In “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” Steve Martin and John Candy are forced to navigate the Midwest’s many roads, rails and runways. HNTB Corp., with its wide range of expertise in the transportation market, is one firm that could easily understand the hurdles Martin and Candy faced.

“I tell staff all the time, it’s all about delivering great projects for our clients.”

– Dave McDougal, HNTB Indiana Office Leader

With more than a century of experience and more than $208 million in 2018 revenue, HNTB has been named ENR Midwest’s 2019 Design Firm of the Year. The Kansas City, Mo.-based architecture, civil engineering consulting and construction management firm was founded in 1914 and has offices in 30 states and the District of Columbia. HNTB’s work last year included at least $1 million in revenue from each state in the Midwest region.

“We are absolutely dedicated to what our clients want to achieve,” says Matt Hintze, HNTB Great Lakes division president. “We’re not going to grow through mergers and acquisitions; we’re going to grow organically. And the only way to grow organically is doing good work for clients.”

Across north and south, east and west, HNTB’s fingerprints can be seen all over the 11-state region’s infrastructure. Hintze points to four key areas — aviation, transit, DOTs (or roadwork) and toll work. It’s been a successful game plan that resulted in the firm being ranked No. 5 on ENR Midwest’s Top Design Firms list.

Departmental Work

HNTB worked on environmental approvals for 18 months on the Interstate 65 and Interstate 70 interchange on the northeast side of downtown Indianapolis. The North Split project, as it is known, took on the challenge of replacing or repairing deteriorating bridges, upgrading pavement and improving safety. The interchange, which is used by more than 170,000 vehicles per day, is one of the heaviest traveled areas of the state and witnessed over 1,600 accidents between 2012 and 2016. HNTB handled everything on the project from environmental to construction consulting.

“I tell staff all the time, it’s all about delivering great projects for our clients,” says Dave McDougal, HNTB Indiana office leader and vice president. “That carries through on a day-to-day basis.”

McDougal is also office leader in Ohio. The firm led the project design of Phase 1 of Columbus’ new traffic signal system, which involved an overhaul of the city’s entire outdated signals hardware and software systems. The multiphased project creates a modern, computerized traffic signal system as well as a communications network. It required new head-end signal and camera control software systems, 450 miles of fiber optic cable, upgraded traffic control signals at more than 1,000 intersections and a new traffic management center.

HNTB wrapped work last year on Chicago’s O’Hare Airport runway 9C-27C. Part of a $550-million O’Hare modernization project, the new runway is the second largest at the nation’s third-busiest airport. Work on the 11,245-ft-long and 200-ft-wide runway included the design of north and south full-length parallel taxiways and three high-speed taxiways. The pavement section of the runway is 19 in. of Portland cement concrete pavement coated over 6 in. of bituminous base course over 6 in. of asphalt-treated permeable base.

In Transit

“The transit practice is really exciting,” says Hintze. “The transit practice is the fastest growing at HNTB.”

HNTB has been a transit adviser for the city of Milwaukee since 1999. Their most recent project was the city’s Hop Streetcar, which opened in November. The 2.1-mile line connects downtown with the Lower East Side and Historic Third Ward neighborhoods. The firm was responsible for environmental assessment, preliminary engineering and final engineering.

A little further north, HNTB served as the designer for the $150-million Orange rapid transit bus line in Minneapolis, a 17-mile route on the city’s west side. They are also just starting work on the city’s Gold Line, a nine-mile transit route from St. Paul to Woodbury.

While the firm is helping rebuild O’Hare on the north side of Chicago, on the south side it’s helping the city expand the Chicago Transit Authority — HNTB is program manager for the city’s Red Line extension project. This proposed $2.3-billion, 5.3-mile extension of the Red Line train includes four new stations, stretching the current rail line from 95th Street to 130th Street. Still in the planning stage, HNTB is helping the CTA get through the design-build and the environmental impact stages.

“Most of our funding has been received by grants, and HNTB has been very successful in helping us receive a lot of grants.”

– Samuel Tuck III, Bureau Chief, Freight Rail Management, Illinois Dept. of Transportation

One of the projects HNTB’s leadership is excited to tackle is the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency program. CREATE is a partnership between the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, the state of Illinois, Cook County, the city of Chicago, Metra, Amtrak and the nation’s freight railroads. It analyzes 70 areas across northern Illinois where road traffic meets rail traffic and attempts to remove or upgrade them. The program goals include improving passenger rail service by reducing freight rail congestion, reducing motorist delay at grade crossings and enhancing public safety.

The heart of the issue for CREATE is congestion. A total of 500 freight trains and 800 passenger trains pass through the Chicago area each day, resulting in hundreds of thousands of hours of delay each year, increased air pollution and the potential for train/vehicle collisions. Metra and Amtrak trains in the region serve more than 83 million passengers annually.

“This program is really pivotal for the state,” says Lillian Yan, office sales manager and program manager in Chicago. “It untangles a congested area. Last June we earned the largest infrastructure grant from the US-DOT in 2018. No other state has that big of a contribution.”

As of April, 30 of the 70 identified projects have been completed, and five more are in Phase 3 of construction. The completed projects include five grade crossing separations and nine of the 11 rail projects along the Beltway Corridor.

The ultimate goal of CREATE is economic growth, fewer delays and cost savings for rail passengers as well as fewer delays, sustainability and reduced congestion for road passengers. It is estimated full implementation of CREATE will generate 44,000 jobs.

The benefits are measured in increments such as travel-time savings, safety benefits and sustainability. For example, one year of travel-time savings under increased rail capacity is estimated to be equivalent to $1.03 billion in benefits. One year of travel-time savings under grade separation is estimated at $15 million. The result is a projected $31.5 billion in benefits over 30 years.

HNTB is the program manager for the Illinois DOT on CREATE. The project highlights HNTB’s ability to think big. Last year, the CREATE team was awarded $132 million in federal funding for the 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project. In October, the project team celebrated with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, who made public remarks about the project’s national importance in creating jobs and increasing railroad efficiency. 

Leading the Tollways

HNTB is engineering consultant to more tolling agencies than any other firm in the country. In the Midwest alone, it has partnered with the city of Chicago, Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, the Indiana DOT, Kansas Turnpike Authority, Ohio DOT and Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission.

One of their largest projects was the Illinois Tollway’s Congestion Relief Program, for which HNTB serves as program manager. In addition to widening and constructing 274 miles of highway and building a new 12.5-mile extension, HNTB instituted the tollway’s first web-based program management system, which is now active across most of the state’s toll roads.

Commitment to Clients

HNTB’s four key business areas are the foundation of what Hintze says is the firm’s service and dedication to clients, but that’s typical of our Top Design Firms. ENR Midwest talked to HNTB’s clients and got their perspective on the value the firm provides.

“HNTB’s team members are personally and emotionally invested in their projects,” says Jeff Polenske, commissioner for public works, city of Milwaukee. Polenske explains that HNTB was chosen because of the firm’s commitment to develop the community. “They became pretty active in the Community Streetcar Coalition and that helped us connect with other communities and get ideas of what worked for them. That speaks to their level of commitment.”

That sentiment was shared across design disciplines and state lines in Chicago.

“Most of our funding has been received by grants, and HNTB has been very successful in helping us receive a lot of grants,” says Samuel Tuck III, bureau chief, freight rail management, for the Illinois DOT. “We received the biggest grant ever ($132 million) from the U.S. DOT.”

Tuck, who serves as HNTB’s liaison on CREATE, likened his partnership with the firm to that of a coach and a basketball team.

“It’s like in sports. I’m [San Antonio Spurs head coach] Popovich,” Tuck says. “Every once in awhile, you’ve got to draw up a play at the end of the game, but with HNTB on my team I can let them play because there’s that level of trust. Imagine you’re doing all phases at any given time. We meet twice a month with the railroads. We’re dealing with Phase 1, Phase 2 and Phase 3. Someone’s got to help me out, and HNTB has pretty much kept me going.”