sign off on.
  • The problem cities have is that we often need to dispose of dirt from water main breaks or small projects. Because this dirt from many sites can sometimes be stockpiled at a public works site, one person asked what address should be noted on the document to indicate the location from which the dirt was excavated. They said to use the address of the public works facility. But then if one of those piles was found to be contaminated, the whole pile would be contaminated and the public works site would be flagged as contaminated. The original site from where the dirt was dug would go uncited. But no further guidance was offered on how to handle this.
  • The other problem indicated is that a certified load could easily be switched out for a "hot" load. How is the engineer going to be assured that the load for which he signed is the actual load dumped with his certification? So if loads are switched out, the wrong person can end up paying to dispose of the problem material. Again, no help in how to address this concern.

There are many more problems like this – the list could go on and on. And it would be interesting to see the transcription from those sessions. Everyone seemed to agree that the IEPA was "the horse they tied this cart to." They didn't seem prepared for the onslaught of questions and complaints. And although they tried to reassure everyone the law had input from all agencies such as IDOT, the IDOT representatives at these sessions said the law was news to them, and no one from IDOT was going to sign off on these certifications. Based on what I heard, I wonder if anyone from the IEPA had any input into it. Instead attendees came away with the impression it was a law passed swiftly by our legislators and pushed by the governor to make some special interest group happy.

As engineers, we are concerned about the environment and understand the need to take steps to protect it, but we also don't believe in making decisions without considering all aspects of that step. In this case, it appears no thought was given to how this would be implemented, how it would impact the industry, what level of protection is really needed, what impact this will actually have on the environment, and how much it will cost taxpayers. All projects – public and private – will experience a significant increase in cost to accommodate this law, particularly because of its uncertainty.

Here are the legislators who sponsored this law:

Senate Sponsors Sen. Don Harmon – John J. Millner – Dan Cronin and Martin A. Sandoval

House Sponsors Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie – Jim Sacia – Patrick J. Verschoore – Thomas Holbrook – Mike Fortner, Angelo Saviano, Brandon W. Phelps, Marlow H. Colvin, Edward J. Acevedo and Luis Arroyo)

Below is a listing of all the legislators who voted on this law – at least for me, I can say my representatives were the few reasonable ones who voted NO. 

Illinois Senate vote on Public Act 96-1416, CCDD


Illinois House vote on Public Act 96-1416, CCDD


Public Hearings Held City Camp Style

This year, I have been involved with two initiatives in our county. One is Kane County's Transit Plan which is just ending and the other is our Downtown Master Plan which is just beginning. Each planning process is professionally managed and both have or will go through all the traditional steps of gathering public input. This usually consists of forming committees of stakeholders and having committee meetings and public hearings. Then all comments and input from these meetings are assembled and worked into the plan. But we all know that as much time and effort as everyone puts into drawing out ideas, it is difficult to get a large majority of folks really talking at these events.

Citycamp Chicago 2010

In the same time period, I have attended several "barcamps" or unconferences related to government and social media. These events are incredible because they offer the opportunity to learn and share ideas in a comfortable and informal setting. The environment is also conducive to developing networks and connections to others who care about the topics discussed. And the energy at barcamps is usually so intense that everyone, even that normally reserved person, ends up contributing.

One awesome camp I attended in January in Chicago was CityCamp. This event drew over 100 people who spent two days talking about ideas for increasing government performance. And the event format seems to be taking off – over the last few days I have been watching a discussion on the e-democracy site about several efforts to host CityCamps throughout the world. But organizers are also expressing an interest in having something solid come out of each camp. This got me thinking – wouldn't it be awesome to use the CityCamp model as a planning tool. If each planning initiative, like the transit plan or downtown plan, could include a "CityCamp," along with the more traditional methods, we could generate a lot more ideas and discussion. And in the end, everything would get incorporated into the formal plan. 

If I worked in a government position responsible for launching community plans, I would definitely try this out because I see a huge potential for success. Instead I can only encourage others responsible for community planning to take the initiative to try out this technique. And I would definitely be willing to help! (Contacting Kevin Curry, one of the CityCamp organizers, for advice is also a great idea – he's an awesome resource!)