Exploring the A-Z of Building a Road
Series Summary: From vision to right-of-way acquisition, what’s happening with the City of Huntsville’s infrastructure development? In this multi-part series, we hear from those who lead the effort. We’ll explore the roadwork questions – from Big Picture to granular – on the minds of Huntsville citizens. Have we missed something you want to know? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sitting in his eighth-floor office at City Hall, Mayor Tommy Battle didn’t have to think long to answer to the question, “When first elected, what surprised you most about major road projects?”
It was the time.
Mayor Battle offers the Zierdt Road project as an example.
“When I first came into office 12 years ago, Zierdt Road was not up to the standards of what Huntsville, Alabama, should accept,” Mayor Battle said.
The newly elected mayor told his City team, “We’re going to rebuild Zierdt Road in three years.”
According to Mayor Battle, City engineers looked at him and said, “Mayor, don’t say that. It can take ten years to build a road when federal funds are involved.”
Between environmental assessments, public involvement meetings, right-of-way acquisitions and, in Zierdt Road’s case a literal act of Congress to acquire land from Redstone Arsenal, the City of Huntsville is now eight years into the $21 million Zierdt Road Improvement project and about two years away from completing.
When it’s all said and done – about 10 years.
Not all road projects are of the same scope as Zierdt. Some have fewer moving parts and some, if you can believe it, have more.
The process of building a road can be cumbersome and understandingly frustrating to commuters. It’s fair to ask the question: Why does it take so long to build a road?
To help better understand why road building can be a lengthy process, let’s explore the basic steps and factors that can impact a project with one major caveat courtesy of City of Huntsville Engineering Director Kathy Martin:
“No two road projects are the same.”
“If it’s a city-funded project it can move more quickly,” said Shane Davis, Urban Development Director for the City of Huntsville.
Davis says this is in part due to Huntsville’s ability to run road development phases parallel instead of sequentially, as required when state or federal funds are involved.
When stages of a road project must run sequentially, 100 percent of the previous phase must be completed before work can begin on the next phase. For example, if a single element of design is questioned by the State or Federal government, the lengthy process of right-of-way acquisition can’t begin.
It’s a domino effect.
If right-of-way acquisition isn’t 100 percent complete in accordance with federal acquisition procedures, the construction phase can’t get started.
“There are a lot of processes and procedures associated with using federal funds, and there should be that check and balance,” Davis said. “If a single reviewer from the federal government says, ‘I don’t like the radius of that curve’ then it comes all the way back.”
“That red tape is there for a reason,” Mayor Battle said. “It’s because somebody at some point didn’t do what they needed to, and it cost taxpayers a lot of money. There are a lot of safeguards built into both the local and federal systems so that when you finally get that road built, it’s built in the right manner.”
For City-led projects, the Engineering Department takes the lead on design, and the timeline can vary from months to years depending on the complexity of the project and funding source.
More funding sources can translate to more hoops to jump through.
The department, currently managing around 50 road improvement projects, works in-house or hires a consultant, depending on the scope. Number and width of lanes, medians, exit ramp locations and bridge style are examples of some of the considerations detailed in the renderings.
These design documents, once approved, will be the road map for the entire project.
Curtis Vincent, North Region Engineer for the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) wants the public to know that their voices matter.
For instance, public input on improvements at Highway 72/University Drive positively changed the design of the project.
“We had businesses and private citizens that did not like some of the things we were proposing as far as access management,” said Vincent. “We went back and looked at each individual business to see how the project was slated to impact them – considerations included things like changes to driveways or the installation of a concrete island.”
These changes ultimately led to a better product thanks to the public’s involvement.
Seth Burkett, Public Information Officer for ALDOT, explains the department typically plans outreach that scales with the size or anticipated impact of a project. If the design calls for changing the way a road functions, a public involvement meeting will likely be held. These public meetings are required by State Law to be advertised 30 days in advance.
Those interested can visit ALDOT’s website to stay updated on public involvement meetings or complete this online form to share concerns involving the State and federal highway system.
On a municipal level, public involvement meetings are also held for major road projects, and citizen involvement can extend beyond reporting and into the board room.
Board meetings for the Huntsville Area Metropolitan Organization (MPO) are open to the public, and the MPO’s Citizen Advisory Committee is a direct way citizens can make an impact on road development. Those interested in joining the Citizen Advisory Committee can e-mail the City’s Manager or Urban and Long-Range Planning Dennis Madsen.
Alabama state law requires all projects over $15,000 to be bid and awarded to the lowest responsible bidder.
Depending on the funding source, this bid process is either managed on a state or municipal level and must be publicly advertised to all interested bidders. Pre-bid meetings are held to discuss the project plans and specifications with interested bidders followed by a bid opening typically held four weeks after advertising begins.
If the road project is City-led, the lowest bid will go before the Huntsville City Council for approval. Next, a notice to proceed is usually issued two weeks after City Council approval. The timeframe is extended if the project is state-led, and a contractor is usually on-site 90 days after the lowest responsible bidder is identified.
This step can be the most time consuming and is often critical to a project meeting or beating deadline.
‘Right-of-way’ is a term for government-owned property intended for public use and maintenance. For example, sidewalks, roadways and public parks are all part of the government’s right-of-way.
Battle says one of the biggest factors preventing new road development is not having access to right-of-way that should have been preserved years ago. He says being proactive about obtaining this critical space saves taxpayer money.
“If you think forward 20, 25, 30, maybe even 40 or 50 years, and you preserve right-of-way now for those roads you know will have to be done in the future, you are going to get two and three times the road for your dollar than if you started the acquisition process immediately before breaking ground on a project.”
According to Mayor Battle, City planners are identifying the growth corridors now for future development, so when the time comes, Huntsville will be well-positioned for success.
Right of way acquisition doesn’t just apply to undeveloped land, oftentimes it involves purchasing property that includes homes.
Kathy Martin, City of Huntsville Director of Engineering, explains when federal funds are involved, the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act must be followed. The act, approved by Congress in 1970, requires any government purchasing land from citizens to offer “comparable replacement housing in a comparable location.”
Martin says this right-of-way acquisition process can be lengthy. It includes detailed discussions and surveying with each property owner for appraisals, reviewing relocation assistance options and, when needed, seeking out legal opinions to reach a resolution.
“People ask ‘Why does it take so long to get a project to construction?’” Martin said. “I like to remind folks that if it was their property the government was trying to acquire, they would also want every respect and consideration to ensure they are offered a fair market value. Every property owner has a different perspective of what their property is worth, and it can be difficult to adequately estimate the amount of time it takes to secure all the property needed to begin work.”
If existing electricity, gas, water, fiber and/or sewage infrastructure is within the area of construction – either below or above ground – utility relocation must be completed. This falls to public utility companies like Huntsville Utilities or private communication providers such as AT&T, Comcast, WOW or Google Fiber. These conflicts are reviewed in detail with each provider and if affected, relocations must be complete. This means the old infrastructure needs to be removed before the road contractor can begin work in the area.
This coordinated process can sometimes take years to complete depending on the extent of the conflict and the complexity of the franchise agreements in place with each utility provider.
CLEARING AND GRUBBING
You’ve gone through the lengthy process of securing the land where the road will eventually be built, now it’s time to make room for construction, clearing everything from shrubbery to debris and physical structures. This can take anywhere between a few days to a few months or longer, especially if utility relocation efforts are extensive.
Essentially, you’re cleaning house so the contractor can begin work unimpeded.
Martin illustrates her point with the Church Street road improvement project, a $15.7 million project that includes city, state and federal funds. The area where Church Street is being widened and rerouted had a creek running through the middle, a concrete plant, and several small businesses. All of these structures had to be cleared before utilities could begin relocations and construction work on the new roadway could begin.
Throughout the road building process, the City and State work with federal entities such as the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure all federal guidelines and requirements are followed.
CHANGE ORDERS & WEATHER
Hello, Mother Nature.
Crews can sometimes work in light rain so long as there’s no lightning or threat of flooding, but the moisture from rain, snow or ice can prevent asphalt and concrete from adhering to the nascent road’s surface.
Not to mention, some material suppliers stop manufacturing base ingredients in wet or cold weather conditions due to the impact of moisture and temperature on the formation of these materials.
In addition to unavoidable nature-related delays, change orders can also result from unforeseen conditions such as poor soil materials or utility conflicts on site. Scope changes can sometimes occur during construction requiring additional work that can also cause a change in the project’s timeline.
These modifications can lead to changes to the original construction contract and a revisit to the appropriate governing body for approval.
ECONOMY OF ROADS
The process of building a road is far from simple and far from fast. Challenges, as we’ve seen, lie in wait all around.
As a state, Alabama ranks 25th in terms of transportation infrastructure spending.
As a whole, the United States is struggling to address its infrastructure needs. In fact, according to the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization, from 2007 to 2017, total public spending on infrastructure fell by $9.9 billion.
And yet the City of Huntsville isn’t deterred by these challenges. It can’t afford to be. Leaders and their teams continue to work toward innovative, collaborative solutions regardless of the monetary challenges.
For Mayor Battle, time is money. To keep Huntsville competitive and continue to attract new businesses and maintain a healthy quality of life, it’s imperative the Rocket City keep up with its infrastructure needs.
“It’s a big game of Sim City, and you play it every day,” Mayor Battle said. “And I’d put our City team and regional partners up against anyone in the country.”