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Construction complaints FAQ

This page last updated September 12, 2017

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Road construction is a topic that generates a lot of complaints. The page has answers to some frequent questions on the topic. 

Yes, construction is often inconvenient, although I think sometimes people perceive the amount of inconvenience to be much more than it really is. TxDOT and its contractors 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."

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 or off-site drainage 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.
  • 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 needed 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 option 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 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. While contractors do sometimes shift workers around to various jobs as needed (for example, if one project needs additional workers for a few days to complete a major element, 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. There may be cases where specialized teams, such as a crew that pours concrete or lays asphalt, may be working on one project and not be immediately available for another when that project is ready for them. Often, a contractor will then try to do some work 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?
Construction on some mega-projects does continue around-the-clock or nearly so. However, most projects can't because doing so would require three shifts of workers, which would increase the labor cost of the project by at least three-fold (likely more since workers who work at night often are entitled to shift differential pay.) This would drive-up the overall cost of construction not just on those projects, but also citywide since hiring that many workers could create a labor shortage, especially in the usually-tight Texas construction labor markets. That, along with long-standing highway funding constraints and the reluctance of the public (that's you) to accept higher taxes and/or tolls, 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 segment, 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 a half-dozen 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 six projects that could be done in three years concurrently would take 12-18 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.

They just finished a project on specific road and now they're starting another? / Why is this road always under construction?
There are a few possibilities in this case. First is that you're simply mistaken. You may be remembering a project nearby or on another section of that road (this happens quite often in my experience.) Or the project you're remembering may have been much longer ago than you think. Finally, there may be a larger project that's being built in phases due to funding or other constraints. 

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 the project 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 above 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.




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This page and all its contents are Copyright 2017 by Brian Purcell

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