Project management improves California's transportation mobility


Project Management Improves California's Transportation Mobility


Brent Felker is deputy director, project delivery, and chief engineer for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), Sacramento, Calif., USA. With more than 23,000 employees, Caltrans designs, constructs, maintains and operates the 15,535-mile (25,000-km) California State Highway System and performs statewide transportation planning.


The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) serves 34 million customers—the people of California—who depend on it for their daily commute, supplies of goods and business and recreational travel. Its project management tools improve the collaboration and communication between employees and make Caltrans more effective in serving its mission.

Caltrans began its project management initiative in 1989 by changing from a functional organization to a matrix organization, which prominently introduced professional managers in transportation project development. Over the intervening 14 years, the department has introduced several changes in its organization, processes and tools, consistent with principles described in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide).

As a result, the department has sustained increased design productivity despite rapid expansion and a loss of experienced staff (due to an improved retirement package). Project management has boosted efficiency, along with other initiatives such as the implementation of computer-aided design and drafting, the use of global positioning systems and other advanced surveying techniques and several hundred continuous improvement efforts by staff in all functional areas.

In these 14 years, the value of projects under construction has doubled, from $3.5 billion to more than $7 billion, expressed in 2002 dollars; most of this growth has occurred in the past five years. The project delivery element of the Caltrans program, budgeted at $4 billion, employs 11,000 people to assess environmental impacts, design highways and bridges, acquire real estate, arrange utility relocations and manage construction. Private consultants handle short-term workload peaks, and private contractors perform the physical construction.

As in so many things, communication is a significant challenge. It is difficult to coordinate a large workforce, particularly when it is spread statewide from Eureka to San Diego. At any time, project delivery staff work on more than 4,000 state highway improvements. Project management offices in each of 12 districts manage these projects. The districts employ approximately 200 full-time project managers, including 160 PMI members and 45 employees with the Project Management Professional (PMP®) credential.

The Division of Project Management coordinates these offices, provides statewide reports to the Transportation Commission and legislature and, as a “Center of Excellence,” develops standards and provides training. The division assures that adequate resources support all project delivery functions, including tools and staff development.

Between 1989 and 2002, the project delivery staff at Caltrans grew from 7,000 to 11,000. About 2,000 people left the department through normal attrition, requiring the hiring of 6,000 new employees and a massive orientation, training and staff development effort. The Division of Project Management developed a $12 million-per-year, three-year training and development program keyed to elements of the department's standard work breakdown structure. A 60-person training and development organization now oversees approximately 600,000 student-hours of training yearly.

Project management begins with a standard project life cycle. A standard work breakdown structure is refined each year. At its lowest level, the structure lists every element of work that might be needed for a state highway project in California. Caltrans publishes a guide that provides a list of reference documents for each element.

Within each life cycle phase, Caltrans applies the five process groups described in the PMBOK® Guide with a process flow specific to its projects, methods and tools. Processes are described in a series of handbooks available on the project management Web site (

Project-specific, bottom-up project schedules are loaded into the project scheduling tool, where they become the basis for the annual budget request to the state legislature. Employees charge their costs to the work breakdown structure elements in the project schedules. Staff use planned-vs.-actual data to develop earned value reports, which are posted on the Internet.

The Caltrans project skill development program provides employees with training in the production of the work breakdown structure elements used in the plans. In the past, this training was delivered mainly through stand-up classes, but the department now provides more Web-based online training that can be delivered “just in time” when needed by employees. PM

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