Published on July 13th, 2016 | by UC&D Magazine0
Orange barrels and flashing lights might not be welcome sights on a motorist’s morning commute, but these signals indicate far more than a traffic headache. They represent steady improvements in the state’s infrastructure – a key factor in Utah’s thriving economy.
“The data shows that Utah is one of the best places to be in business, in part because we have a solid infrastructure and freeway system,” said Richard Thorn, President/CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Utah.
For five of the past six years, Forbes has ranked Utah first on the ‘Best States for Business’ list, in part “due to government leaders investing in infrastructure and providing that atmosphere,” said Jeff Clyde, President of W. W. Clyde & Co. in Springville.
“We have this unique philosophy in the state that we want to take care of ourselves and not rely on someone else,” said Joseph Walker, Director of Communications for the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT). “Transportation is something we value, so we’re willing to pay for it.”
Thorn, Clyde, and Walker were some of the heavy/highway experts who spoke about the sector in recent interviews with Utah Construction & Design. Across the board, these professionals believe Utah is leading the way in funding strategy and innovation when it comes to major road construction. They also agree that the sector faces distinct challenges due to the constant interface with the traveling public.
In explaining more of the specifics behind funding for Utah’s roads, UDOT Director of Project Development, Randy Park, spoke about the gas tax passed in 2015, which raised prices at the pump nearly five cents per gallon. The increase is estimated to generate $76 million annually for infrastructure preservation and maintenance, including a focus on maintaining bridges.
“Our bridges are in significantly better shape than the rest of the country,” said Park. The tax also allows the state to maintain Level 2 roads in Utah, a designation assigned to byways with low traffic volumes. “We had to let those roads go,” Park said. Now, “that gas tax is going to help us eliminate the Level 2 category.”
The tax is integral to Utah’s Transportation Investment Fund, a critical aspect of the state’s highway funding. “Utah relies fairly minimally on federal funding,” said Clyde.
“The state has a wonderful situation here because of the mix of funds,” echoed Park, explaining that “we really are unusual” in the way infrastructure is funded across the nation, since the state is “providing over 50% of our funding.” In 2016, roadwork in Utah is 47% federally funded; in 2017 it will be 45%, and in 2018 that figure is expected to drop to 42%.
The decline doesn’t necessarily represent a decrease in absolute dollars, but it demonstrates the gap between federal funding and Utah’s needs.
“Currently, [federal funding] isn’t enough to keep up with the growth of the population,” said Mike Kurz, South Region President at Staker Parson Cos. in Ogden. As such, the state picks up the shortfall. Still, these levels of funding don’t necessarily equate to significant growth in the sector. “With the public sector, it pretty much is status quo,” said Brandon Squire, President of Draper-based Ralph L. Wadsworth Construction Co.
Kurz agreed, explaining that growth in the heavy/highway sector “is relatively flat,” though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Our state has done a very good job of staying consistent, so the outlook is good.”
Clyde concurred, noting that steady growth is preferable to rapid growth, because it is hard to build up crews and then risk layoffs when work slows.
Travis Farr, Project Manager at Wadsworth Brothers Construction of Draper, offered a slightly different perspective on the market. “Right now it’s the best it’s been since 2008, but it hasn’t fully recovered to those levels,” he said. There is still competition in the market because “that excess capacity is still there. Some of it left when the economy fell apart, but a lot of it stayed. Nobody in our sector has as much work as they can handle.”
Competition Breeds Innovation
As it often does in a competitive market, innovation has thrived. The sector is constantly improving through the adoption of new technologies and techniques, such as 3D modeling and design.
“(UDOT) is really on the forefront of 3D design,” said Squire. “We receive data from the design and we can put that directly into our machine controls.”
“It is all 3D now,” echoed Tyler Shepherd, Staker Parson’s I-15 Point Project Manager. “It is 3D paving, 3D excavation, right down to putting pipe in the ground.” “We’ve lagged behind the vertical world in using technology,” said Park, but now building information modeling (BIM) – which has been used for some time in vertical construction – is coming into the heavy/highway market.
“With BIM modeling you can go in and model the project, you can see the conflicts, you can even schedule,” said
Clyde. “Before construction, you can see what needs to be done differently.”
“It’s all about modeling,” added Park. “In order to be successful we have to start with good surveys.”
Of course, those inputs don’t come free. “It costs a lot,” said Farr. “People from the outside think it is simple and it takes care of itself, but it costs an enormous amount of money for the surveying and engineering on the backside.” Still, “it is more accurate in the end.”
“We see the benefits to us as the owner and to the contractors for efficiency and improving their profits,” agreed Park. “When you can build to a certain accuracy, quality goes up. Technology enhances what each person can do on a project.”
Using drones, for example, “minimizes the number of surveyors you need on the job,” said Clyde. “We have drones now where we can do a Lidar scan and on a monthly basis you can tell how much we have moved.”
Advanced technologies within the machines themselves are also adding efficiency. Caterpillar’s VisionLink, for example, supplies a “constant feed of what our machines are doing,” said Clyde, who can pull a report at any time to monitor machines, loads, cycle times, and overall productivity. Ultimately this allows his teams to utilize machinery more effectively.
On site, Squire notes that intrusion alarms are another important technological advancement. They detect the speed and direction of passing vehicles and if a vehicle enters the work zone, employees are alerted through an alarm on their vests.
In addition to new technologies, construction methods such as Accelerated Bridge Construction (ABC) are keeping workers safe and traffic flowing. ABC allows, for example, a new bridge to be constructed next to an existing bridge and then slid into place within a matter of hours once demolition of the old structure is completed. “It saves an enormous amount of time for the traveling public,” said Thorn. “UDOT has been a pioneer in that.”
Completing projects quickly is another area in which Utah excels, but balancing a project’s speed and efficiency with quality and worker safety is a constant challenge. “Too much focus on one will cause another to suffer,” said Farr.
“Speed is our number one issue in construction projects,” said Park. “If we could control speed, we could enhance safety.”
In order to keep traffic flowing during construction, much of the work is done at night, but that approach comes with drawbacks. “Quality goes down when you work at night,” Farr said. Visibility is reduced, people are tired, and “if something goes wrong, your resources are limited.”
In addition to the challenges of nighttime work, the overall project schedule “is always a challenge in the heavy/highway sector,” said Kurz. “There is a penalty if we don’t succeed” in meeting it.
Penalties can be as high as $25,000 for each additional hour over the scheduled time frame, Thorn said. “That becomes a little bit of a challenge because the stakes are so high, contractors can’t afford to make a mistake. If the contractor isn’t diligent, it can create an unsafe working condition.”
“In short windows of operation, it is hard to safely set up lane closures while performing the task at hand,” said Kurz. “It adds additional costs. The tighter we close these windows, it increases the price. I’m not convinced that the tradeoff is worth it.”
High Demand for Labor
In addition to these scheduling constraints, the sector is facing an additional constraint that is shared by the broader construction industry – a shortage of skilled labor.
“In the last year or so, other (construction) sectors are getting busy enough that there isn’t as much extra labor to pick from,” said Farr.
“The number one concern we have right now is labor shortage,” echoed Clyde.
“Young people are not attracted to this industry,” Park aded. “We hope using technology and taking it to the next level will be attractive to the younger generation.”
The AGC of Utah says workforce development is listed as the primary issue in its annual surveys, and it is the first item the association is addressing in its 2016 plan. They work with members to provide scholarships, and they own and operate their own training center. They are also active in educating guidance counselors and students about opportunities in the field, and are active in advising government leaders on workforce development in the state. “We’re optimistic that we’re going to make a dent, but there’s a lot of work to be done,” said Thorn.
“You can have all the programs in the world, but if you don’t have the right people, it won’t work,” added Farr. “As of late, we’ve had some really good experiences with [cooperation and collaboration in the state]. We’ve all benefited from it.”
“Our contractors in Utah have enormous pride for the work they do. Most of them are local. They’re always proud to be able to drive through something they’ve built,” Park concluded. “We as the DOT and the traveling public are the benefactors.”