By Jim Forbes
Roadway and bridge construction projects can be challenging. But also having to relocate existing utilities out of the way of these projects prior to the start of construction can add a whole new dimension to the challenges. These utilities can include water and sewer mains, electrical conduit, natural gas lines, fiber optic cables, and others.
More than 90% of America’s highways were constructed before 1950, and the need to repair and widen the roadways runs headlong into all the utility infrastructure, according to one estimate from the Federal Highway Administration.
In addition, a 2022 U.S. Federal Transit Administration white paper on the challenges and proposed solutions to utility relocation states that developing “an effective plan to manage utility relocations on any project is critical to the overall project success. Utility relocation can become one of the greatest risk factors to the schedule and cost of transit projects.”
As an example of the problems this can lead to, one state transportation department was unable to start over 50% of its projects on time because utility relocations had not been completed. Some smaller utility companies do not have enough staff members, or even the budget, to do the designs and field work to relocate their existing facilities, causing delays in projects that are otherwise ready to proceed.
This article will explore some of the more common challenges and potential solutions associated with utility coordination for the construction of roadway and bridge projects. Knowing about and preparing for these challenges ahead of time can help prevent or at least minimize costly project delays.
Environmental permits can also represent potentially serious schedule setbacks to utility relocation projects since their intent is to minimize or prevent environmental impacts to nearby wetlands, other sensitive receptors, or buffers zones surrounding these areas.
Utility relocation almost always impacts the schedule of roadway and bridge construction projects. Utility easements must be acquired by either the state or local municipalities doing the roadway or bridge construction. This is usually for wet utilities as well as power, but also frequently for gas utilities. Acquiring multiple parcels for easements within a project corridor can take anywhere from nine to 12 months, especially if the condemnation of land must occur.
Missed or abandoned utilities may impact the construction schedule due to delayed utility relocations impacting the construction Let Date. It must also be noted that not all buried utilities are accounted for because they are simply not able to be located due to poor record keeping and undocumented past relocations. Also, abandoned utilities found during construction will make the roadway contractor stop work until it has been confirmed that each utility is no longer in danger of being damaged or a safety hazard to the construction crews. These delays can impact a project schedule, especially if there are multiple abandoned utilities in the same location.
With the trials and tribulations of utility relocations, DOTs need to look at other possible solutions for relocating the utilities in a timely manner while keeping costs under control.
One potential solution, particularly for larger projects where there are multiple underground utilities that need to be relocated, is to construct a conduit-encased duct bank. Joint costs can be shared between the multiple utilities and/or the DOT, while only one contractor would be needed to install it. This would allow the utilities to have a defined pathway while allowing the DOTs and municipalities to know where all the utilities are located.
The conduits could be labeled or color coded for each utility to identify the location for their facilities. This would also reduce the time for the relocations by having just one contractor install the duct bank instead of each utility having their own contractor install each underground utility. The associated cost sharing would reduce the overall expense for each relocated utility and keep costs down for smaller utilities with limited financial resources. Also, if the states were to dedicate a corridor for the utilities, whether in a duct bank or not, this would pave the way for the relocation of current utilities for a particular project and for utilities to come through in the future, allowing the DOT to dictate where they must go.
Another solution, though not popular with state agencies, is to incorporate the relocation cost for all utilities into the project cost. This would allow the smaller companies to devote more personnel to the project, which in turn would help keep the project on schedule. Some small telecommunications firms, for example, only have one engineer to cover multiple counties and these projects are sometimes in very rural areas where the states are expanding and replacing multiple highways and bridges.
Remember, utilities are interested in making money from paying customers, not spending money, which is what happens when they must install new utilities or relocate their existing facilities due to roadway improvement projects.
The solutions to the challenges described in this article are not easy or quick – or even cheap. They will require close coordination between federal, state, local, and private entities over many years and will involve these parties being able to cooperatively work towards a common goal, which is not always easy. But the costs associated with simply maintaining the status quo are far greater and will require visionary forward thinking.
Jim Forbes is a Senior Project Manager for Weston & Sampson in Apex, North Carolina. He has 10 years of experience in transportation-related utility relocation coordination and design, as well over 35 years in civil construction and design.
Published in Roads & Bridges, February 2023.