A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 65

Day 65

I really wanted to title this blog post:

Today I Discovered Why We Have no Transportation Funds!

The other day, I wrote about the BRT and Randall Road –  the major corridor that runs through many of the communities in our area. In that post, I also mentioned the Route 529 study – this was a study about the bus route running along the Randall Road corridor. One of the conclusions from the study was that there needed to be better infrastructure along the corridor for the people riding the bus. And if you drive the corridor, you'll see this is definitely the case. The bus stops are only marked by a lonely sign sitting at the edge of a roadway where about 20,000 cars a day speed by at 45 miles per hour. So a rider must get off in that environment, find their way across a ditch and then through landscaping to a shopping center. So a project was proposed to construct bus shelters, pads, and connecting sidewalks. 


PACE, the local entity providing bus transit in the Chicago Metro area, arranged to bid out a project to construct the suggested infrastructure. Now, I don't know all the details of this project, but according to the PACE website the project is listed as Bid #406453 and shows a cost of almost $1.4 million that was awarded to Landmark Contractors, Inc. In our area, along Randall, PACE was proposing to build the shelters, pads, and sidewalks not only on the side of the road the shelter is on, but to also build the connecting ramps and sidewalks at the other corners in the intersection nearest the shelter. We had all reviewed the plans over the last few months to make sure we had no issues with what was going to be constructed in each of our communities. So today, we were invited to a preconstruction meeting for the project. The contractor, Landmark Contractors was at the meeting along with a person from PACE, the project designer, county staff, and city engineers from a few of the cities along the corridor.

Now I've been to a lot of preconstruction meetings over the years, and this one most definitely did not end up to be your typical precon. However, it started out fairly typical – there was a discussion of how the concrete would be protected from the effects of the salt once winter weather set in. This was a valid concern because over the last few years, beginning about Dec 1st, we've had temperatures drop to well below freezing and had significant snow and ice. And that is only a few weeks away. I won't bore you with the discussion, but the bottom line was that there really is no way to adequately protect the concrete this late in the game. So the discussion moved onto "shouldn't we wait until Spring to start?"

And this is where it started to get strange. Because a few of the people had just shown up at this point (we had started early), the group moved on to tell us that they were cutting back the plans to only do what was required of them to meet the ADA. This meant they would only build the infrastructure on the same side of the road as the shelter leaving no route across or on the other side of the intersection. It was explained they had to do this because the bid prices came in so many hundreds of thousands of dollars more than what they expected that they could not afford to build what was on the plans. Now this is where I started thinking something was wrong – it was basically a sidewalk project  – how in the world could the bid come in that much higher? Particularly at a time when we are seeing the lowest prices ever on construction work? The other engineers in the room must have been thinking the same way based on their questions. I finally suggested that if the costs per square foot were so much higher, why didn't they just let each city build it for them as part of the MFT projects, and they could pay us the grant money. When I had said this, I really wasn't sure of the bid price they had received, so another person at the table pushed the list of bid prices over to me. I wanted to stand up and yell, OMG!!! Wow, they were paying $8.26 per square foot for PCC Sidewalk! Now, I don't know what the rest of you across the world pay, but we normally pay anywhere from $4.50 to $5.50. And I've even seen it lower if we are doing a lot of it. And in this case, PACE was proposing building 39,000 square feet! For that amount, in this economic climate, they definitely should have gotten a better price.

And the other unit prices were no better! It looked like $175 per cubic yard for earth excavation and about $47+ per foot for curb and gutter. Again, the engineers in the room, including myself, could not help but call attention to the prices. The contractor said they were so high because he had to deal with the cold weather including the use of blankets and overtime costs. Someone else pointed out that he was the low bidder and that PACE had followed all the proper bidding procedures – I guess that was supposed to mean that the prices had to be ok. The contractor did suggest that if the work was held off until Spring the prices would be a lot lower. But what was also strange was that he said he could lower the unit prices as part of the contract. I figured if he lowered them to what is normally bid, he would be cutting them in half. But normally when you award a contract with unit prices, you can't just change them. There's a process, and the adjustment is usually only about 10%. So we couldn't figure out how they could legally do this without re-bidding the project. Which was something we suggested – wait until Spring and take the time to re-bid.

There was some discussion that PACE was worried about waiting because the Federal grant money for this project could be pulled at any time so I guess PACE has to quickly spend it to avoid losing it. The PACE person made it sound like the Federal government arbitrarily swoops in and takes the money even if they are already under contract for a project and obligated for the funds. Finally someone suggested that after the plans were stripped to only what was required, the remaining work removed from the contract could be completed by others, and for a much lower cost than the bid. But the problem here was there was a chance the cities would be asked to pay for a portion of this. I did mention that I would have a hard time advocating for our city to help pay for any of the improvements that were removed if the reason they were removed was because the bids PACE accepted were significantly higher than costs normally bid.

By the end of the meeting, I was thinking that I can't imagine a city awarding a bid like this. If bids come in significantly high it's usually a problem with material or contractor availability or a problem with the plans. And in this case, it did not appear to be any of these. So the only conclusion I could come to was that PACE must have had no problem awarding a bid that included prices that were about twice the cost of bids other agencies would receive for the same type of work. It was all so very strange and did not make sense that I figured I was either totally naive and did not understand how transit agencies and funding sources from agencies like the FTA really work, or I was totally missing something, or as I said above: I discovered why we have no transportation funds! But no matter what, I figured if they do reauthorize transportation funds, they really need to write into the law a way to prevent agencies from awarding bids in situations like this when the bids are significantly higher than the estimated cost and obviously not reflective of the market conditions.

After all that, anything else that happened throughout the day faded into the background. 

A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 62

Day 62

Bus Rapid Transit

Today a few of our staff attended a meeting at Sherman Hospital in Elgin. The county arranged for the meeting to discuss bus rapid transit (BRT) along the Randall road corridor. It was a well attended discussion that lasted for most of the morning. A representative began the presentations by highlighting information about the new hospital. They have a 15-acre geothermal lake for heating/cooling that has saved them $1 million in operating costs annually. (You can read more cool facts about the lake here http://www.shermanhealth.com/geothermal_lake.php)

Next Kane county board chairman Karen McConnaughay summarized the county's work and vision for Randall road. Then Josh Ellis from the Metropolitan Planning Council  shared with us his organization's work with studying bus rapid transit in Chicago. Earlier this year they released the report:  Bus Rapid Transit: Chicago's New Route to Opportunity . His explanation of how they identified potential corridors was interesting and made sense. 

Next up was the consultant who has been studying the implementation of bus rapid transit along Randall road – a long transportation corridor that links many of the larger communities in Kane County. It's interesting to me as someone who just moved back into the area a few years ago to listen to these studies and recommendations, remember what the corridor used to look like 30 years ago, then hear the background story of how Randall road developed. Many, many years ago when I lived and worked for the city of Aurora, I used to occasionally drive along Randall road to visit parks and the fairground. So I remember the rural character of the road that existed before development broke loose out here. Having left the area about 1985, I never saw how the road expanded to a four-lane urban section with major big-box stores replicated along it from Aurora to Elgin. But I've been told there was great effort put into making sure the corridor was streamlined for the movement of cars to the point of designing out pedestrian access. These past efforts seemed to have worked – the road moves a tremendous number of cars on a daily basis. However, it most definitely is not conducive to moving peds/bikes. And unfortunately, all those stores and amenities are huge attractions for the large population living on the other side – particularly teens who can't drive (I know from personal experience with my own children). Over the last few years, attempts have been made to bring the pedestrian back into the mix by adding sidewalks and a bus route with stops. But the pedestrian infrastructure has a long way to go, and that doesn't help with navigating the long distances between shopping centers. So, to summarize, the current trend is to "undo" the "success" of initial, car-centric development efforts in the corridor.

After hearing from the county's consultant, we broke into groups to further discuss the feasibility of implementing BRT in the corridor. Everyone seemed to conclude that yes, it could work, but… I think the "but" shows the success of BRT will be dependent on the market, the understanding and acceptance by the city governments and the public, the funding, and the specific characteristics of each area along the corridor. One key change that will have to occur is for the corridor to change from a sprawling retail center to an area of high density, mixed-use developments. This is because BRTs are dependent on the presence of a large population in need of transit. So the question is, do people want this part of their community to transition to a densely populated area with a mix of other uses in order to improve movement of pedestrians along the corridor? It's hard to say.

Finally, the morning ended with planners from PACE demonstrating the current challenges of navigating the current bus system along Randall road. The problems include a lack of shelters, sidewalks, and navigation aids. Fortunately there are plans to install shelters and sidewalks next year so this will greatly improve the experience.

Overall, readers of my blog can probably figure out what was on my mind the whole time – PRTs! or personal rapid transit. With the cost of BRTs at $2.5 to $24 million per mile, it definitely should be cost effective to instead implement a PRT system, and it would be less intrusive to the corridor. There are other benefits over a BRT such as not having to wait for a bus or learn a schedule and not having to tolerate a packed bus with no where to sit or place bags, and I am not so sure a PRT would require the change to high density. But of course, this is what is so frustrating about being in the US – most people here want to hang onto old technology while other countries are already implementing newer and better solutions that we refuse to even acknowledge. What makes it even more frustrating in this situation is that we were not talking about putting in a BRT system today – this is our county's vision for 2040! By that time, every other country in the world will have a PRT system, and we'll just be cutting the ribbon on a new BRT system. Oh well, I embedded a video showing the new PRT system at Heathrow. Maybe by 2040, I'll be retired and can move to a place like England!


Downtown Plan

After lunch we had another meeting to finish reviewing our downtown plan. There are a lot of changes we've made to the draft so the consultant will have a lot of work to revise it. Of course, the focus of our department is more on the transportation sections, but it's still interesting to listen and learn about the zoning and economic development side of it all.

APWA Meeting

At the end of the day I met with a few members of our local chapter of APWA. We have all volunteered to help out at a workshop that APWA will host on November 10th to teach team building and problem solving skills. It was a good and fun discussion, and everyone came up with great ideas to integrate into the day. If you are in the Chicago area and are interested in attending, the link to the information is here: Team Building and Problem Solving Skills

One side discussion that came up at our meeting was the lack of engineers in the US compared to other countries. Although we didn’t get into a lot of theories of why this is, I have to wonder if it does have something to do with what I mentioned in the BRT paragraphs above – the US is behind other countries in investigating and implementing new technology. I realize this is not in every industry, and from what I can tell, our military is impressively cutting edge. But these pockets of innovation don’t get transferred to the lives of the general public.

One suggestion I had made at the BRT meeting was to take the discussion into the schools – after all if they are talking about something for the year 2040, it’s the people in school now who may well be weighing in on the fate of Randall road. Better to have them aware of it and thinking about it now. And maybe it might get some interested in pursuing a career in transportation. But few seem interested in doing this or in seeing the benefits of involving schools in what we do. So we end up with kids in school who see adults implementing the same old solutions, avoiding innovation, and leaving them out of the discussion. Why in the world would they be interested in engineering! However, I realize there’s also the chance that places like China have more engineers because they are making kids study engineering. My co-worker is from there, and she said she had no choice what to study or where to work – that was all decided for her by the government.

On a lighter note, I did discover one of the other volunteers also plays World of Warcraft which also started a whole other side conversation!


2011 APWA Conference – Day 2

Below is a report of the 2nd Day of the National APWA Conference:


General Session: Becoming a Community Builder – Leadership in Changing Times

Denver Colorado Sept 2011

Day two of the 2011 APWA conference started with a general session, Becoming a Community Builder – Leadership in Changing Times, with keynote speaker, Ian Hill. He began by sharing his background and how he came to be involved in helping the public works profession develop leadership. Hill admitted he used to be a typical person who thought culverts, roads, and stuff like that just happen. But since getting involved in our profession he has managed to interview and spend time with thousands of people in public works. And after hearing his talk, I believe he has managed to find the pulse and heart of our community. When he described how we work so hard with such commitment, belief in our mission and communities, and dedication to our jobs, then one day get smacked down "into the cement" at a public meeting or stabbed in the back by others in our workplace, I thought "how can he know exactly what happened to me!?" But I quickly realized everyone else in the room was relating to this too. Yet, the inspiring part of our profession is that we all managed to get back up, and here we are again focused on figuring out how to improve ourselves and what we do so we can go back home and continue to make our communities even better.

This is one of the reasons I believe it is so important to maintain a membership in an organization like APWA and spend time with each other. Yes, the organization offers great information to use at our jobs and share with co-workers. But when you work in a profession that is constantly under scrutiny and bears so much criticism, most times completely unwarranted, you need to have opportunities to reach out to others who can relate and share your experiences. This networking also helps us figure out how to motivate others in our field who are also "battered and bruised" by the constant bashing of public employees. Because as Hill pointed out, that is one of the challenges of our jobs. How do you lead people who work hard everyday but continually hear from the press the message that they are bad, lazy, worthless public employees who don't deserve the salary or benefits they've earned? How do you walk in each day and ask them to give it their all? Hill said "we need to ask ourselves what is the leadership approach required for the environment today?"

Right of Way Permitting – City of Hamilton, Canada

The next session I attended was about right of way permitting. Although we don't issue a lot of right of way permits each year – probably under 100 – it would still be nice to have a system other than a spreadsheet to track them. So I went to the session to learn more about ROW permitting systems. The presentation was given by Gordon McGuire who works for the city of Hamilton, a city in Canada of approximately 500,000 people. McGuire discussed their system which is built on a combination of Oracle Go360, Bentley Map, and PRISM. In his community, the city handles all restoration and bills the utility. Some of the interesting points for me were that Canada has realized that utility installations cost tax payers money. This is because many times we have to change our plans or pay the contractor more money to deal with non-city utilities.


Bus Rapid Transit

Our county has been studying the implementation of a BRT route along one of the major corridors through our city. So, in the afternoon, I attended a talk about Bus Rapid Transit. The talk was given by Sharon Humphreys, senior project engineer with Bureau Veritas. She primarily talked about the BRT route that was created in San Diego. This project was financed through a ½ cent gas tax. The BRT is administered by the San Diego association of governments. However, MTS will eventually own, operate, and maintain the system.

The buses serving their BRT were designed for swift passenger loading with multiple streams. The vehicles are 35 feet in length and have enhanced wheelchair access. They run on a gasoline-hybrid propulsion system and are equipped with an AVL unit with GPS.

Signals along the route are set up to allow for queue jump lanes so the busses run in separate lanes. If the bus is running behind schedule, this allows for the bus to get an early green ahead of the other traffic. But the early green is not given if the bus is on time.

In their experience the BRT has been very successful. She suggested it was important to plan for BRT in areas of high congestion, large number of riders, and expensive parking facilities. But a key aspect of their system that probably ensures its success is that it runs through and serves the University of California with three of its 17 stops on campus property. So I imagine there was a high potential for student ridership that other communities might not have.


International Stormwater BMP Database

Stormwater always seems to be a hot topic in public works. So another session I attended was about the International BMP Database. The main presenter was Jane Clary from Wright Water Engineers. She explained the history of the database – it was initially funded by the USEPA via the Urban Water Resources Research Council of ASCE. But now, it is supported by a broad coalition led by WERF. The project’s central focus is to “gather technical design and performance information to improve BMP selection and design.”

The database is set up so that anyone analyzing performance of BMPs can submit data to the site. It currently has data representing a total of 470 BMPs. Clary went through a couple examples of how to search for a BMP and access the related data. Much of the information seemed to be presented in “box plots.” These graphs indicate the probability of success for that BMP. The data related to each BMP can be downloaded for later analysis.



BRT, PRT, and Human Behavior


I've blogged for some time about the benefits of a Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system because I believe there really are few other solutions that truly offer a comparable solution to the car. Unfortunately moving over to this type of system would take considerable time and funding so I'm not sure I'll see it in my life time. Some have been promoting Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) as the solution to grid lock. And there has been a lot of discussion and money thrown at it. I do think researching and implementing BRT where it makes sense is a good idea, but we have to keep in mind it will not be the right solution for every location or situation. Nor will it be the cure-all a lot of people are hoping for. And it's because of basic human behavior – at least in the U.S. People here don't want to share their ride with a lot of other strangers unless the benefits of doing so outweigh the negative perception.So unless our government creates a law that makes it illegal to own a personal vehicle, a lot of people will still choose to drive their own personal vehicle rather than choose mass transit – particularly a bus.

Perhaps this story in Scientific American, Can Suburbs Be Designed to Do Away with the Car?, is a good example of this. According to the post, a community was built to promote walking and transit. For some reason, it appears transit was not installed prior to settlement of the city. And when the government moved in to place the transit, people fought it. They'd rather drive their car.

So if we really want to find a viable solution to grid lock and a replacement for the car, we have to understand and accept basic human behavior whether we agree with it or not. And we need to ask, why is it that people would rather drive their own vehicle and suffer through traffic jams than take mass transit? I think the answer will be it's because the average person really doesn't want to spend that much time on a regular basis in a crowded environment with strangers. I saw an example of this on the Metra line that runs through our community – they now have "quiet cars" where people are not allowed to talk at all. This is their solution to offering an environment that makes it easier for people to ignore each other.

Buses have an interior environment that is similar to that of rail, so a BRT solution that ignores improvements to the environment within will not encourage an increase in ridership. Yes, BRTs offer a more efficient operation for the bus operator, but is this enough of a benefit if ridership remains the same? Because PRT systems have a greater potential to serve a wider range of riders and also provide a more efficient operation and produce less pollution, I believe they are the better system. And with the proper planning and infrastructure, there would be little difference between a car and a PRT other than allowing the vehicle to drive itself. Most importantly, a PRT system seems to come closest to meeting the needs and behavior of humans.