State Enjoys Surprise Benefit from Highway Program

Article excerpt

When the Oklahoma Legislature approved the $1 billion highway capital improvement program back in 1997, there were some benefits not in the bill.

Because the bill had such a limited time line -- the Oklahoma Department of Transportation was required to award contracts within three years -- a new way of doing business was created.

During the normal course of the highway construction business, numerous federal and state regulations slow progress to a glacier pace.

When the capital improvement plan was taken on, these speed bumps were removed simply by a different planning method.

Instead of waiting for one phase to be completed before starting on the next, planners simply carried on several activities simultaneously.

Doing this also decentralized the process, moving some of the activities out to the field engineer and consulting firms.

"When they (the transportation department) took this on, they knew that they were not staffed to do the planning, the engineering and construction the way that was necessary," said Tony Dark, president of FHC, a Tulsa-based consulting engineer firm. "To complete a project of this magnitude in such a short time, they had to do something differently.

"So they brought in the field engineers and made them more of the process, then hired consultants to bring everything together."

There was an overall management team hired on the state level, plus another firm for each of the eight divisions.

"Normally, when a project is planned, the planning department selects a corridor, the highway is planned while real estate people work to acquire the necessary right of way," Dark said. "Then an environmental impact study is done, the design is made, then the engineering is done. All aspects of the roadway is designed and engineered before construction can begin.

"Each phase of the process had to be completed before going on to the next."

As an example, initial work on realigning Interstate 40 through downtown Oklahoma City has taken seven years and money is not yet available.

With the accelerated pace set up for the capital improvement plan, though, several of these phases were done simultaneously, drastically cutting time before construction.

This also is the way the Oklahoma Transportation Authority, the turnpike agency, cuts time on building its roads.

Most engineering and construction companies appear to prefer this compressed schedule, Dark said.

It's not known if that process will continue on future projects. Probably not, since so many activities lead to a good, solid road that will provide a quality ride that will last for years.

"There's a lot that goes on behind the scenes even before an RFP (request for proposals) is sent out to the consulting, design and engineering firms," said Barry Burks, FHC vice president who is overseeing western Oklahoma and several projects there. "The transportation department must first decide if a new road is needed or whether an existing two-lane road can be converted into a four- lane road."

Once this is decided, he said, a complete historical perspective is taken on the chosen alignment to determine traffic counts, how many accidents and fatalities there have been on the existing roadway, what caused the accidents and how those impediments can be removed.

"Usually, this shows up in the needs study, a five-year plan that the Oklahoma Transportation Commission updates every year," Burks said. …