Bridging the Gap
Leaders of a High-Risk Highway Program Took a Collaborative Approach to Attract Contractors—And Help Them Deliver
BY SARAH FISTER GALE
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE CONNECTICUT DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION
Complex road construction projects create detours. But an 18-year, US$2 billion highway improvement program in New Haven, Connecticut, USA, encountered the ultimate roadblock: Nobody wanted to help build any part of it.
The 7.2-mile (11.6 kilometer) U.S. Interstate 95 expansion was the largest Connecticut state-sponsored road and bridge infrastructure renovation in more than a half-century. The projects delivered wider roads and new interchanges and bridges, including the US$625 million Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge—featuring a state-of-the-art design approach never before seen in the U.S. Even the nation's largest and most experienced contractors thought the projects came with too much risk.
Contractors were too leery to bid, but killing the program wasn't an option. Bottlenecks were creating up to four-hour, 20-mile (32.2-kilometer) backups during rush hour—and suffocating regional economic growth. For instance, freight transportation in the region was clogging. Plus the program sponsor, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, already had sent Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT) engineers to Japan to gather lessons learned from a project with the same bridge design. The extradosed cable-stay design features short towers that won't interfere with local air traffic and a shallow cable angle that lets the bridge accommodate heavier loads.
To spark contractors’ interest, CTDOT project and program managers shifted gears. The team incorporated incentives into the project plan and created a more collaborative framework that attracted contractors in time to launch highway construction in 2002. “We sent clear signals to the contractors that we want to work together with them as partners on this project,” says Mark Rolfe, construction administrator, CTDOT, Newington, Connecticut. “The second time we put it out to bid, we got a lot of responses.”
“Early on we had some positive experiences on some small projects by co-locating, and we expanded upon that idea.”
—Domenic LaRosa, Connecticut Department of Transportation, New Haven, Connecticut, USA
Construction contractors, design engineers and CTDOT technical experts often worked in the same space and with intertwined schedules, Mr. Rolfe says. By getting all teams to work together, the program achieved its goals, he says. A corridor that once could handle no more than 40,000 vehicles a day now accommodates 140,000. “Traffic congestion extended approximately 5 miles on an average workday before the program began,” he says. “Since construction was completed, traffic congestion is no longer an issue.”
Prospective contractors were leery for two reasons. First, the bridge design was uncharted territory for them. And CTDOT's original proposal set strict deadlines and assessed penalties for failing to meet goals. CTDOT also had bid out the program in one large contract, preventing smaller companies from participating.
“That experience of no bids forced us to take a hard look at our project plan,” Mr. Rolfe says.
The CTDOT team reached out to design and engineering experts, and spoke with companies it had expected to bid on the project to determine what changes would best attract bids. The conclusion: Bidders wanted a shared-risk environment and the opportunity to bid on pieces of the program, rather than an all-or-nothing approach. So CTDOT broke each project into smaller chunks, adding incentives and spreading the risk more evenly between the government owner and its contractors.
Off the Gridlock
2000: First construction contracts signed
2001: Project team travels to Japan to review bridge design
2002: Highway demolition and construction begins, and commuter rail station construction completed
2006: Teams preload soil and install proper drainage
2007: Preparation for bridge demolition begins in key construction areas
2009: Bridge construction begins
2011: Route 34 flyover construction completed
2015: Bridge construction completed
September 2016: All lanes on bridge open to traffic
The new risk-sharing agreement called for collaborative problem solving, spreading the cost of change across teams rather than laying it all on the contractor. CTDOT also rebuilt the payment structure so contractors would receive bonus payments for hitting aggressive deadlines. “That set a more collaborative tone for the whole project,” says Domenic LaRosa, program director and district engineer, CTDOT, New Haven, Connecticut, USA.
By the end of the program, CTDOT paid out US$22.3 million in incentives—the maximum allowed in the contract—including US$5 million for meeting two bridge project milestones and US$13.3 million for meeting three interchange project milestones. And it paid off for the program, too, in the form of meeting or beating timelines. The teams reached two key milestones—completing the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge and opening new highway connections to the bridge—30 days or more ahead of schedule.
Mark Rolfe, construction administrator, Connecticut Department of Transportation
Location: Newington, Connecticut, USA
Experience: 33 years
Other notable project: Interstate 95 Bridgeport Reconstruction Program, which rebuilt bridges, interchanges and a highway and was completed in 2005. Mr. Rolfe served as program manager.
Career lessons learned: “The best predictor of successful projects is the knowledge and skill of the people involved. There is no replacing a team of talented, hard-working colleagues and staff all motivated toward the same goal.”
“That tells me we had a high-functioning project team that was focused on problem-solving,” Mr. Rolfe says.
IN THE SAME LANE
The stakes were high for different contractors executing projects in the same space simultaneously. If one contractor got delayed, it would impact the entire program schedule. So Mr. LaRosa met with project teams daily to discuss their progress and goals, and to identify any imminent challenges. “Getting them on the same page and coordinating their projects was a big part of our process,” he says.
The CTDOT team also streamlined project management processes to keep all teams focused on the same end goals. From the outset, Mr. Rolfe's team insisted that all project teams use the same project documents and project management tools. Having a centralized data center helped eliminate disagreements over decisions and responsibilities, and reduced confusion. Rather than having multiple versions of the same document, contractors shared the same set of documents via a cloud-based server, Mr. Rolfe says.
“We sent clear signals to the contractors that we want to work together with them as partners on this project.”
—Mark Rolfe, Connecticut Department of Transportation, Newington, Connecticut, USA
As a result, when there were questions about tasks or deadlines, the answer came from a single source, Mr. Rolfe says. “There was one database and one ‘truth.’”
CTDOT also gave project leaders in the field final authority on all decisions, which prevented disagreements between teams and ensured quick conflict resolution. For example, when a new traffic scheme forced the project team to divert vehicles and create temporary structures, the project site manager had sole responsibility. Such authority eliminated other levels of approval process that could have slowed progress. “That kept the project moving,” Mr. LaRosa says.
Working together also meant sharing the same space. All of the project teams, from the inspection firms and engineers to the CTDOT staff, worked under one roof. Questions could be answered in minutes instead of days, and there was no waiting around for people to respond to calls or emails.
“Co-locating wasn't part of the initial plan, but early on we had some positive experiences on some small projects by co-locating, and we expanded upon that idea,” Mr. LaRosa says. “It was a great benefit for the project management process, and it was a key element to keeping us on schedule.”
CTDOT phased the work so construction teams cut their teeth on smaller projects to get used to the project management software, build relationships and figure out how they would problem-solve before moving on to the bigger, high-risk initiatives. These confidence-building projects included construction of the State Street commuter rail station and widening a section of I-95 leading to the bridge.
How problems were resolved during early program phases set the whatever-it-takes tone for the rest of the work. For example, during planning for bridge construction, the contractor discovered scheduling issues that could have caused months of delays if traffic couldn't be properly diverted. So the engineers, design team, traffic group and construction team worked together to redo the schedule and to reroute traffic and create temporary traffic structures that helped support the flow. “We checked our company logos at the door and got the job done,” Mr. LaRosa says.
“The culture allowed us to achieve our ultimate goal—to deliver a vastly improved highway system to the New Haven area on time and within budget.”
This coordination paid off when it came time to erect twin bridge girders over the highway in both directions. The project team had exactly 15 minutes to stop traffic and make it happen. To ensure flawless execution, project leaders had the contractor put together a minute-by-minute schedule of events. Then they dissected and fine-tuned the plan to minimize traffic impact while ensuring safety for travelers and workers.
“We implemented breakout workshops attended by key project staff held weekly for months before the girder erections,” Mr. LaRosa says. “It was a major exercise that took incredible organization.”
In the end, 20 police cars were deployed to temporarily close all on-ramps so two cranes could simultaneously lift the girders into place. “We spent three months planning for those 15 minutes of work,” he says.
From the detailed specs and document control to the collaborative environment and problem-solving culture, everything worked as planned, Mr. LaRosa says. “The culture allowed us to achieve our ultimate goal—to deliver a vastly improved highway system to the New Haven area on time and within budget,” he says. “We provided a quality traffic renovation that will be safe for the traveling public for decades.” PM