Opening Day at 2011 APWA Congress & Exposition

Denver Colorado Sept 2011

This year's International Public Works Conference & Exposition is being held in Denver, Colorado. The event opened yesterday morning with a welcome by the outgoing president, George Crombie, and a transfer of leadership to the new president, Diane M. Linderman.

First General Session – Michael Hayden

The first general session followed with keynote speaker, Michael Hayden, retired U.S. Air Force Four Star General and former director of the CIA and NSA. General Hayden shared stories of his time as director of each agency and offered his insight into leadership.

One interesting remark he made was that we advance in our careers by doing things right, but eventually we reach a level where we only advance by doing the right thing. To me, I see within this remark one of the biggest challenges we face as we advance in local government to an appointed position. Many probably did get there by doing something the right way. But once in this upper-level position, decisions are not only made by analyzing technical information, but also understanding and weighing political factors. Even so, as a public works professional it is imperative in the end we do the right thing which can often be a balance of technical and political considerations. But this can become difficult when an elected official wants to do something for purely political reasons like getting more votes. How many of us have seen others in our field let go or blamed for problems due to refusing to go along with a decision that was made to advance a political career?

The risk of being put in this situation is one of the main reasons I hear cited for why someone left local government for the private sector or why someone would not take an appointed position. Fortunately not every elected official or even local government operates this way or demands their appointed staff do whatever they say regardless of what is "right." But it is unfortunate that this seems to be enough to scare off some people who would have made great managers. 


After the general session, everyone went to the exposition hall to eat and visit the exhibits. Usually I like to take time to talk with different vendors, take photos to share with co-workers or with readers of this blog, or even record videos of the demonstrations. But this year, I noticed in the brochure that photos and videos were not allowed in the expo hall. I went to the press room to register as press to see if this would allow me to take photos or record videos, but they said no. This is really unfortunate because I think as someone working in the industry every day, like most of you, I probably will ask vendors many of the same questions you would ask. How many times have you watched a demo and thought, "well that all sounds good, but what about this?" So by recording the demo given to me, readers who maybe could not attend the show can still get the benefit of the demo and have typical questions answered. And the vendors get the benefit of having their demo reach a much wider audience. 

In a way, this refusal to allow sharing of information is somewhat contradictory to the increased integration of social media into the conference. This year, APWA is more actively tweeting the show with events and give-a-ways announced regularly throughout the day. Vendors have even been sending out tweets offering prizes for those showing up with passwords for mentioning the tweet. I was given a cute little dump truck by CH2MHill yesterday for seeing their tweet, showing up at their booth, and mentioning the tweet. Anyone at the show can see the stream by following the hashtag #APWAEXPO. The other great consequence of following the hashtag is that I was able to find new people in public works to follow. And at the end of the day, one of the more active people tweeting, mpbaldauf, even stopped by and introduced herself so I got to meet her in person.

The other great addition to this year's conference is the ability to watch and participate from a distance. If you couldn't make it to Denver, but still want to check out the events, make sure you register here: APWA Live!

Denver Colorado Sept 2011


FHWA Update by Victor Mendez

I was impressed that the director of FHWA, Victor Mendez, took time to attend the conference and present at a session. He talked about the President's proposed jobs bill. The President is asking for Congress to fund $50 billion of infrastructure improvements, $27 billion of which is targeted for roads and bridges. Funds will also be available for improvements to water and energy systems and schools. Most in our field would probably not have been surprised to hear there is up to 30% unemployment in the construction industry in some regions. And the idea is this bill will significantly help put many of those unemployed back to work.

On top of this, Mendez said the President has proposed to set aside another $10 billion as seed money to establish an infrastructure bank. According to him, project funding decisions will be based upon "how bad is the project needed, and how much good will it do for the economy?" 

Mendez shared an example of why this investment in our infrastructure is so critical. About a week or so ago, the Sherman Mitten bridge connecting Kentucky and Indiana was closed due to cracks in structural members found by inspectors. The closure of this bridge has resulted in major disruption and cost for commuters and companies moving goods through this corridor. (You can read more about the bridge closure here: Midwest Jammed by Bridge Closing.)

He also discussed transportation funding and the extension of the highway bill. And then he went on to discuss the Every Day Counts program. This initiative is focused on shortening project delivery and promoting the use of innovative construction and design techniques. Mendez said, "EDC is part of larger effort to speed up recovery and create jobs and win the future." But he also explained he was trying to create something that will not just be another short-term program, but an idea that will "infuse the industry with a culture of innovation" and be in place long after he is no longer director. His vision includes the creation of "councils in each state that include people from all levels of government and private sector that will meet on a regular basis." These councils will be tasked with deciding which components of EDC work best in that state and will oversee efforts to shorten project delivery.

Finally, he concluded by talking about the safety programs promoted by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. These include distracted driving legislation and implementation of safety edge. Mendez also encouraged us to "become safety ambassadors for all of us."

Social Media as a Public Works Asset

For me, the final session of the day was one in which I participated as a co-presenter with Robert Lewis. We introduced social media tools that agencies are using and discussed how others were leveraging these tools as assets for their organization. Then we suggested there are two alternatives for each agency to choose – either to ignore or ban the use of social media or to use it and engage. We emphasized the need to create a policy and provide guidance to staff no matter which alternative is chosen. And of course, we advised agencies to consider legal issues and concerns as they make their decisions and implement their policies.


A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 32 and 33

Day 32 & 33

I decided to combine yesterday's post with today's because wow – have I been busy! On Thursday I tried to finalize a few outstanding items before taking off a few days to attend conferences. I finalized a cost estimate for resurfacing a major roadway in the city. Then sent out the approval letter for the last review on a development. They are now cleared to send in their Letter of Credit for the project. Once we get that, they will receive final engineering approval and can get started on the site work.

Later in the morning, a few of us attended a pre-construction meeting with the Park District and their engineer and contractor. We are all working together to build a community garden. It will be located in the northwest corner of our city on land owned by the Forest Preserve who is also a partner. Our water department will be working with the contractor installing water lines and will later install yard hydrants.

We also had a staff meeting in the afternoon. Because we have so much going on and so many projects, it seems like our staff meetings take longer. It was almost the end of the day when we finished. We also finished out the day by placing a culvert lining project out to bid.

Illinois Association of  Highway Engineers

Then today, I attended the Ilinois Association of Highway Engineers conference in Normal, Illinois. It was a very well run event which is impressive because it's all put together by volunteers who work for IDOT. I felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to give one of the presentations and had a great time. (Technically I wasn't working because I had to take a vacation day to attend – we are only allowed time off to attend two conferences a year.)

Warm Mix Asphalt

One of the other presentations was on warm mix asphalt. It was given by someone who is involved in researching testing of asphalt. I could have predicted what he was going to tell us based on the performance of asphalt we have been seeing in the field. Ever since they cut back on the percentage of asphalt content and increased the amount of RAP (recycled asphalt pavement), we've noticed roads don't last as long as they used to. Sometimes we are seeing failures in the first five years. His testing seemed to indicate that using a warm mix improves the performance. The warm mix asphalt is actually a mix design produced at temperatures below that of a traditional mix. The use of this "colder" mix is possible because of the use of additives. I don't think the speaker mentioned this, but warm mix asphalt is one of the innovation components of Every Day Counts. So you can learn more about it here:

Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge

We also listened to an interesting talk by someone involved with the construction of the Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge. He was either one of the engineers or worked for the contractor. The speaker started at the beginning of the project and walked through how it was constructed using a lot of photos taken at each stage. It was incredible to see how they had to construct a whole cable system in order to just get people and materials out to the areas where they were working. 

My presentation: Social Media and Its Use in Transportation Projects

So here is the presentation I gave – I wish I had the audio because I usually put so little on the slide and then talk to convey the story behind the slide. But I don't think they were taping the presentations.



A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 31

Day 31


Today I attended a workshop on Adaptive Signal Control – one of the technology innovations in the Every Day Counts initiative. The class was given by FHWA, and the city of Bolingbrook hosted the site. There were only about 20 people there: 3 from municipalities, 2 consultants, 4 from counties and personnel from 3 IDOT districts. I took a lot of notes and had planned on writing something up tonight on it. But at the end, I got the impression they really weren't interested in getting the word out about the initiative – instead they were asking those who attended to use the material they provided to produce a report analyzing traffic signal systems in their own communities. Most of the ones in Geneva are managed by IDOT or KDOT (Kane County DOT) and fortunately both were represented at the meeting. I talked to each agency about analyzing the routes through our community, but I think they haven't yet decided if that is something they will definitely do. Although we are going to begin the Phase 2 design portion of one IDOT's routes, and I don't see how we cannot perform this analysis to address the signals and traffic flow.

It's unfortunate too that I can't share with you right now the best part of the workshop – the guidance document they prepared to help agencies analyze their systems. But they said it will be available online in a week or so. After it gets posted, I will upload it to Scribd so I can create an embed and put it here on the site so you can see it – they have done an amazing job with this. By that time, I should have a write-up of the workshop done.


Every Day Counts – Report from the Midwest Meeting

Quote from EDC participant

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to participate in a Peer Exchange workshop on Project Delivery as a representative for APWA. The meeting was one of four regional meetings organized and hosted by AASHTO to facilitate dialogue between federal, state, and local agencies. By encouraging discussion and building partnerships, they are hoping to provide guidance for streamlining project delivery.

I’m not sure if anything like this has been done before in our industry where all levels of government meet to work out the process of getting a job done. The workshop was exciting and yet, as you can imagine, frustrating at times as I wondered if federal and state agencies could really understand the local perspective. However, the end result was a great meeting where all of us had the chance to share the view from our level and hear and understand the experiences and ideas from other agencies. I’m not sure if it was because we had such a great facilitator or there was just a great group of people focused on making things better, but everyone showed passion and dedication to moving this initiative forward.Quote from EDC participant

It’s unfortunate that more people could not have taken part so I was hoping to share my observations below and encourage anyone interested to visit the Every Day Counts (EDC) website.

The day started out with a welcome from Peter Plumeau, the facilitator, and representatives from the partnering agencies: NACE, APWA, and AASHTO. Everyone introduced themselves and shared some thoughts about what they hoped to accomplish. Then Victoria Peters, special assistant to the deputy administrator of FHWA, explained the EDC program.

Every Day Counts Program

I won’t go into the details of this session because you can read all about it at the EDC website. The basic idea is that EDC was launched in November 2009 to identify and deploy readily available innovation and operational changes that would enable us to become faster, better, and smarter. Peters emphasized that the program was intended to work within existing laws. She quickly went through the program’s sixteen initiatives including ten that would shorten project deliver and six that are categorized as technical innovations. She explained how state implementation teams established at the state DOTs have developed final action plans to carry out these initiatives. And she mentioned there will be 2011 discretionary grant programs highlighting EDC initiatives. Peters also encouraged people to visit the EDC site and submit more ideas in their “innovation box.”

Quote by EDC Participant

Federal Programs and Project Delivery Initiatives

The next panel presented several programs already in place that can be used to shorten project delivery. These included programmatic agreements, Construction Manager/General Contractor or CM/GC, and flexibility in utility accommodation and relocation.

The Wisconsin Factor

Over lunch Daniel Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highway Association, shared with the group some of the ideas Wisconsin has used to shorten project delivery. Wisconsin seems unique in that the counties in that state take care of all the county and state roads. (One county engineer told me later in the day his county has its own hot mix plant!) So perhaps it’s this extensive history of cooperation between local 

and state government that provided the impetus for Wisconsin agencies to begin this type of effort many years ago. Fedderly explained how they pre-scope projects to help discover any red-flags or additional or alternate funding sources early in the process. He also discussed the use of project exclusions and project tiering – a method of recognizing an overlay does not require the same level of scrutiny that a new bridge construction project might require.

Barriers and Obstacles

After lunch we broke into four groups that included members from each agency or organization. First we identified major barriers or obstacles to achieving our goal of shortening project delivery. Although there were many identified, most fell into the following basic categories or issues:

  • The perception of high risk when there isn’t any
  • The failure to focus on what matters
  • The failure to be consistent
  • The lack of federal flexibility
  • The number and control of regulations
  • The lack of education of people at all levels – those reviewing at the state and federal level and those working at the local level
  • Lack of trust between agencies and an “us vs. them” attitude


After we highlighted the issues or problems present in the current system, we moved on to think of recommendations or solutions. Below are the highlights of our findings.

  • Form partnerships – form early and reinforce often
  • Move beyond us and them and focus on a win/win perspective
  • Pre-scope but understand changes will need to be accommodated if necessary
  • Ask questions and manage up through all levels of government
  • Educate – Educate – Educate!
  • Scale the process to the needs – adopt a risk-based approach
  • Build on EDC – provide groundwork for structural changes
  • Keep the momentum going
  • Enhance and use existing resources like LTAP to promote and deliver these solutions
  • Develop a forum and other communication opportunities on the EDC website
  • Host state, regional, and national dialogues between all partners
  • Make use of a Federal Fund Exchange Program similar to that offered by the Kansas DOT

Summary of the Day

Overall, my final impression was that we are on the right track. We learned that many states have already been working in this direction and using these initiatives for some time. At our sessions representatives from these states were able to share positive outcomes and success stories. Now, it just seems to be a matter of working with the other states and locals to incorporate these ideas and recommendations within their own process. Plumeau said there will be two more regional workshops held over the next month or so then his group will summarize the results of all meetings and send out a report.

Plumeau also pointed out near the end of the day that almost all of the issues we identified and solutions we came up with could be applied to just about any industry or situation. Based on his observation, I have to think it’s obviously not just a transportation issue – it’s more of a people issue. And this seems to emphasize our need to continue building the partnerships and dialogue that has been started with these summits.


Every Day Counts Peer to Peer Networking

Over the summer, FHWA is hosting Peer-to-Peer Exchanges in partnership with AASHTO, NACE, and APWA for the purpose of highlighting and promoting best practices in implementing the Federal-aid program by local governments. I'll be attending the meeting for the midwest region on July 19th in Cincinnati, Ohio, to participate in discussions with people from all levels of government. So if anyone has any suggestions, comments, or ideas, you'd like to share, I'd be interested in hearing them. You can either enter them in the comment section here or send them to me at

These meetings are part of the Every Day Counts (EDC) initiative. EDC is "FHWA's effort to provide National leadership in the quest to meet the transportation demands of the 21st Century." Three objectives make up the foundation of EDC: Shortening Project Delivery,  Accelerating Technology and Innovation Deployment, and an internal effort to make FHWA a greener Agency and reduce our carbon footprint. Of these objectives, streamlining project delivery and embracing innovation seem to be dominating most transportation-related discussions coming out of Washington. Rep. Mica, Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, recently presented the Transportation Reauthorization Proposal embeded below. In it, his committee also stressed the need to work on improving project delivery and implementing innovative changes.


A New Direction – Transportation Reauthorization Proposal