As of 2012, TDOT had a backlog of more than 800 roadway projects in various phases of development, with total costs estimated at $8.5 billion. Several projects had been in the TDOT work program for many years with little to no progress, mainly due to high estimated implementation costs and lack of available funding.
An identified barrier to releasing projects for completion, TDOT’s existing cost-estimation methodology produced a wide range of accuracy, with high variance directly affecting TDOT’s ability to plan and deliver much-needed projects statewide.
In an effort to relieve the backlog and begin necessary projects for Tennessee taxpayers, GS&P was tasked with engaging in Expedited Project Delivery (EPD) reviews to evaluate proposed projects and recommend either modifying the proposed scope of work, or proceeding with them as originally conceived. The goal of the EPD review process was to develop an operationally appropriate scope for each project that addressed immediate safety needs and provided recommendations for long-term improvements.
“Over the past two years, our transportation engineers and planners have assisted TDOT by preparing 27 EPD reports,” explains Bill Moore, senior vice president of transportation. “We’ve identified long- and short-term improvements for state highways where funding for the original project is unavailable, and the results so far are that TDOT can now provide immediate improvements at a fraction of the originally proposed cost."
Ramping Up Road Projects
Working collaboratively with TDOT’s Strategic Transportation Investments Division, GS&P reviewed a range of factors that included existing and future traffic projections, crash data, safety deficiencies, previous planning documents and potential multimodal opportunities.
In addition to safety improvements that can be implemented immediately—including new lane striping, curve warning signs, guardrails, raised pavement markers and more—the EPD process will result in longer-term roadway improvements, such as road widening and intersection re-alignments, based on operational analyses of future traffic demand and field review observations.
“The reviews succeeded in streamlining proposed projects,” says Mark Holloran, senior transportation engineer and principal-in-charge on the project. “A good example of this is where a two-lane roadway would handle traffic loads well enough that a four-lane road wasn’t required.
“In a couple of instances, it was clear that the full project was needed. But in most cases, we were able to recommend a big reduction in the scope of work, which in turn would mean a big savings.”
Nature and History in Mind
Among the specific examples where EPDs have made a difference, Holloran cites three Tennessee communities: Somerville, Trenton and Nutbush—a small town northeast of Memphis, and the birthplace of music icon Tina Turner.
“Somerville’s initial plans called for a four-lane bypass, with four lanes running through the heart of the downtown district,” says Holloran. “But when we looked at it, even though the bypass was going to carry a lot of traffic around the city, we found that a two-lane section would handle that traffic for 30-plus years. It shaped up as a good balance between getting traffic around the town, and also helping the downtown district’s traffic flow.”
In Trenton, a proposal for a bypass became a plan to reroute and install new signage on existing roadways to direct trucks away from the tight downtown square area.
“The bypass would have gone through a river area, posing environmental issues and requiring long bridges to get across the floodway,” says Holloran. “We discovered we could help trucks get through town without adding the bypass by using mostly signage on the existing roads, and that ultimately resulted in huge savings.”
Finally, in Nutbush, initial plans called for a four-lane divided road. Because of the town’s narrow downtown streets, the road would have to bypass its business district and its nod to the ‘Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll’.
“The city wasn’t happy about that,” says Holloran. “Based on traffic flow, we ended up recommending an improvement to the two-lane road that went through Nutbush, rather than adding a four-lane divided road. For the community, it was a big deal economically to still have the main road—and tourists—come right through town.”
In several reviews, nature and history also played key roles. Where expanding from two lanes to four might have disturbed a Native American settlement with archaeological significance, the EPD proposed sticking with two lanes for that section of the road and making the shoulders 2 feet instead of the standard 8 feet to protect the sites. In another locale, an EPD called for protecting a wetlands area with two-lane sections versus four.
“Taken together, the EPD review recommendations will likely save TDOT hundreds of millions of dollars across its entire work program,” notes Holloran. “And this will allow the department to complete more projects statewide.”
A New Cost-Estimation Tool
During the EPD process, it became clear to the project team that TDOT’s existing tool for estimating the cost of transportation projects was due for an overhaul.
“The cost-estimation tool came out of the EPD process,” says Holloran. “We were using the existing tool based on a cost-per-mile basis, and it had factors that you would apply to that depending on how complex it was, for example, rolling versus flat, or urban versus rural. For being an early planning tool, it was OK. But when we got into these EPDs, we found that in getting a feel for the true costs being proposed, we were unfortunately seeing huge variances using the existing tool.”
The discovery of those variances launched conversations between GS&P and TDOT, which led to GS&P being tasked with the development of an updated, more robust cost-estimation tool that has resulted in tremendous benefits to both the state and to Tennessee taxpayers.
“For all of those projects still on the books, they could go back and use the tool and come up with more reliable costs,” explains Holloran. “In most cases, looking at their program long term, you can get a much better feel for how many projects you can do because you have more confidence in the cost.”
Another benefit of the revamped tool, is that it uses best practices (identified through research) to help TDOT project managers pinpoint costs for a given project.
“Typically, a handful of items correspond to the majority of a roadway project’s cost,” says Holloran. “It was determined that these items should be calculated on a per-item cost basis and included in the planning-level estimate.”
The new, user-friendly tool can also calculate quantities based on typical sections from the TDOT Roadway Design Standards, and comes complete with relevant formulae, drop-down menus, checkboxes and other features that make it easy to enter as much detail as possible at the planning stage.
Making the tool even more functional, default values for many parameters (which can be overridden with a keystroke) are auto-populated as the user inputs data. Parameters may vary as a project develops, so the tool allows existing right-of-way width, adjacent land use, terrain, existing traveled-way width and proposed width to be updated at any time. As a crucial component, the tool is simple to keep current because it’s set up to import average-unit bid prices that TDOT already produces each year and posts to its website.
Making a Difference
Ensuring the continuing positive influence of GS&P’s work, the cost-estimation tool is in use by TDOT staff and other consultants to develop more estimates for the department—estimates that will stretch tax dollars to deliver even more safe and efficient roadways throughout Tennessee.
TDOT has been extremely pleased with GS&P’s work on the EPD projects and in developing the new cost-estimation tool. The department’s initial confidence positioned GS&P as one of three on-call consultants for EPD in 2012, but it was a solid performance that kept the engagement going the following year.
“In 2013, we were chosen as one of only two on-call consultants to repeat the EPD process on 14 additional projects,” says Holloran. “We’ve received a lot of positive comments from TDOT staff on the reviews and the cost-estimation tool. The final product greatly exceeded their expectations in terms of functionality and results.”
While positive feedback was encouraging, Holloran stresses that it’s even more meaningful knowing that the team helped to focus limited state dollars toward much-needed projects, while at the same time modifying other proposals in ways that still greatly benefited local communities.
“Being part of an effort that improves the lives of people across Tennessee is an incredible privilege,”
concludes Holloran. “When you can bring the cost of projects down to half or more of what was originally proposed and meet the needs for the project, TDOT can take the money saved and apply it to other projects that will improve even more lives.”