Case Study

FHWY tackles construction delays using new strategies

By Jim Sorenson,
Infrastructure Core Business Unit, Office of Asset Management
Federal Highway Administration

With the U.S. Department of Transportation predicting that traffic congestion in the U.S. will increase by 50% during the next decade, an increasing emphasis is being placed on the preservation of existing pavements and bridges, rather than simply building new ones. This means more maintenance, rehabilitation, and major reconstruction projects. These, in turn, inevitably signal construction delays as highway projects compete with traffic flow. In addition to increased driver frustration, these projects also carry greater risk both motorists and highway workers.

To counteract this, highway agencies are examining their maintenance and construction operations and looking for new and better ways to do things.

On many urban highway reconstruction projects, delays cost road users more than $50,000 a day in lost time and late deliveries. Delays are also damaging to businesses, which more and more are operating on a just-in-time delivery basis. In 1993, the total cost of congestion in the nation's 50 largest metropolitan areas was estimated to be $51 billion.

The Federal Highway Administration's Office of Program Quality

Coordination recently addressed the issues of traffic delays and costs in a national quality improvement review on "Meeting the Customers' Needs for Mobility and Safety During Construction and Maintenance Operations."

The review looked at the effectiveness of state, federal, and local procedures for reducing traffic disruptions caused by construction and maintenance. Areas reviewed included work-zone traffic control plans, materials selection, contracting procedures, and the level of public participation in traffic management policies and decisions.

Nontraditional work schedules, traffic advisories and contractor incentives are suggested

A winning policy that states, cities, and counties are employing to better serve customers is the use of nontraditional work schedules, such as evening and weekend road closures. Another is the posting of real-time traffic advisories to keep drivers better informed of current work zone and road conditions. Innovative contracting and maintenance procedures are also cutting the time from start to finish for highway rehabilitation projects.

For example, some jurisdictions are using the lane rental method. According to this method, a rental fee based on road user costs is assessed the contractor for days when traffic is disrupted through lane or shoulder closures. This encourages contractors to schedule their work so that traffic disruptions are minimized. State and local highway agencies are also placing more emphasis on preventive maintenance strategies. When applied at the right time, these treatments can extend a pavement's service life and lengthen the time between necessary rehabilitation work.

FHWY offers publication highlighting recommended practices

More information on these and other best practices can be found on FHWA's Web site ( The practices are also highlighted in the team's review report: Meeting the Customer's Needs for Mobility and Safety During Construction and Maintenance Operations (Publication No. FHWA-PR-98-01-A). To obtain a copy, contact the FHWA Research and Technology Report Center at 301-577-0818 (fax: 301-577-1421). The report can also be found on the Web at FHWA is incorporating the lessons learned in its review into an agency-wide, five-year program to implement strategies for cutting user delays and disruptions during construction and maintenance operations.

The new program, "Optimizing Highway Performance: Meeting the Customers' Needs," also involves contractors, suppliers, and highway users. Realizing that the majority of the nation's population travels through a work zone at least once every day, the end goal is to work with state, local, and industry partners to ensure that this travel is safe, quick, and hassle-free. While there are no easy fixes, the recent efforts of state and local agencies demonstrate that stepping away from traditional practices and trying something new is the key to achieving both better roads and smoother travel. For more information, call 202-366-1333 (fax: 202-366-998 or e-mail:

New strategies are being applied around the country

For instance, the Summertime Bridge Reconstruction Program in Cobb County, GA, is designed so that bridge replacement projects affecting school bus routes begin after the last day of the school year and are completed before the beginning of the following school year. This strategy minimizes inconvenience to students and encourages contractors to work as efficiently as possible.

The city of Columbus, OH, meanwhile, is working to better meet its customers' needs by establishing community advisory councils for large highway projects. The advisory councils include representatives from businesses, neighbor associations, and other interested parties.

Maricopa County, AZ, has been using a similar strategy for the past four years. The county consults with local neighborhood and business groups on the design of new road projects. By ensuring that there are no surprises as the projects progress, these meetings have helped to improve community relations and reduce conflicts.

The Chicago Department of Transportation also tries to ensure that there are no surprises by holding internal coordination meetings to discuss the upcoming road maintenance projects that will have the greatest impact on traffic. At these meetings, staff map out construction schedules so as to minimize motorist delay and the effect on business and residential communities.