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May 2016

"The Mountain Ahead;
The Stones In Our Shoes"

The mountain ahead is infrastructure. Having just celebrated Infrastructure Week, May 16-23, 2016, we continue the focus on all things infrastructure. Guest author Michael Ellegood, PE, has held positions ranging from Project Engineer through Senior Executive in major consulting engineering firms. He joined the public sector as an agency head ultimately retiring as County Engineer, Public Works Director and Transportation Director for Maricopa County, Arizona. Michael is a Senior Consultant with PSMJ Resources and collaborates with public works agencies across North America to improve their project delivery. In this article he addresses professional performance issues within the A/E/C community.

There is an old Chinese proverb that states something like, "It's not the mountain ahead that stops the traveler, it's the stones in his shoe".

In our United States, there is a well documented and widely acknowledged need for more infrastructure investment. We have bridges and highways to build, dams and water systems to repair, tunnels and transit to fix..........and no money to do it.

As politicians pontificate about taxes and smaller government and more individual "freedom", all are excuses not to invest in infrastructure. The sad reality is that we, charged with delivering public infrastructure, do not have a track record that will engender public confidence. If and when the money becomes available, can we deliver?

The sad reality is...probably not.

In 2007 AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) published a report on State DOT project delivery. About half were delivered on time and budget except for "big" projects - defined as over $5,000,000 in construction cost. In that case, only 35% were delivered on time.

A recent article in the L. A. Times chronicles the saga of the first segment of the long awaited California High Speed Rail project; A mega project with great visibility worldwide. This project, if completed, will speed travelers from LA to San Francisco in just a few hours. The initial segment, under construction in California's Central Valley is already delayed by many months and is substantially over budget.

Boston's Green Line has a similar story, over budget and now undergoing significant scope reduction to deliver it with the funds available. The Green Line was justified as "environmental mitigation" for the big dig. Now to make the Green Line acceptable to the public, bicycle paths and station amenities were added and the costs spiked.

How come? Why can't we do what we set out to do? It's not like we engineers haven't built roads and rail systems before. The dirty little secret, the stones in our shoe, is that we keep making the same costly mistakes time and time again.

The AASHTO study and comparable observations by competent project managers shows that the five most common causes for public projects to be delayed or go over budget are: Right of Way issues; Utility coordination problems; Issues with permits; Public/political acceptance; and Underground "surprises".

In fact, the California High Speed Rail project has most of these:

  • The managing authority issued NTP to the contractor before all the rights of way were acquired. Read contractor delay claim...a costly claim indeed!
  • The underground utilities were not where they were shown on the provided maps ((Imagine that!). More relocation, more delay, more claims, more cost.
  • A road relocation was not acceptable to one of the adjacent business communities (public acceptance). Redo the relocation plans, more delay, redesign, more cost.

The Green Line may have had some of these issues as well - to date they have not been made public. What is known is that costly amenities were added for the public to accept the project.

If we, as professional engineers, charged with infrastructure delivery, are ever to earn the trust of the public that provides the funds and the elected officials that represent them, we need to do better. Much of this is basic management. Much of this is simply not making the same costly mistakes over and over from project to project.

Now you know the stones in our shoe that stop, delay and make our journey painful; Right of Way, Utilities, Permits, Public Acceptance and Underground Surprises - isn't it time we learn to manage these?

This article highlights the importance of A/E/C professionals earning trust when fulfilling responsibilities, and the damaging effects of repeating the same mistakes. Once broken, repairing the trust is extremely difficult. In terms of managing your credentials, what bad habits are you repeating? Visit for assistance.

October 12-14

We have been invited to participate in "Thrive 2016".
The one event for A/E/C industry leaders to learn, connect, exchange ideas, and plan for the future.

AECredentialing will be announcing exclusive discount registration information soon.


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