Public Works Puzzles

Lately I've been working on developing some educational coursework related to the public works field. Through this effort I've come across some interesting online tools that can be used for educational purposes. One of these tools, Jigzone, takes a photo and turns it into a jigsaw puzzle. As an example, I've started with one of my favorite photos of a roller compacting an asphalt pavement. If you like, you can try solving the puzzle by clicking the image below. And if you want to make your own puzzles, all you have to do is create a free account over on the Jigzone website. Because the site allows embedding of your puzzles on your own website, you can take photos of your community or your projects and embed them on your agency's website as a way to engage citizens.


Click to Mix and Solve


The Things Contractors Say

Water Main

Shortly after I started inspecting construction almost thirty years ago, I started realizing most contractors have the same response to similar situations. When I was younger and asked a contractor to do something, the typical response was something like, "Honey, I've been doing this for thirty years, and …." Then they would go on to tell me why I was wrong and they were right. Or they would try to reassure me that whatever they did would be ok, and they knew this because of their vast experience – obviously I could not know that because I had not worked as long as they had.

Of course, not all contractors try to convince you that they know better or you just aren't experienced enough to understand what should really be done. Some are very open about not wanting to do what you ask. In these instances there's the straighforward responses of, "you and I will be long gone when this fails" or "don't worry – it's getting buried – no one will see it."  At least with these they are honest about admitting something might not be right, but are hoping that you don't care enough to require them to do it right. I always liked the one, "you'll never see it from (insert next town over)." And one that always annoyed me was "we ain't building a watch."

Fortunately for me, I was usually confident what I was asking them to do most definitely needed to be done. So the subtle intimidation never really worked with me. My experiences working for cities had given me opportunities to see the failed results of poor construction. And you don't have to wait 30 years to see failures when you work in public works. So most of the time, I could describe exactly what would happen if they didn't do what was required. And I was also fortunate to work with some really excellent contractors who never used those responses and brought a lot of value to a project. 

But after all those years and having thought I'd heard every response in the book, the other day on my construction job I heard a new one. The foreman on my water main job had neglected to follow some of the specifications. And when I called his boss to try to straighten everything out, he obviously did not like me calling to complain and asking him to fix things. So his response to me was, "you better watch it because you're going to get yourself a reputation." I'm still not sure what he really meant . But whatever it was, I do know it was obviously a response he felt would scare me enough for me to change my request or not bother him anymore. But instead of intimidating me, it made me think, I really need to start writing down the things contractors say.



Plan Holder/Bidder List – To Share or Not to Share

Water Main Installation

We currently have a project out to bid for the installation of about a quarter mile of 10-inch water main. As usual, after we release the notification to bidders, we begin receiving requests from companies asking for a list of bidders or plan holders. Our city's policy is to not release this list until after the bid opening because of the potential of affecting bid prices. For example, a potential bidder could submit a different bid based on who the competition is and how many other companies have picked up plans.

With the relatively new FOIA laws in Illinois, we've had companies trying to claim the information as a FOIA request. However, we have been denying the request under the following exemption stated in this law:

(h) Proposals and bids for any contract, grant, or  agreement, including information which if it were disclosed would frustrate procurement or give an advantage to any person proposing to enter into a contractor agreement with the body, until an award or final selection is made. Information prepared by or for the body in preparation of a bid solicitation shall be exempt until an award or final selection is made.

We received a request the other day from a company outside of Illinois and sent them our standard denial letter based on this exemption. They ended up sending a letter to the State of Illinois arguing that we should release the information because they want to submit bids as a subcontractor and the information would encourage a more competitive bid. There are several issues with this.

  • First and most importantly, we believe we are exempt from releasing it, although the final decision will now rest with the State.
  • Next, if the State determines we must release the information, this would become a FOIA request for a commercial purpose which the company failed to mention and by failing to do so violated the law. However if the State determines we must release the information and if the company ends up properly requesting the information, we would have 21 days to respond since it is a request for a commercial purpose which means they would receive the information after the bid opening rendering it useless for their purpose.
  • Finally, the project involves no work that would require the type of services they appear to offer. It would be like bidding out a road resurfacing project and a supplier of excavators wanting to get a list of bidders to give them prices on new equipment. There's just no specific pay item for that work. So I am not even sure how giving a heavy equipment sales company a list of bidders for a specific project that has no specialty items helps lower our cost.

The end result is a waste of time for everyone. Where I worked before, I ended up not being able to even send out lists because we offered proposal materials online so we would not have known who downloaded them. And if we continue to have issues with this, we would probably end up choosing to do the same or just not keep a list. But I was wondering how other agencies are handling these requests, if others believe releasing the lists can affect the bids, and if other states require agencies to release the information prior to opening of the bid.


UPDATE: 7/27/2012

We're posting below a comment we recently received for this article. The reason we're tagging it onto the end of the article is that we've set up posts so the ability to comment is turned off after several weeks to prevent spammers from posting on old articles. So the commenter was unable to post it in the normal manner. Because we definitely wanted readers to see valuable comments in the context of the original post, we thought we'd just add it to the end.


Comment from Cassie Dandridge Selleck

I just wanted to respond to the blog post titled "To Share or Not to Share". I am a vendor, specifically for rentals of under bridge access equipment. While I completely understand how time-consuming it would be to field phone calls requesting bidders or plan holders lists, I wanted to just throw our perspective in there. First of all, I have never CALLED for a list. I agree with your blogger that this is asking someone else to do my job. I also get it that some vendors are not this considerate. But as for posting the list of bidders on your web page, I just can't see where this is a negative, despite the concern for price-fixing. Our rates are our rates. They don't change for anyone unless there are extenuating circumstances. Being able to get our rental rates to the estimators bidding the jobs is crucial to getting the best rate possible for all. Anyone who is going to cheat or inflate prices is going to figure out a way to do that, and it is just never a good business plan. We are a small company trying to make it in a big market. If we are going to keep our RATES low, we have to keep our COSTS low. Advertising is expensive, so we use plan holders lists to update our database and contact contractors directly to let them know we exist. If they need us, they contact us and we provide a quote. This is the cheapest, most effective way to do this and it has worked well. None of the issues posted by the blogger have ever been a part of our business strategy. We just want to get the word out to the companies bidding jobs that we are here to provide additional services they need.  When estimators are trying to get these bids in, they are scrambling to get all the information, too. It just makes sense that the public works departments would be trying to help get the best information and best quotes possible by posting who is bidding what jobs. Just a thought.


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 54 & 55

Day 54

I waited until today to post about yesterday (Tuesday) because I ended up not spending the whole day at work. I started the day preparing for a meeting with the city admininstrator and other directors in the city. Normally my supervisor, the director of public works, goes to these meetings. But since he was out, I was going to attend for public works. So, I had talked to the other superintendents to get updates on all the work and projects going on in their divisions. Fortunately I wrote it all down because about 8:30 I got a call that my 16-year old kid in high school had a fever, and they asked I come pick him up. Because I knew I would have to stay home with him (he has Down Syndrome so I didn't feel comfortable leaving him alone with a fever), I was able to give my notes to the street superintendent so he could attend in my place.

The rest of the day was spent home with my son. I did get the chance to watch a couple presentations online – one of which was given by a friend of mine, Paulette Robinson, who works for the National Defense University. The link to the event is Even though it is now over, I think they will have all the talks available for viewing sometime in the near future. If you are interested in social media or the use of 3D immersive technology, you might be interested in checking them out.


Day 55

Today at work was very busy! Of course being off yesterday didn't help. Throughout the day I met with a few of my staff to conduct performance evaluations. I also had a meeting with other staff members to review a draft of our Downtown Plan. This meeting lasted through lunch and into the afternoon. We had to finally "adjourn" the meeting until another day because we still have so much to discuss. After I left that meeting, I ran over to the field meeting we had set up for our culvert project. The project engineer was there with our technician and the contractor. It looks like they are probably going to start work next week.


I did get something in the mail today that was somewhat interesting to me so I figured I would share it on this blog. Every now and then a contractor sends us a letter introducing themselves and asking to be placed on a bidder's list. We don't really have a bidder's list so I just file the letter. In this case, I was a little surprised to get a letter from this particular contractor because they were around about 30 years ago when I used to work for the city of Aurora. So I figure they are fairly well known in the area. Anyway, they included a Certificate of Eligibility from IDOT to show they are prequalified to do any work we would be bidding out. What was amusing was that they have a "SUPER UNLIMITED" rating! Just what does that mean? How can you get any more unlimited than "Unlimited?!" 

Certificate of Eligibility (IDOT) - K-Five


A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 44 and 45

Day 44

Hopefully today will be the last day I have to combine more than one day in a post – finally getting somewhat caught up. Today, I went through more emails. And I finished up the final approval letter for that development I worked on last Friday – it is for an industry in the city that is expanding. We had several meetings then throughout the day:

South Street Bike Trail

The county has been planning on building a bike trail underpass at one of the busiest roads we have in the city. Right now it is a four-land road with a 45 mph speed limit with plans to someday expand it to six lane. The number of cars is probably around almost 30,000 a day. So crossing it can be a challenge on a bike or as a pedestrian. In order to help get people across, the county is proposing this underpass. They have received funding for a portion of it from the state. So now, they are ready to move forward and finalize the design then go to construction. They told us today they are looking at building it in fiscal year 2013. We discussed some of the coordination needed between the city and the county to get the project done. They will be acquiring an easement from us, and we will be entering into an agreement. But the terms of all that still need to be worked out.

Utility Proposal

A utility has proposed an installation in our community that is unlike any other submittal we have yet received. So we met today to discuss the information. From my perspective, I had received an application for a right of way permit, but upon reviewing the plans I realized the proposed location is not within the right of way. So the application is not valid for this case.

Campbell Street Parking Lot

We also met to continue discussions about our plans to build a parking lot in our downtown area. We were mainly updating other staff members of the status. The city is still working out the easements with the adjoining owners that will be necessary to  finalize the design.

Concrete Construction

A couple of us also had to inspect a few areas throughout the city that are targeted for improvements. We are in the process of obtaining bids for a small amount of concrete repairs we want to finish up this Fall.


Day 45

Finally today! This morning I worked on a multitude of issues. I completed our mid-year goals and strategies report and sent it off to my supervisor. Then I made sure my forms were ready to conduct performance evaluations later this month. All of us also worked on writing up our monthly reports for all our projects.

We had a bid opening today for our culvert project. There were a few bidders and the project seemed to come in near the engineer's estimate so we will now prepare the information to take it to the council for approval. Before I mention anything else about this publicly, I am waiting for an official determination of the successful bidder.

And our contractor for our alley project finally was able to place half of the concrete pavement. After last week's rain, we have had to wait a few days for the base to dry out. But today, it was finally ready for the pour.

In the afternoon, we had a staff development review meeting to go over a small proposed development in the city. It's so helpful to have all of us get together at once and just discuss the project after we've had some time to look it over. Many people brought up good discussion points. So now the review engineer will incorporate the comments into his response and send it out later this month.