Georgia DOT Steps Up to Meet Infrastructure Challenge
Characterizing 2017 as an “eventful” year for the Georgia Dept. of Transportation (GDOT) would be an understatement. For starters, the agency oversaw a 532-contract construction portfolio valued at $4.8 billion; made significant progress on its largest-ever highway project, the $834-million Northwest Corridor Express Lanes; broke ground on major interchange reconstructions in Atlanta and Macon; and punctuated a new focus on bridge upgrades with the agency’s first application of accelerated bridge construction, a 56-hour installation of a structure in the state’s northwest corner.
In addition, GDOT prepared to launch an $11-billion congestion relief program of megaprojects called the Major Mobility Investment Program (MMIP), one of several facets of a 2015 transportation funding measure that provides the agency with as much as $1 billion annually in dedicated project dollars.
Ordinarily, these achievements by themselves would make a compelling case for GDOT’s selection as ENR Southeast’s Owner of the Year. But they are overshadowed by an event that GDOT would have preferred not to have happened—the fire-induced collapse of an Interstate-85 bridge in downtown Atlanta. Nevertheless, the agency teamed up with Marietta-based contractor C.W. Matthews Contracting Co. to expedite a $16.6-million marathon emergency reconstruction effort, restoring the highway to traffic in just six weeks.
Russell McMurry, Georgia transportation commissioner, says that while the outcome was an impressive demonstration of GDOT’s capabilities, the level of internal and external collaboration is indicative of an agency culture founded on the principle of partnerships.
“We’ve always emphasized teamwork with our outside engineers and contractors because their success equals our success,” McMurry says. “We want to deliver safety and quality again and again—although we hope we don’t have to do it with something like I-85 again.”
When it comes to partnering, “that’s just who they are,” agrees Dan Garcia, president of C.W. Matthews, which has been involved with numerous GDOT projects over the years, including the current $178-million I-85 Express Lanes project in Atlanta.
Garcia notes that the agency’s stepped-up use of design-build and public-private partnerships have served to heighten the emphasis on collaboration. Rather than “wasting time with adversarial relationships,” Garcia says, GDOT encourages project teams to “bring ideas they can get behind. And you can see the results with the I-85 rebuild and elsewhere, with jobs completed on time and on budget.”
A fuel-tax increase implemented as part of the state’s 2015 Transportation Funding Act has given GDOT more opportunities to apply that collaborative spirit, in the process putting a major dent in the agency’s resurfacing and bridge maintenance backlog.
“We haven’t reached our new normal,” says Marc Mastronardi, GDOT director of construction, adding that having an average of four bids per contract offering has helped keep costs largely in check.
“That’s also a testament to the capacity of contractors,” he says. “There’s a lot of work for everyone, and their staffing is going up, which is a sign of a good market.”
Mastronardi foresees further growth in construction volume as the agency shifts its focus to other areas as the paving backlog is erased.
“We’ll need more bridge contractors in the state,” he says.
Contractors may also see GDOT apply early completion incentives such as those used to help expedite the I-85 rebuild, albeit on a case-by-case basis.
“We are looking at other opportunities where the industry can show what it can bring to bear,” Mastronardi says. “But we’ll also need to manage our expectations of what they can do, and whether the need justifies the cost.”
GDOT also appears eager to build on its nascent success in applications of alternative project delivery. Last year, its newly created public-private partnership division oversaw more than 70 design-build and design-build-finance projects, valued at more than $13 billion. They range from the consolidation of nearly 40 bridge replacement and modernization projects into nine separate contracts to the addition of express lanes to the Northwest Corridor’s I-75 and I-575 expressways. The joint venture of Archer Western and Hubbard Construction is on pace to complete the 29.3-mile project this summer.
Construction also started on the $800-million Transform 285/400 project, a four-year design-build-finance effort by the team of Ferrovial Agroman U.S., The Louis Berger Group and Neel-Schaffer Inc. That project will add flyover ramps and collector-distributor lanes to the notoriously congested interchange on Atlanta’s north perimeter.
Not surprisingly, the MMIP megaprojects will also make extensive use of design-build. The program gets underway this summer with phase one of the $440-million, 23-mile widening of I-85 northeast of Atlanta by C.W. Matthews. Procurement and construction of phase two is expected to take place in 2024.
Darryl VanMeter, administrator for GDOT’s office of innovative delivery, says the agency has spent the last two years putting the management structure for the 11-project program in place, with HNTB serving as program manager.
But while the agency is counting on alternative delivery to maximize project benefits, “it’s still up to us to set the table for the innovation we want to see from contractors,” VanMeter says. “It requires good scoping and estimating so we can understand on an annual basis what costs will be each year, then roll that up into the entire project.”
Doing so for such efforts, he adds, means drawing on a variety of perspectives—financing, construction and legal, among others.
“We’re no longer going by just the design engineer’s estimate,” VanMeter says.
A statewide strategy
Though metropolitan Atlanta and its notorious traffic issues are understandably a major focus for GDOT, the state’s large agribusiness economy demands that the agency give equal attention to its vast rural areas. The presence of major port operations in Savannah and Brunswick is a similarly critical consideration, justifying the next two MMIP projects—reconstruction of the I-16/I-95 interchange and a separate widening program for I-16. Both jobs have shortlisted their design-build teams with an eye toward getting work underway in 2019.
Another MMIP project, slated for the mid-2020s, will create 77 miles of dedicated truck lanes on I-75 north of Macon. John Hibbard, the agency’s director of operations, expects the new lanes to incorporate the now-emerging connective vehicle technology that will allow trucks to operate more efficiently.
Hibbard adds that with so many developments occurring in the area of connected and autonomous vehicles, “we’re casting a wide net” when it comes to technology evaluation.
By next year, for example, the agency will have upgraded 50 signals in metropolitan Atlanta to provide test vehicles with basic information such as which direction is green and the number of seconds before the light changes. The pilot program will be extended to include congestion reports on several major freeways.
And thanks to the 2015 financing act, Hibbard adds, “We have more money for pavement markings and striping roads—features that are fundamental to connected and autonomous vehicle operation but [that also] will have an immediate benefit to all motorists.”
As with most others involved in infrastructure construction and maintenance, workforce issues top the list of concerns for the future. “We’re a smaller agency than we’ve ever been,” McMurry says, “but the volume of lane miles and bridges we’re responsible for has never been greater. Technology can do only so much, which is why we’re helping our schools expose more students to careers in our industry.”
Mastronardi points to the I-85 rebuild as evidence for optimism about the next generation of industry leaders.
“The way our younger staff stepped up to that challenge leaves no doubt in my mind that they and their peers will be equally innovative and brilliant when they take on leadership responsibilities of their own,” he says, quoting the title of a popular 1960s song, “The Kids Are Alright.”