North Carolina DOT's Design-Build Success Serves as Model
Before 2010, the South Carolina Dept. of Transportation had no formal group dedicated to design-build policies and projects. Now, it has a staff of 13 for that purpose—guided, in part, by the example of its North Carolina counterparts.
SCDOT had one extremely successful design-build project under its belt, the 4-kilometer-long cable-stayed Cooper River Bridge, completed in 2005. “We’d always done design-build in an ad hoc kind of way,” says Claude Ipock, SCDOT state construction engineer. “It wasn’t until about 2010 that we really started to become organized and put together a consistent group to deliver [design-build projects]. We tried to wrap our arms around it.”
The group did so by sitting down with Rodger Rochelle, director of technical services with the North Carolina Dept. of Transportation. “We sat down with him and spent a day bombarding him with questions,” recalls Ipock. “We mirror a lot of what [NCDOT’s design-build group] does.”
That NCDOT group formed in 2004, under the leadership of Rochelle and design-build engineer Teresa Bruton. The goal was to provide a rapid-response team and protect the interests of both designers and contractors as they got used to the delivery method, says Rochelle. The division also wanted to increase transparency and, when no longer emphasizing low bid, reduce the risk of technical proposals becoming a “beauty contest” bidding process. “You have to evaluate the bid based on what you say you will evaluate,” Rochelle says.
NCDOT started experimenting with DB in 1998 with three trial projects. By 2003, the Legislature allowed the agency to use DB on 25 projects per year, leading to the formation of the DB group. All restrictions disappeared in 2013. So far, NCDOT has procured 102 design-build projects, totaling nearly $5 billion.
Over the next year, NCDOT design-build totals will increase to more than 110 projects, with a value of close to $6 billion. That includes the 2.7-mile Bonner Bridge replacement, delayed for four years by lawsuits. Anticipating the lawsuit risk, NCDOT put a clause in the $215.8-million design-build contract held by PCL Civil Constructors and HDR, notes Rochelle. While the delay cost about $16 million, “if not for that clause, it’s likely the team would not have stayed on or would have added much more to the bid,” says Rochelle.
The NCDOT group no longer has to conduct “Design-Build 101” meetings for colleagues before they put a contract out to bid. It did spend a lot of time tweaking the wording of traditional contract plans. For example, “we use the word ‘shall’ a lot—so many of our policies said ‘should,’ ” says Bruton. “Then, the contractor can say, ‘I considered the option, and I decided not to.’ ” Also, if there are any large discrepancies in scoring proposals, all evaluators are questioned in order to eliminate any bias against any proposal, says Bruton.
Contrary to some perceptions, design-build doesn’t mean that the owner is “hands-off,” says Rochelle. “It’s not hands-off. We’re not saying, ‘This is your problem.’ We’re saying, ‘We’re here to help.’ ” For example, says Bruton, although the DB contractor usually handles utility relocations, NCDOT is available to facilitate a resolution with utility third parties.
NCDOT worked closely with engineers and contractors during the process, says Berry Jenkins, highway division director for the Carolinas chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America. “We sat down for over a year and a half to develop procedures and policies that everyone felt were fair, transparent and reasonably understandable,” he says. Firms that were reluctant about design-build a few years ago are now “very much committed and geared up to chase those types of projects,” says Jenkins.
The poster child for North Carolina design-build projects is the Interstate 485 interchange in Charlotte. Led by Lane Corp. with designer STV, the team re-designed the existing I-485/I-85 interchange into a two-level “turbine” interchange that uses smaller, single-span bridges, smaller columns and flatter roadway profiles. The redesign eliminated some 2 million cu yards of fill and the need to haul material to the site, reducing cost by more than $30 million, according to Lane.
The first of its kind in North Carolina, the turbine-interchange design circles all left-turning traffic around a central bridge in a counterclockwise direction. “Our contract had required a ‘fully’ directional interchange,” Bruton recalls, noting how just that one word in the contract required the team to ask to “violate” the spec with a justified alternative technical concept.
SCDOT is still streamlining its own DB process, says Ipok. For example, he notes, “Historically, we didn’t pay stipends to bidders. Now, it’s routine.”
SCDOT will procure more than $500 million this year in related projects, he adds.
Ultimately, successful design-build has to go beyond a specific division in an agency, says Bruton. “It’s a DOT program. We may be the funnel, but we couldn’t do it without the participation of all agency departments.”