Track record

Chris Burner, chief project officer, Foothill Gold Line Construction Authority, Monrovia, California, USA


Chris Burner, chief project officer, Foothill Gold Line Construction Authority, Monrovia, California, USA



Public-sector megaprojects aren't exactly known for finishing on schedule and within budget. Yet Foothill Gold Line Construction Authority is making a habit of doing both.

The organization is planning the final phase of a three-part extension to the light rail system that connects downtown Los Angeles, California, USA to its eastern suburbs.

Chris Burner, who began his career as a project engineer for the U.S. Air Force, has helmed the authority's project management team since 2009. He oversaw the US$930 million second phase of the line's extension, which involved 11.5 miles (18.5 kilometers) of track and six new stations. Last year, the Authority delivered the extension as planned—and under Mr. Burner's leadership, the organization is on track to complete the feat again. The third phase, now in planning, will add six stations and an additional 12.3 miles (19.8 kilometers) to the light rail line by 2025.

I identified the five keys to project success: planning, contract, contractor, management team and community relations. Then I implemented metrics, processes and IT solutions to track our progress. For instance, we introduced processes to track all contractor submittals and information requests and our performance around reviewing and responding to them. And I identified major risk areas, such as acquiring property within a certain time frame, and monitored them closely in weekly staff meetings.

We were very nimble at gathering just enough information needed to make a sound decision and then taking action to implement it.

What did the planning phase look like?

We addressed any stakeholder concerns to get their buy-in. The project goes through five cities. Each has different concerns and requirements, so we worked with all of them to establish a scope they were satisfied with. We completed planning documents with the California Department of Transportation and got a safety and security plan approved by the California Public Utilities Commission. We performed a site assessment to determine environmental hazards. And we did all this before we hired the design-build contractor.

Did any unanticipated challenges arise?

Yes, and the biggest one really jeopardized the project. Because the light rail runs on electricity, we needed to have 10 traction power substations. You can't do any of the extensive safety testing without these substations, so they're critical to completing the project on time. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which owns and operates the rail system once we build it, wanted to procure the traction power substations, and we agreed to let them do that. But in 2014, I realized the procurement was in really bad shape and not being managed well. Engineers at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's vendor were in charge, and they really had no project management processes in place. So the delivery of the substations was drastically late.

How did you overcome the substations’ delay?

A representative from L.A. Metro and I spent two days with the vendor's executives to assess the situation and develop a recovery plan. L.A. Metro hadn't assigned a project lead, so we assigned leads from all three parties—my organization, L.A. Metro and the vendor—and established clear accountability. Then we held weekly conference calls to track our progress and made about 10 site visits to verify progress.

It took a big effort, and ultimately the vendor did a good job of recovering. I'm very proud of completing the project on time and on budget. A lot of projects will re-baseline their schedule, but we achieved the initial date we set in our contract of September 2015.

What lesson have you learned on the Foothill projects that can be applied to other public-sector infrastructure projects?

Community sentiment is really important. You have to get the community involved with the project to some degree so that it has ownership and feels more favorable toward it. We did that through the station design and art review process during the planning phase. The community had input into architectural features of the stations, like the colors, pavers and landscaping. Also, we kept the public constantly informed about roadwork, street blockages and intersection closures.

Any other major lessons learned?

Make tough decisions quickly. Sometimes when a challenging situation arose on other public works projects I've been involved with, the decision was delayed to analyze it further and gather more information. Certainly you want to make an informed decision—knee-jerk reactions are not good. But I've seen project leaders take too long to make a decision. We were very nimble at gathering just enough information needed to make a sound decision and then taking action to implement it. PM


Small Talk

What's the one skill every project manager should have?

The ability to maintain focus on the big picture, despite all the day-to-day distractions.

What's your favorite off-the-clock activity?

I love trail running—being one with nature, alone in my thoughts. Here in California, I can do that all year long.

What's the best professional advice you've received?

Never make a decision too early or too late. You can't be too knee-jerk, but you also can't wait too long to obtain all the necessary information. You need to find that sweet spot.




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