Pete Rahn is no stranger to design-build transportation projects. He played a key role in instigating Missouri’s design-build “Safe and Sound” program, which resulted in more than 800 bridges fixed or replaced in five years. Before that, in 2006, the former Missouri Dept. of Transportation chief encouraged contractors to use innovation, regardless of state codes, in bidding for a $535-million reconstruction of a 10.5-mile-long segment of Interstate 64 in St. Louis.

Both projects were successful, but Rahn thinks design-build (DB) can go even further as a project-delivery tool. “I’m of the opinion that DOTs—and almost everyone else—have not taken full advantage of the opportunities that it actually allows,” says Rahn, now Maryland’s transportation secretary. He hopes to change that this month, when requests for proposals go out for improvements to I-270.

“The RFP is purely performance-based,” he says. “What it says is, stand on the Capital Beltway. Look north. You have $100 million. Whoever can move the most traffic the farthest and the fastest will be selected.” Lisa Choplin, former chief of innovative contracting for the Maryland DOT and now national deputy executive director for the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA), adds that the team will set the specifications, including the completion date. “We call it ‘progressive design-build’—it’s the next offshoot of design-build,” she says.

Not all states are pushing the DB envelope to that extent, but an increasing number are at least opening it. In April, Senate Bill 92 passed in Alabama, making the Alabama Dept. of Transportation the 46th state agency able to bid design-build contracts. A DBIA survey conducted in December 2015 found that design-build projects completed by DOTs had increased 600% from 2002.

“In transportation, design-build is really relatively new,” says Darryl D. VanMeter, innovative delivery administrator for the Georgia Dept. of Transportation, which has employed DB since the 1990s. “But we’re making some good strides to make it more institutionalized as a regular practice.”

Issues remain, including small-contractor concerns, the cost of investment in bids, navigating alternative technical concepts and opposition by unions, such as the Professional Engineers in California Government. “The issue is different in every location,” says James Blanusha, executive vice president of Alfred Benesch & Co. “There’s no standard process in every location.”

In Oregon, the last pure DB project was in 2009. Recently, the state chose construction manager-general contractor approach for a $200-million bridge job that included environmentally sensitive issues. “We wanted to be the third leg in the decisions that were made,” says Bob Pappe, ODOT traffic-roadway engineer. “If there is a lot of interaction with the community, we don’t think those are good design-build projects. We are in preservation mode, and that type of work doesn’t lend itself well to design-build.”

Khalil Jaber, deputy director of engineering with Nebraska’s Dept. of Roads, says that agency’s newly minted design-build legislation will emphasize projects over $50 million with some measure of complexity. While contractors will be selected through best value, cost will still play at least a 50% role, he adds.

The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey also tends to emphasize lowest cost plus prequalifications, as with the LaGuardia central-terminal and Goethals Bridge replacements. But it is developing further criteria that would allow for best-value selection, according to a spokesperson.

The Colorado Dept. of Transportation’s two-step qualifications-based DB process for complex projects weighs price less heavily than in “streamlined design-build” for smaller projects, says Josh Laipply, CDOT chief engineer. Still, less than 10% of CDOT’s total projects are design-build, although it accounts for almost half the total dollar volume. 

Some agencies echo the Maryland DOT in pushing even harder for DB innovation. Ivan Page, executive director of vendor-contract management for Los Angeles Metro, says that, for the first time, the agency included evaluation criteria on innovative ideas for its planned 2.6-mile, $1.1-billion West Side Purple Line Section 2 project package. “We are looking to see what creative and innovative ideas [the teams] can bring to the table, rather than us dictate what they may be.”

The Texas Dept. of Transportation has its own take on design-build, separating it into two categories: design-builds and comprehensive development agreements. The latter method allows for private investment in addition to design-build—essentially, public-private partnerships. Pure design-build jobs are limited to three a year, says Randy Hopmann, TxDOT director of district operations.

Washington State Dept. of Transportation has a new guidance policy that expands use of design-build on projects as small at $2 million. Like many other DOTs, WashDOT is working on standardizing contract documents, construction administration guidance and training. Bob Adams, regional vice president for Guy F. Atkinson Construction, says the agency “has worked with industry to develop a standard specification,” instead of borrowing examples from one project to another.

Smaller Jobs

Thanks to Washington state’s new policy, the city of Tacoma is in the second phase of an approximately $3-million program that improves streets—for example, curb ramps, striping, crosswalks and intersections—at sites across five districts. “These are simple yet complex projects,” says Mark D’Andrea, city engineer. “There are lots of hills, lots of grade changes. We wanted to hire someone with qualifications who would be willing to collaborate.”

The city asked prospective design-builders to submit for each site fees for design, subcontractors, man-hours and materials, says D’Andrea. “Our big risk was, what if the contractor blows through all our money and only half the sites get done? So, we opted for an incentive of $100,000 to get all the sites done,” he notes.

According to Peter Davich, Minnesota DOT design-build program manager, small projects best suited for design-build are those requiring accelerated schedules or those whose funds need to be spent by a set deadline. The small projects allow contractors and districts to become familiar with the process and tackle issues outside MnDOT’s range of expertise.

Davich notes that all but one of his agency’s 12 under-$15-million DB projects cost about 4% less than the agency’s estimate. The rare problems arose not from the project’s size but from “problems that could plague any design-build project,” such as poor scoping, loss of competition and risky third-party interaction.

Risky interaction is solved by truly embracing the root of design-build: collaboration, rather than adversarial attitudes, says Rick Baucom, NCDOT assistant division construction engineer. “It’s a cliche to talk about teamwork,” he admits. “But you just have to drink the Kool-Aid.”