||Road Construction FAQ
last updated October 31, 2020
is a subject that generates a lot of complaints and criticisms. Yes,
construction is often inconvenient and frustrating, although sometimes
like many folks simply have a visceral reaction to
the orange signs and barrels and perceive
the amount of inconvenience to be
more than it really is. As with
most things, there are two sides to the story, and this topic is no
it or not, the city, county, and state and their
contractors do work hard to minimize
the amount of disruption as much as possible, and its in contractors'
interest to get things done as quickly as possible. But some delays and
inevitable-- that's just the reality of construction. Remember, "no pain, no gain."
on for answers and explanations to
some frequent questions and complaints.
Why is there no work being done?
Perhaps one of the most
common complaints 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 or nearby-but-out-of-view
drainage or utility
work, or work on a nearby section of the same project that must be completed first due to sequencing. That
said, construction projects are very dynamic and there are
times when work sites are
dormant as the result of a number of legitimate circumstances:
weather or its after-effects. Besides the obvious effects of rain, cold weather can also delay a project as asphalt
and concrete often cannot be laid or poured in cold temperatures.
continue until concrete or pavement has cured.
elements of the project need to be complete before others, which means
that some sections inherently go dormant in the meantime.
is waiting on a delayed utility adjustment or material
integral piece of equipment has broken-down and is awaiting repair.
required crew or piece of equipment is working another section of the
project or a different project.
discovered on the work site that was unexpected that requires the
contractor to wait while an engineering change is designed and
Why does construction take so
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 how long it would take to re-floor a
room, then consider how long it would take to
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.
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.
course, it's important for all road projects need to be done well ("good"), so that leaves
vs. cheap. Since most projects have limited funding and are by necessity low-bid ("cheap"), that means they
can't be done as fast as we'd all like.
does there always seem to be delays on road projects?
you've ever watched one of those home improvement shows on TV
been involved in your own home renovation project, you know that just
every construction project encounters snags-- it's just the nature of
the beast. Consider the number and impact of issues encountered on a
simple home project and then scale that up for a multi-million
dollar highway project. All kinds of things can and do go
wrong during construction-- workers digging find a surprise
or geological feature, delivery of materials can be delayed or
those materials may be problematic or defective 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 to accommodate
these issues, but big problems or even a lot of little ones can consume
that buffer and cause a project to get behind schedule. No matter how
"simple" a project might seem or 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.
is this road always under construction? / They
just finished a project on this road and now they're starting
seems like a lot of folks think that once a road is built, it will
never need to be worked on again. But it should be obvious thatís not
the case. After a decade or two, every road will need major
maintenanceórepaving, repairs, etc., and bridges need
replacement every few decades. If traffic has increased, roads will
need expanding or other operational improvements. And road design and
engineering is constantly evolving and improving, so obsolete sections
need to be upgraded over time for better safety or operation. For
example, a freeway built fifty years ago looks and functions
substantially differently than one built todayóis it reasonable to
expect that a 1970s-era or earlier highway would never be upgraded to
to funding and resource availability as well as
manageability, road work is often done in phases or sections. So in
some cases, it
seems like a specific road has always been under construction, but in
different sections have been under construction and completed at
different times over the course of many years, sometimes back-to-back,
but often with breaks in between. Over time, however, all of that
blurs together in one's memory
giving the illusion of constant construction.
due to funding limitations, big projects often have to be done in
phases. For example, the first phase of a major freeway interchange
project might relocate and improve the frontage roads. Then, after
that is completed, the next phase might be to build the first
flyovers of the interchange. Then the next phase might be to widen the
freeways through the interchange. Then finally the remainder of the
interchange flyovers would be built. These projects might be done
back-to-back, or overlap a bit, or maybe have gaps between them
depending on funding availability. While this causes the overarching
project to be dragged-out longer than anyone would like, it's often the
best way to get it done as waiting until the entire thing could be
fully-funded would increase the overall cost as construction costs tend
to increase over time.
Why don't contractors dedicate
crews to projects?
folks assert that there is just one construction crew that cycles
to all the various projects and that this is the cause of the work
sites going dormant. First of all, there are lots of contractors that do road work, so not every project is done by the same
contractor, and each project usually has several subcontractors.
Each contractor has their own crews, so there's obviously not just one
construction crew for everything. While most contractors work
multiple jobs and do usually shift workers
around those various jobs as needed,
for the most part, they do try to schedule their crews and
subcontractors so that all of their projects are worked on in
form nearly continuously. 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.
projects worked-on 24 hours a day?
While work on a few mega-projects does continue
nearly so), most projects simply can't do so as this would increase the labor costs of the project
substantially. 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.
There has to be a really high cost/benefit ratio for a project to have
projects worked on at night?
Most major projects that require significant lane closures on
heavily-traveled 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, regulatory, or logistical reasons, or perhaps the site is near
residential areas where night work might be to
intrusive. And 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, and as mentioned in the previous topic,
spending more money on one project leaves less money for other needed
projects. Citizens generally want their government to be
judicious in spending tax dollars, and this is an example of that.
Nighttime road work in San Antonio
one project before starting another?
If road construction was done one project at a time, it would take even
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 about three years
to complete. Simple
math shows that those 10
projects that could be done in three years concurrently would
take about 30
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 to build
projects just increases their cost.
don't they fine contractors who take too long to finish a project?
Actually, they do. Most construction contracts let by
TxDOT, as well as by many other jurisdictions, include a timeline to complete major milestones
as well as finish the project and a provision to assess some form of liquidated damages (i.e. a monetary
penalty) if that timeline is not met. Also, most TxDOT 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 and driveways 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
the reason is quite simple: manholes, storm drains, driveway aprons, and so forth all
are all built to the planned level of the final road surface. However, that
layer of pavement (usually a few 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 an offset between the
temporary road surface and those other
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 ongoing work. Also, traffic driving on the
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 have settled and fully-cured before applying to
layer. That allows the top layer to smooth-out any imperfections
that develop in the lower layers during that initial use.
why not install the manholes and other structures at the lower level
and raise them up
during final paving? This is certainly possible, but would be expensive
to do, especially given the short amount of time the grade
offset is needed. It 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 when it was done. Pretty dumb, huh?
the record, this is not something that's only done in
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, they typically try to
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 the driver's responsibility to
avoid these hazards by being careful and observant and slowing
Manhole above level of temporary road surface. The final road surface level
can be seen in the background.
Why didn't they expand this road
years ago before the traffic got so bad?
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
policy. If the government were to widen a road based on a guess and then the
traffic never materialized, that would be a lot of wasted tax dollars
that could have been spent on something else that was
that there isn't enough funding for the existing needs,
spending those scarce resources in areas that don't yet need it really
doesn't make sense. Plus the costs for maintaining a larger road is higher. Not to mention that such a policy would be
ripe for abuse (think "road to nowhere".)
a need is identified, it takes some lead time to plan, engineer,
and get environmental clearances for the project and then to fund it. Most
agencies develop basic schematics and get preliminary approvals for likely future expansions ahead of time
to help shorten that timeline, but until the traffic materializes and
planners can determine the exact travel patterns and demand, they really can't have a
"shovel-ready" project teed-up. For example, when a new
development is built, they can quickly anticipate what will be needed
the immediate vicinity, such as turn lanes, new signals, or widening an
road. But most of that new traffic is going travel beyond the immediate area, and there is no
way to predict where that traffic is going to end up. In other words, when a new neighborhood is being built, there's no way to
know ahead of time which directions people leaving
that development are going to go, the cumulative affects of which then
impacts roads further away, not to mention that those patterns will change over time. So until that traffic materializes,
it's impossible to know what and where all the impacts will be.
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