Inventing alternatives

with U. S. infrastructure funding gaps the new normal, project teams are getting creative


From energy to water to transportation, the United States’ aging infrastructure looks increasingly decrepit. With a significant funding shortfall projected for years to come, the pressure is on teams to find innovative ways to cut costs and time on infrastructure projects.

U.S. roads, bridges and transit systems will see an investment shortfall of nearly US$850 billion by 2020.
Source: American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2015 Infrastructure #GameChangers report

The country's roads, bridges and transit systems will see an investment shortfall of nearly US$850 billion by 2020, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2015 Infrastructure #GameChangers report. Inland waterways need US$13 billion through 2020, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and a 2015 U.S. Department of Energy report estimates that the cost of repairing and modernizing the country's power and energy network will reach tens of billions of U.S. dollars.

Where all this funding could come from is unclear. In the meantime, organizations are seeking more streamlined approaches to infrastructure projects. Project teams are testing and fine-tuning outside-the-box approaches before pursuing them on a larger scale.

In 2014, the water board in Washington, D.C., USA completed a US$470 million project to build a wastewater treatment plant that creates power from the solids left at the end of the water treatment process. The high-grade biosolid generated by the facility can be sold and reused in farms and city gardens. Before the project team could get full funding, though, it had to sell a key stakeholder group—the organization's board of directors—on the economic value of turning sewage into electricity.


At the state and local levels, U.S. government agencies are discarding traditional approaches to help rebuild a crumbling infrastructure in the face of funding gaps.


Project: South Interchange

Owner: Utah Department of Transportation

Budget: US$14 million

Objective: Relieve congestion and improve safety for 20,000 vehicles per day by replacing a 40-year-old highway interchange

Innovation: The construction and design teams used a cutting-edge diverging-diamond interchange design that made traffic flow more efficiently—and cost significantly less than a complete rebuild, which would have totaled US$100 million.


Project: Deep Creek Canyon Weekend Bridge Replacement

Owner: Montana Department of Transportation

Budget: US$2.75 million

Objective: Replace three flood-damaged bridges

Innovation: Originally, the project was estimated to take nine months. By constructing the new foundation before removing the old bridges and building other elements offsite, the project team replaced the bridges in just three weekends.


Project: Parking Lot Revamp

Owner: City of Detroit, Michigan

Budget: US$162,000

Objective: Prevent stormwater from running into the sewer system

Innovation: To save hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars the city spends to treat the mix of stormwater and sewage, this pilot project will funnel water from a parking lot to a nearby vacant field. There, the water will be naturally filtered and then enter the Detroit River.


The Roadbot automates the typically labor-intensive process of identifying and sealing cracks in road surfaces, and requires just one operator.


The project team learned firsthand from European wastewater-treatment facilities that use the same thermal hydrolysis technology. After biosolids are treated at high heat and pressure to kill any pathogens, organic matter becomes food for microbes, which in turn convert it into methane. To prove the system would work in Washington, the team built a small pilot plant, says Chris Peot, director of resource recovery, D.C. Water, Washington, D.C., USA. The pilot proved that thermal hydrolysis would produce more gas for the electricity-generating turbines than a conventional biosolids digester.

“Not only are we producing clean, green renewable power so we don't have to buy as much power off the grid, but we've drastically reduced our carbon footprint, which is good because we're the biggest user of electricity in Washington, D.C.,” Mr. Peot says. “The pilot testing showed all of that. It made the economic argument for us.”

For the developers of Roadbot, a US$1.4 million proof-of-concept project, demonstrating small-scale success is a must. The Roadbot automates the typically labor-intensive process of identifying and sealing cracks in road surfaces, and requires just one operator. The project team at the Georgia Tech Research Institute in Atlanta, Georgia, USA developed an algorithm and lighting system to identify the cracks at 5 miles (8 kilometers) per hour, or 88 inches (224 centimeters) per second—which means the machine has just 136 milliseconds to identify and locate each crack. A high-pressure hydraulic system then precisely dispenses asphalt into the fissures.

Rather than constructing the entire robot at once, the team engaged in iterative testing—finding the best lighting system, for instance, by taking images with various lights. “We built progressively on our test data for prototype subsystems before building the full prototype system,” says Jonathan Holmes, senior research engineer, Georgia Tech Research Institute, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

Now that the prototype shows the system can extend road life spans and save public money, the Roadbot team is looking for potential partners on the next phase: expanding the Roadbot, which currently is only 1 foot (0.3 meter) wide, to handle a road's full width.

Not every cost-saving measure requires inventing an entirely new technology; sometimes, the solution comes from applying existing systems in new ways. When the Michigan Department of Transportation had less than one year to complete its 96Fix project, a US$153 million initiative to repair 7 miles (11 kilometers) of Interstate 96, it turned to an e-construction option that had worked on smaller efforts. Digitizing—rather than printing and mailing—traditionally paper processes such as contractors’ bids, project drawings and payroll certifications required of federal projects saved valuable time on a project affecting 140,000 motorists a day.

“It was a new technology for this project, but one that had been piloted a few times on smaller projects,” says Gerard Pawloski, metro region construction engineer, Michigan Department of Transportation, Southfield, Michigan, USA. “Closing the freeway has user costs for the public and for businesses in the area, so shortening the time of construction is a huge benefit.”


“Closing the freeway has user costs for the public and for businesses in the area, so shortening the time of construction is a huge benefit.”

—Gerard Pawloski, Michigan Department of Transportation, Southfield, Michigan, USA

Whether they're inventing entire systems or finding new ways to use existing technology, project teams continue to search for new ways to shore up U.S. infrastructure. —Novid Parsi



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