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Road Construction FAQ

This page last updated February 15, 2024

Road construction is a subject that generates a lot of complaints, criticisms, and Monday morning quarterbacking. Yes, construction is often inconvenient and frustrating, although sometimes it seems like many folks simply have a visceral reaction to the orange signs and barrels and perceive the amount of inconvenience and/or danger to be much more than it really is. Construction means change, and maybe it's just ingrained in human DNA to complain about change.

Regardless, 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 try to minimize the amount of disruption as much as possible, and it's in the contractor's own interest to get things done as quickly as possible so they can get paid and move on to other jobs. But some delays, inconvenience, and disarray is inevitable — that's just the reality of construction. Remember, "no pain, no gain."

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



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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:


Why is only one worker working and everyone else is standing around doing nothing?
There are several legitimate reasons that you'll see workers standing around. The biggest is that manual labor is hard work. Very few people can work non-stop for an extended time, especially doing digging or other manual labor, and even more so in the heat. (I bet you couldn't go out and dig up your back yard without a breather every few minutes!) So while one guy might be working, a couple of others rest so that when the one who is working needs a break, one of the others is rested and can take over.

Another reason you might see workers standing around is that they're waiting for something else to get done first before they do their part. For example, a backhoe might be digging a trench, then the workers will come in and lay some pipe, or a truck is dumping a load that the workers will then come in and distribute. You only see workers for a second or two as you pass by, so you don't see the bigger picture of what's happening before and after that.

There are some people whose job often requires them to be standing around, seemingly doing nothing, such as inspectors, engineers, and safety spotters. But rest assured — they're still doing something.

San Antonio engineer Grady from the popular YouTube channel "Practical Engineering" does a great job of explaining this topic in his video "4 Myths About Construction Debunked", which I strongly recommend watching.


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 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 an empty room, then consider how long it would take to re-floor that same room without taking the furniture out — 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 constraints for completing any project: speed, quality, and cost. The catch is that you can only manage two, and adjusting one affects the others.

Project management Venn diagram

Project management constraints Venn diagram
(Source: Pyragraph)

Of course, it's important for all road projects to be done well ("good"), so that leaves fast 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. To do them faster would require either (a) higher taxes, or (b) fewer needed projects getting done.


Why do there always seem to be delays on road projects?
If you've ever watched one of those home improvement shows on TV or been involved in your own home renovation project, you know that just about 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, 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 an unexpected utility line 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 for a project has been, 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?
It 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 that’s not the case. After a decade or two, every road will need major maintenance — repaving, repairs, etc., and bridges need repairs or 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 functionality. For example, a freeway built in 1970 looks and functions substantially differently than one built today — is it reasonable to expect that a highway built decades ago would never be upgraded to modern standards?

Due to funding and resource availability, as well as manageability, road work is often done in sections. So in some cases, it seems like a specific road has always been under construction, but in reality, 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.

Also, 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 few 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 not finish one project before starting another?
I think this comes from some people's assumption that projects take as long as they do because TxDOT and/or their contractors are multi-tasking, and therefore if they only did one project at a time, they could get things done faster. But this is simply not the case. Road construction just takes time for the reasons explained under "Why does construction take so long?" above.

Because of that, even if TxDOT and the contractor only worked one project at a time, it would still take the same amount of time to complete. TxDOT and their contractors have the resources and experience to manage multiple projects at once, and most large contractors have sufficient equipment and crews to allocate to multiple projects without impacting the progress on any of them since any delays affect their bottom line.

That aside, let's look at the question on its face. If road construction was done one project at a time, it would take even longer to get things done. First of all, how would you determine the constraints for your one project? Would it be a specific road, an arbitrary section of a city or county, a whole city or county, a region of the state, the whole state...? 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 two to three years to complete. Simple math shows that those 10 projects that could be done in three years concurrently would take about 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 safety, congestion, 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.


Why don't contractors dedicate crews to projects?
Some folks assert that there is just one construction crew that cycles around to all the various projects and that this is the cause of 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 try to schedule their crews and subcontractors so that all of their projects are worked on in some form nearly continuously. To be sure, there may be cases where a needed crew may be delayed 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 they can get paid and 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 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 24-hour work.


Why aren't projects worked on at night?
Most major projects that require significant lane closures on heavily-traveled routes do have overnight work. If you're not out at night, you don't see it, but that doesn't mean it's not happening. And 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 too 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

Nighttime road work in San Antonio
(Source: TxDOT)


Why 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 have 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, which incentives contractors to minimize lane closures. 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 the roadway 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 think this is some kind of mistake.

However, the reason is quite simple: manholes, storm drains, driveway aprons, and so forth are all built to the planned level of the final road surface. However, that final 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 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 ongoing 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 have settled and fully-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 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's built. Pretty dumb, huh?

For 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 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 the driver's responsibility to avoid these hazards by being careful and observant and slowing down.

Manhold above road surface

Manhole above level of temporary road surface
The final road surface level can be seen in the background.
(Source: I&I Magazine)


Why didn't they expand this road years ago before the traffic got so bad?
This is answered in detail on the "Why don't developers have to expand the roads first?" page.


Other sites of interest

TxDOT San Antonio "Go Ahead!" - What’s the Hold-Up? Why the Best-Laid Plans Often Go Astray
https://txdotsanantonio.blogspot.com/2020/08/whats-hold-up-why-best-laid-plans-often.html