Home | About me | Contact | What's new | Privacy | Search

Cable median barriers
Const complaints FAQ
Flashing Yellow Arrows
Fire the idiot engineer
Glossary of road terms
Merge early or late?
Traffic signal cameras

Search this site
This site is not affiliated with any official agency.





Construction complaints FAQ

This page last updated May 5, 2019


Road construction is a subject that generates a lot of complaints, and everybody knows what should be done, right? Yes, construction is often inconvenient and frustrating, although sometimes it seems like many folks simply have a visceral reaction to the orange signs and barricades and perceive the amount of inconvenience to be much more than it really is. As with most things, there are two sides to the story, and this topic is no exception. Believe it or not, the city, county, and state and their contractors do work hard to minimize the amount of disruption as much as possible, but some inconvenience is inevitable-- that's just reality. Remember, "no pain, no gain."

Read on for answers and explanations to some frequent questions and complaints.

Why is there no work being done?
One of the most common gripes uttered about road construction is that it seems like there's often not any work being done on a specific project. However, this is generally not the case. Oftentimes, there is work being done that you simply don't see, such as underground drainage or utility work. That said, there are times when work sites are dormant as the result of a number of legitimate circumstances:

  • Inclement weather or its after-effects. Besides the obvious effects of rain, it should also be noted that cold weather can delay a project as asphalt and concrete often cannot be laid or poured in cold temperatures.
  • Work cannot continue until concrete or pavement has cured.
  • Some elements of the project need to be complete before others, which means that some sections inherently go dormant in the meantime.
  • The contractor is waiting on a delayed utility adjustment or material delivery.
  • An integral piece of equipment has broken-down and is awaiting repair.
  • A required crew or piece of equipment is working another section of the project or a different project.
  • Something was discovered on the work site that was unexpected that requires the contractor to wait while a change is designed and approved.

Why does construction take so long?
The answer is pretty straight-forward: major road projects are extremely complex and require an incredible amount of work. And, while all that all work is going on, traffic still has to be able to reasonably move through the work zone. A good analogy would be to consider what it would be like to re-carpet a room with the furniture still in it-- doing so substantially increases the time and effort it takes to get the job done. That's just reality.

As any project manager worth their salt will tell you, there are three options for completing any project: fast, good, and cheap; the catch is that you can only have two.

Of course, all road projects need to be done right (good), so that leaves fast vs. cheap. Since most projects have limited funding, that means they can't be done as fast as we'd all like.

Why does there always seem to be delays on road projects?
If you've ever tackled a major home improvement project (or even just watched one of those home improvement shows), you know that just about every construction project encounters snags-- it's just the nature of the beast, and road work is no different. All kinds of things can go wrong during a road project-- workers digging find a surprise utility or geological feature, delivery of materials can be delayed or those materials may be problematic in some way, equipment can break down, and so on... not to mention delays caused by weather. Project timelines usually include some "wiggle-room" to try and account for these issues, but big problems or even a lot of little ones can consume that buffer and delay a project. No matter how thorough and meticulous the planning a project has undergone, it will almost surely encounter issues; simply put, planners and engineers don't know what they don't know.

Why is this road always under construction? / They just finished a project on this road and now they're starting another?
This might be the second most uttered complaint about road work. Yes, sometimes it seems like a certain road is always under construction and has been for (fill-in an arbitrary number of years here.) While some projects do take a long time (see the explanation for that above), many times, it really only seems like a road is always being worked on. Most often, what you're remembering is previous work on a different section of that road. Sometimes large projects are done in phases due to funding or other constraints. Other times, there are several individual projects to address different needs along a road. Over time, different sections of a road need repairs, improvements, reconstruction, etc., and these projects can start to blend together in people's memories. But maintenance is required every so often, and increasing traffic, as well as advances in engineering, means obsolete roads need improvements from time-to-time. In short, roads will always be an incremental work-in-progress. Would you want to drive on a road built a century ago? That's what we would have if roads were built once and never worked on again. 

Why don't contractors dedicate crews to projects?
A common belief is that there is one construction crew that cycles around to various projects and that this is the cause of the work sites being absent of workers. First of all, different contractors work the various projects, and each project then usually has several subcontractors. Each contractor has their own crews, so there's obviously not just one construction crew. While contractors do often work multiple jobs and do sometimes shift workers around those various jobs as needed (for example, if one project needs additional workers for a few days to complete a milestone, a contractor may bring in workers from another project to knock it out), for the most part, contractors do try to schedule their crews and subcontractors so that major projects are worked and much as possible. To be sure, there may be cases where a needed crew may be working on one project and not be immediately available for another when that project is ready for them. When this happens, a contractor will often then try to do some other items on that project out-of-sequence with the crews they do have available if they can in order to keep the project progressing. It's actually in the contractor's financial interest to do so, not only to avoid delays that may result in penalties (see below), but also because they want to get the job completed so that they can move their crews and equipment on to the next paying job.

Why aren't projects worked-on 24 hours a day?
While work on a few mega-projects does continue around-the-clock (or nearly so), most projects simply can't do so as this would increase the labor costs of the project substatinally. Since highway funding is already limited, spending more money on one job so it can be completed a few months faster means less funding is available for other needed projects. With the reluctance of the public (that's you) to accept higher taxes and/or tolls to pay for it, there are simply not enough resources to work every project around-the-clock.

Why aren't projects worked on at night?
Most major projects that require significant lane closures on heavily-travelled routes do have overnight work. Just because you see work being done during the day doesn't mean there also isn't work done at night. Some tasks, however, may not be done at night for safety or logistical reasons. And sometimes a particular task may require continuous work or sequencing that cannot be completed within a single nighttime closure. If those tasks require major closures, they're typically done over a weekend to minimize the impact on commuters. And as mentioned in the previous point, overnight work often has higher costs associated with it, which means that for many projects, the cost/benefit is just not there to justify it. People generally want government to be judicious in spending tax dollars, and this is an example of that.

Why not finish one project before starting another?
If road construction was done one project at a time, it would take even longer to get things done. First of all, what would be the boundaries of the "one-project-at-a-time" zone? Would it be a specific road, an arbitrary section of a city or county, a whole city or county, a region of the state...? So for argument's sake, let's say it's by county. In Bexar County, there are typically 10 or so major highway projects underway at any given time with most major projects needing two to three years to complete even working nearly non-stop. Simple math shows that those 10 projects that could be done in three years concurrently would take 20-30 years if done one at a time. And that doesn't include the dozens of smaller projects underway at any given time. There is simply no way to ever get all the needed congestion, safety, and maintenance improvements done on that kind of schedule.
On top of all that, construction costs typically increase every year, so waiting additional time to build projects just increases their cost.

Why doesn't the state fine contractors who take too long to finish a project?
Actually, they do. Nearly every construction contract let by TxDOT includes a timeline to finish various milestones and a provision for TxDOT to assess some form of liquidated damages (i.e. a monetary penalty) if that timeline is not met. Also, some contracts require the contractor to "rent" lanes by the hour to close them. Many projects also contain a bonus for early completion.

Why are manholes and storm drains higher than the road surface in construction areas?
During road widening or resurfacing projects, manholes, storm drains, gutters, and other concrete or iron works in construction zones are often several inches above the road surface. Additionally, the transition to other roadways also usually has a bump or lip, all making for a rough ride. Many people wonder why this is with some even believing it's some kind of mistake. 

However, the reason is quite simple: manholes, storm drains, and so forth all are built to the level of the final road surface. However, that final layer of pavement (usually about 2 inches worth) is not laid down until the very end of the project. Therefore, when a road is still under construction but open to traffic, there will be a two inch or so difference between the temporary road surface and those other structures.

So why not lay down the final layer of pavement before letting traffic use the road? Essentially, it's the same reason why you don't put down carpet or flooring in a house that's still being built-- you don't want it to be damaged by the work. Also, traffic driving on the subsurface layers of pavement while it cures can cause it to settle and/or deform slightly, so it makes for a better final product to wait until the subsurface layers are well-packed and cured before applying to top layer. That allows the top layer to smooth-out any imperfections that develop in the lower layers during that initial use.

So why not install the manholes at the lower level and raise them up during final paving? Simply put-- that's nearly impossible and would be extremely expensive to do. That would be like putting a roof on the first story of a planned two-story house, then moving it to the top of the second story later. Pretty dumb, huh?

For the record, this is not something that's only done in San Antonio or Texas. This is the practice pretty much everywhere in the US and even overseas (I've personally seen it in Germany and England.) In short, it's just how it's done. However, here in San Antonio and in many other areas, they typically try to minimize the danger and annoyance by building small asphalt ramps around these hazards to reduce the potential impact of hitting one. In the end, though, it's your responsibility to be a careful and observant driver and avoid those land mines as best as you can or slow down if you can't. 

Why didn't they expand this road years ago before the traffic got so bad?
The short answer is, roads need to be expanded when they need to be expanded. While planners do make projections and monitor traffic volumes on roads to try and anticipate where expansions will soon be needed, there generally has to be a demonstrable need for a project before it can get approved and funded. And if you think about it, that's good public policy. If the government were to widen a road on a whim, and then the traffic never materialized, that would be a lot of wasted tax dollars that could have been spent on something that was needed. Given that there isn't enough funding for the needs we already have, spending those scarce resources in areas that don't yet need it really doesn't make sense. Not to mention that a system like that would be wide open for abuse.

Once a need is identified, it does take some lead time to plan, engineer, and get environmental clearances for the project and then fund it. Most agencies develop basic schematics for future expansions ahead of time to help shorten that timeline, but until the traffic materializes and planners can determine at the exact needs, they really can't have a fully developed project ready to go. For example, when a new development is built, they can easily anticipate what will be needed in the immediate vicinity, such as turn lanes or widening an adjacent road. But beyond the immediate area of that development, there is no way to know ahead of time which directions, for example, people leaving that development are going to go, the cumulative affects of which then impacts roads further away. So until that traffic materializes, it's virtually impossible to predict what improvements will be needed and where. 

If you found this informative, please consider making a small donation to help support it. Thanks!
This page and all its contents are Copyright 2019 by Brian Purcell

The information provided on this website is provided on an "as-is" basis without warranties of any kind either express or implied.  The author and his agents make no warranties or representations of any kind concerning any information contained in this website.  This website is provided only as general information.  The author expressly disclaims all liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based upon the information contained herein or with respect to any errors or omissions in such information.  All opinions expressed are strictly those of the author.  This site is not affiliated in any way with any official agency.