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 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.


A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 22

Day 22

Parking Lot Planning

This morning a couple of us discussed the parking lot we are planning to build in our downtown. The project engineer for the job submitted the necessary documents to our planning department for the planning commission hearing we will have Sept. 8th. I also talked to a landscaper who will put together a preliminary landscape design for the lot and set up a meeting with him on site for this Thursday. The project engineer touched base with our lighting consultant to make sure we would have a preliminary lighting plan done in time for the hearing. And finally I reviewed the revisions we had all made to the agreement with one of the property owners from whom we will be getting easements for a portion of the lot.

Road Project

The contractor has been in this week finishing up some minor work on this year's road project. And the project engineer and our technician have been measuring quantities like crazy. But now is the time when our thoughts begin to turn to next year's road project. So today I set up some times this week for us to drive the roads. During this "road trip" we rate the roads, note the ones that could possibly be crackfilled, and check out any other issues or problems. It's the one time of the year we can really take a comprehensive view of all the  roads at once. I also updated the ratings in our GIS for the roads we improved this year and printed out maps to use during our drive.

Permit Review

I finalized the review of a small project someone had proposed for a commercial development in the city. Then I sent out the approval letter to the developer and a few staff members. Tomorrow I will work on another permit we have in that includes a stormwater permit application.

Sign installation

Water Main Project

During the morning, I also researched the property ownership for a parcel through which we would like to place a new water main. Then I contacted the business to set up a meeting with them to discuss the possibility of the city getting an easement.

Street Sign Upgrade Requirements Rescinded

Our city administrator also sent out a letter today that indicates we will probably not have to upgrade our signs to meet the new retroreflectivity requirements by the date that had been set by the FHWA. Instead we can upgrade the sign at the time of replacement. This will save a significant amount of money for many agencies. Here's a link to the press release by the U.S. DOT:



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




Bumping into the DOT

As a civil engineer, the federal agencies I visit online are usually the DOT, EPA, and FHWA with an occasional click over to the USGS. Upon my entry into Second Life, I searched for these agencies within that virtual world and found nothing.

The only federal agencies that had made it into the virtual realm and set up islands were NASA, NOAA, and the CDC. And although from a personal level, I enjoyed visiting the islands and learning about agencies I really had known little about, I still held hope that one day, I would be able to visit the DOT, EPA, or FHWA in virtual form.

Well that day might be finally getting nearer. Last week, while I was traveling through Second Life researching colleges and universities for an article I am working on, I noticed an island called DOT World. I clicked it hoping it was open to the public, and sure enough I was teleported to the ground. There was only one building so I worried that maybe I had assumed wrong about the name of the island. Maybe someone had just happened to choose the common abbreviation for the Department of Transportation. But once I entered the small structure sitting in the corner of the sim, I knew it was the DOT for which I had searched. There on the conference table was the DOT logo.

DOT building in Second Life
DOT building in Second Life

As excited as I was to find the DOT in Second Life and as much as I wanted to tell everyone, I felt I should check to make sure they wouldn’t mind having their presence known – some agencies want to enter the virtual realm as quietly as possible while they figure out their approach to this new technology. So I IMed the island’s owner and received confirmation that I could publicly let folks know they were there. Unfortunately since then, they have closed off the island to public access so although they might not mind having folks know they are there, they seem to have decided they don’t want them poking around.

Anyway it appears official, the DOT has entered the virtual realm and set up shop in Second Life. And even though right now they only have one building for meetings and have decided not to let anyone visit, at least it is a start; perhaps they will even encourage the FHWA to follow them in. So with all the speculation about how progressive the Obama administration will be and how they will embrace new technologies, I have to think that it might not be long before I can attend classes and collect resources virtually. You don’t get much closer to putting a face to government than establishing an digital representations of your staff in avatar form.


Free Highway Design Software!

Hey all you designers of two-lane highways! Get your free download of the 2008 Interactive Highway Safety Design Model (IHSDM). Brought to you by your friendly Federal Highway Administration.

The site does require you to register for approval. Information required for registration includes your name, title organizational affiliation, mailing address, e-mail address, telephone number, and facsimile number. You must also acknowledge that you have read and agree to the disclaimer.

After registering, you will be sent an e-mail message with a password to enable the download of IHSDM software files. I received my confirmation e-mail and was able to log in and begin downloading the program immediately upon submitting a registration request.