A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 66

Day 66

Culvert Lining Project

It looks like our issue with the culvert lining project has been resolved. We gave the structural drawings from our consultant to the contractor. Theh contractor ended up getting a couple prices from other concrete contractors which were lower than the original subcontractor's price. So it looks like we will end up getting the work we needed done at the price that was bid. It rained today so the contractor did not work, but he should be back out tomorrow to form the head walls.

Road Project

We've started on the plans for next year's road project. Today, I worked on adding a few more roads, My supervisor had said we could try increasing the amount we normally spend since we are not keeping up with the failure rate. Of course, all this will be subject to the approval of the council. We are just going to suggest this amount. We did get a little extra in MFT funds this year so that amount could be applied to this project.

The PACE sidewalk project

Today I tried to get a copy of the bid tab for the PACE project I discussed yesterday. The person I emailed said I had to submit a FOIA request to get it and that I had to ask how to do this by emailing their law department. Well, we have been through the FOIA drill here, and from we've been told, someone can ask for something on a dirty napkin, and that is an acceptable request to which you must respond. We can no longer require anyone to go through a formal process to get something. So because I did not hear back from the law department, I tried emailing their FOIA officer directly. He read the email but did not respond, so I'll have to see if they end up sending it or not. We did ask a local contractor who bids that type of work if they put in a bid, and they had not even been aware the project was out to bid.

Water Main Project

I met with the property owner of one of the parcels where we are asking for an easement for our water main. They said we could go ahead and submit the documents for their signature. I also worked a little more on the modeling but realized I needed the pump curve for our high service pumps at the water plant. So I arranged to have them sent over.

Tomorrow I am scheduled to be out of the office so won't be writing "A Day in the Life.." post for Friday.


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. 

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.