A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 73

Day 73 or How to Save Our Transportation Funding

Plan Review

I spent part of the day reviewing the plans for a bike underpass that the county is planning to build. The county received a grant to construct the improvement. It's definitely needed! The underpass will allow pedestrians and bicyclists to safely cross one of the busiest arterials in the county. 

Water Main Easements

I was going to send the easement plats to our city attorney today so he could prepare the documents, but after checking them one more time, I noticed one of the angles was wrong on the plat. So I emailed the consultant to have them revise the plat.

GIS Features

Our GIS group has also been planning to set up our sidewalk feature class. We decided to go with a centerline to designate this feature and assign as main attributes the material, width, year of repair, and road. We are also creating a curb ramp feature class that will be a point feature with attributes such as detectable warnings, slope, etc.

PACE Bid Tab

I did receive a copy of the PACE Bid Tab in the mail today even though I had requested a pdf of it be sent through email. Well, at least I got it. I put up an image of it at the bottom of this post so you can see the bidders and the amounts. (You have to click the image to get a good look.) It is strange because it doesn't look like a normal bid tab for a construction project – it is more of a summary of bids. And I am not sure how the highest bidder became the lowest bidder because from what I learned at the precon, Landmark was awarded the project. As you can see from the bid tab, they seem to have had the highest total bid. Then over on the right, someone put the lowest bid amount from Dimensions in Concrete in the line where Landmark is and labeled it lowest bid. I tried to go on the FTA website to see if they somehow have a creative way to allow a public agency to transform the highest bidder to the lowest bidder, but could not find anything. So the other explanation could be that the FTA allows public agencies to award projects to the highest bidder. Also, it seems strange that none of the main concrete companies in the area that bid our concrete work, other than Landmark, submitted bids.

Aside from all that, the good news is that PACE is at least re-bidding the portion of this $4+ million job that lies within our county. So hopefully when they rebid, the highest bidder comes in lower because it appears that for this project, the highest bidder is actually the lowest bidder or at least gets the job! I realize this is a crazy idea, but maybe next time they could award to the lowest bidder, and we'd have a few more transportation dollars to spend. Or maybe I, along with the other engineers who looked at this, are just missing something. If anyone out there knows how this works, please send in a comment.

Bid Tab for PACE Route 529 Improvements Fall 2011



A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 72

Day 72

Government Day

In the morning, several of us participated in the city's government day. For this event, we invite students from the high school to spend the day with us learning more about what we do. We all met at city hall to pick up the students assigned to us and then headed out to take them on a tour of public works facilities. First we went to the wastewater plant where our operator told them about the treatment process. Then we all went to the water plant to see how we treat the drinking water. We also stopped at our public works offices and garage to show them the equipment and check out the GIS department. And finally we toured our generation facility where we have five large engines that run on natural gas and generate up to 30 MW of power. After the tour, we met up with other staff and students from city hall to eat lunch.

Miscellaneous (& still no response from PACE on the bid tab!)

The rest of the day was spent handling a lot of small, miscellaneous issues. Our concrete contractor was in town pouring the last of the sidewalks that were removed to correct trip hazards. I also contacted IDOT to find out some answers to questions about material inspection for a past job. Our consultant putting together the easements for the water main extension revised the incorrect plat and got it back to us. And I tried to call PACE one last time to check on where my bid tab is for that job – they still have not gotten it to me, and I believe they have gone past the legal date for doing so. Rather than immediately contact the attorney general's office, I thought I would call one last time to see why they have not sent me the bid tab. But no one answered the phone so I had to leave a message. If I don't hear from them soon, I will unfortunately have to contact the state to notify them they are delinquent on filling my FOIA request. I just don't understand what the big deal is about releasing a simple bid tab for a project worth over a million dollars.



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.