The townhouse at 107 West Saratoga St. in downtown Baltimore looks much the same as it did in 1923, when it was the first address of a structural engineering consulting firm that eventually would become known as RK&K. Just as that edifice has endured throughout the decades, the nascent enterprise it housed has grown and evolved into one of the top transportation and infrastructure consultants in ENR’s MidAtlantic region.
This year, RK&K marks its centennial and has nearly 1,000 employees in 18 MidAtlantic offices. It also has become an important player in a variety of major projects across the region. Ranked at No. 5 on the 2023 ENR MidAtlantic Top Design Firms list, RK&K recorded $214.7 million in regional revenue in 2022, up nearly 14% from 2021, when the firm ranked No. 7. Its national revenue total of $302 million for last year placed it at No. 76 among ENR’s 2023 Top 500 Design Firms.
RK&K’s leaders say multiple factors have contributed to the firm’s regional success including a “one profit center” operational model that fosters greater collaboration across the organization. The firm’s decades-long relationships with state and local transportation agencies also are proving particularly critical amid the surge of new project funding from the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Karen Kahl, RK&K executive director for transportation, says that when agencies need help with fast-track or high-profile projects, “we’re one of the go-to firms to make sure [the agencies] can get the work done.”
Many are also turning to RK&K for help in delivering the programs. Clients that recently have taken advantage of the firm’s staff-augmentation services include the Virginia Dept. of Transportation; Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA); the Prince William, Va., County Service Authority; the city of Chesapeake, Va.; and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
“We’ve also stood up a team to help clients apply for grants under the new federal transportation programs so that they can not only address existing, long-standing needs, but also launch new efforts in transit and transportation equity,” notes RK&K partner Mimi Kronisch. She adds that RK&K has grown its construction management and inspection practice, enhancing the firm’s value as a partner to the region’s contractors, particularly for complex design-build efforts.
“They realize that a project isn’t just about design, it has to be built,” observes Mike Higgins, general manager of Concrete General Inc., a Gaithersburg, Md.-based firm that has collaborated with RK&K on numerous design-build projects. One of them, a $173-million transportation systems management and operations project along Interstate-695 in Baltimore, was underway on March 22 when a speeding vehicle crashed into the work zone, killing six CGI employees. The incident remains under investigation.
Higgins cites the recently completed I-270 Innovative Congestion Management Project as an example of how RK&K’s engineers are “problem-solvers who are willing to discuss hard issues and come up with solutions.” The project team was tasked with identifying the best combination of enhancements to improve peak-period throughput and reduce delays along a 30-mile corridor outside Washington, D.C., while staying within SHA’s $100-million budget and existing right-of-way.
Analyzed for effectiveness, permitting and constructibility, as well as cost, the project team’s location-specific solutions included interchange ramp metering geometric improvements and active traffic management.
Both CGI and SHA benefited from RK&K’s involvement in the project, Higgins says. “They bring a different perspective to the table that some firms don’t have,” he says. “It all helps set RK&K apart as one of the stronger firms in the MidAtlantic.”
RK&K’s MidAtlantic projects include:
The $500-million initiative between the District of Columbia and electric utility Pepco is relocating select and vulnerable overhead electrical feeder lines underground to improve reliability and resiliency. RK&K is providing program management services for 20 projects totaling more than 50 miles of underground conduits.
RK&K is serving as engineer-of-record for all infrastructure improvements associated with the 86-acre mixed-use development project along the Christiana River in Wilmington, Del. At full build-out, Riverfront East is to include 2.2 million sq ft of office and retail space, more than 4,000 residential units and more than 13 acres of open space and common areas for recreation and entertainment.
Richmond Highway (U.S. Route 1) Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)
RK&K is teaming with STV to provide program management services for a new 7.4-mile BRT system in Fairfax County, Va. The system is a key part of the county’s plan to accommodate population and employment growth, with nine new stations envisioned as hubs for transit-oriented development.
Right From the Start
Accuracy has become just as important to transportation agencies as innovation, says Kush Vashee, a project manager in RK&K’s Fairfax, Va., office, particularly in an environment where inflation and materials shortages can disrupt project budgets.
“There’s a huge emphasis on getting cost estimates right or making the right assumptions,” explains Vashee, who notes that RK&K helped develop systems for Smart Scale, VDOT’s process for evaluating and prioritizing transportation projects. “We try to make sure we’re getting the latest knowledge from the agencies to make accurate projections so that clients don’t encounter shortfalls during construction.”
Finding ways to balance the often conflicting, ever-changing demands of the built and natural environments has also been a hallmark of RK&K’s work. A 10-year partnership with regulatory and environmental groups in the city of Wilmington, Del., recently completed the transformation of a contaminated 17-acre public property into the Southbridge Wilmington Wetlands Park, a new $26-million public amenity that also provides stormwater storage capacity to address chronic flooding.
RK&K “realizes that a project isn’t just about design, it has to be built.”
—Mike Higgins, General Manager, Concrete General Inc.
For Maryland SHA’s I-495 and I-270 Managed Lanes Study, the first step toward addressing long-standing congestion issues on two of the busiest interstates serving the nation’s capital, RK&K evaluated options to incorporate highway infrastructure improvements within a constrained right-of-way while fulfilling National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements.
Kahl says the 4.5-year effort’s highly dynamic, sometimes controversial elements put the firm’s planning and environmental skills to the test, finding out-of-the-box solutions that would pass muster with agencies and local stakeholders. The effort included developing an interactive online geographic information systems (GIS) mapping tool that enabled the public to review the project and view potential impacts.
The study led to a Record of Decision from the Federal Highway Administration in summer 2022, setting the stage for an envisioned $7.6-billion project to build tolled express lanes using a progressive public-private partnership. RK&K was not involved with that effort, which ended earlier this year with the withdrawal of the project’s private development consortium.
While the future of the managed lanes program is uncertain, Kahl is nevertheless proud of RK&K’s contribution to a successful NEPA process, as evidenced by the ROD and several subsequent industry awards for the study.
“We really brought a can-do attitude, figuring out every unique crisis and situation that was coming up” during the study, Kahl says. She adds that the team regularly had to pivot quickly as the state’s political leadership altered its approach and regulators and stakeholders filed comments. She says,“Our team was instrumental in keeping the process focused and making sure we were pushing hard to meet the deadlines SHA was setting.”
For the I-495 and I-270 Managed Lanes Study, RK&K fulfilled federal environmental requirements in part by using acoustic monitoring in the D.C. suburbs to record approximately 55,000 calls from bats in an effort to protect endangered northern long-eared bats.
Photos: (above) Courtesy Maryland Dept. of Transportation, State Highway Administration; (right) Courtesy RK&K
Cornerstones for the Future
As with all design firms, RK&K has been challenged to keep and retain the technical talent to keep pace with the expanding range of infrastructure needs. Kronisch says the firm has placed a greater emphasis on training and development while also revamping its career ladder to provide employees with a better understanding of their career paths.
“The majority of our firm’s leaders are client-facing and do project work on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “That gives younger engineers an opportunity to work more closely with senior staff.”
Vashee, a 2016 Virginia Tech graduate who joined RK&K in late 2018, characterizes the firm as “a very people-first company” that empowers employees to take charge of their careers.
“They’re not afraid to give younger or less experienced engineers responsibilities,” he adds. “I’ve been able to lead and participate in projects at a level that other firms might not have allowed.”
RK&K has also retained its pandemic-era hybrid work schedule, with most employees spending only two to three days in the office each week.
“The majority of our firm’s leaders are client-facing and do project work on a day-to-day basis. That gives younger engineers an opportunity to work more closely with senior staff.”
—Karen Kahl, Executive Director for Transportation, RK&K
Kronisch says it has been challenging for younger staff, so the firm has developed additional tools that have allowed leaders to connect with people who are still working part-time at home. “At the same time, we’re doing what we can to make sure those employees don’t burn themselves out and maintain a good work-life balance,” she adds.
Kronisch believes those and other efforts have been successful, as evidenced by RK&K’s continued high standing among its key clients. In addition, RK&K received its ninth-consecutive Top Workplace award from the Baltimore Sun Media Group last year, along with being named the No. 2 large company (more than 400 employees) in the Baltimore region for the second year in a row.
RK&K’s centennial anniversary will also provide an opportunity for the firm to extend its existing community involvement programs, allotting additional paid time for service activities. Examples of 2022’s efforts in the MidAtlantic area include numerous stream and park cleanups, holiday food and toy drives and contributing to the more than 800 items of professional clothing collected firmwide for donation to several local organizations that assist low-income job seekers.
Kronisch believes RK&K is well positioned to capitalize on IIJA funding for the next several years, particularly with the new emphasis on transit and rail projects. Technology, such as clients’ increasing use of 3D modeling software and the emerging potential of artificial intelligence, will certainly play a key role.
“We need to leverage that technology and develop others to make our projects faster and more efficient,” she says, adding that while there’s a lot to look forward to, “we can’t get complacent.”