Highway to hell: 5 major ways highway construction projects go wrong

Infrastructure projects, particularly highway construction, often begin with ribbon cuttings and big promises before drifting to frustration and excuses. We look at five major ways that highway construction projects go wrong.

Since the infrastructure bill has already passed in the Senate, it seems like it’s only a matter of time till it becomes law. And excitement in the construction industry is growing as companies envision major infrastructure projects coming down the pike. However, infrastructure projects, particularly highway construction, often begin with ribbon cuttings and big promises before drifting to frustration and excuses. The reasons behind why this occurs have been researched and are a topic that needs to be reviewed due to the great sums of money that are at stake. 

So, let’s look at five major ways that highway construction projects go wrong.

 

Breakdowns in communication 

This peer reviewed paper, entitled ‘Constructability Issues for Highway Projects,’ cites communications as an issue during the project execution process from the owner’s, designer's and contractor’s perspective.

No surprise that communication would be an issue for infrastructure projects, including highway projects since they include many different parties at each stage. Among the parties on highway construction projects are governmental agencies, and they are notorious for being slow and having their own way of communicating. Poor communication between all parties leads to misunderstandings, frustration, mistakes, and construction delays.

On the other hand, good communication inspires healthy dialogue, leading to a design and schedule that works for all parties. In addition, good communication on the job site generates camaraderie and clarity. When the workforce is certain about their responsibilities, they can work more quickly.

There are multiple technology tools available that focus on enabling better communication between the parties involved in construction.

 

Design Changes

The study noted above says, “Many problems encountered in the field are generated in the design phase…” Before it even gets to the field, the design is often a source of issues. From the owner’s delay in approving whole design to consultants' frequent changes in design, studies show multiple parties contributing to the issues related to design.

This study adds another design-related challenge that causes highway construction projects to go wrong: “Conditions are known but not incorporated into design because of time or funding constraints.” How can designers even be expected to get it right if they can’t use all the information they have at their disposal? It makes design changes inevitable, which adds more time and costs.  

And issues that occur in the design phase don’t stay there. For example, if design changes that are needed occur while a project is in the construction phase, the team may run into a shortage of materials, which this study placed in its chart of significant factors that cause a delay in construction projects.

 

Relocation of utilities

Talk to a project manager in the field and ask them what is causing the project to be delayed and the answer is often utility relocation. Therefore, it’s no surprise the study also placed underground utilities on its chart of significant factors that cause a delay in construction projects

Although the need for utility relocation is common on highway construction projects, the challenge arises when utilities are not noted in the plans the construction team is working with.

This study adds that “DOT’s [department of transportation] are seemingly powerless to get utility companies to respond, ” and they are not high on the priority list.  This compounds the problem and leads to even greater delays.

 

Poor/Inadequate Planning

As noted in a few of the studies above, poor planning is a major factor impacting why highway construction projects go wrong.  Because of the obvious need to properly plan for a significant construction project, one would think that adequate time is given to planning. 

But this is not the case.

Planning is often rushed to meet deadlines. Submitting the RFP on time typically leads to general contractors expediting planning. So, rather than considering multiple options to determine the best plan, they rush a plan together to get it to the DOT and be given consideration. And a rush job is often not the best job. Once the contract is awarded, owners are in a rush to get started and don’t want to pay the general contractor to review/adjust their plans and consider different contingencies. 

 

Poor construction scheduling

And number one on the chart mentioned above – poor construction project scheduling. Actually, it’s tied with planning. The reason - the two are related. A project can’t go smoothly if not properly scheduled and planned. In fact, scheduling and rescheduling impact every item on this list.

Given the proper time, schedulers can come up with a workable schedule. ALICE, however, can come up with multiple schedules based on different scenarios and find the ideal schedule. And spending time and resources on scheduling will pay for itself many times over in the long run.

But… every construction project runs into issues. The many potential reasons include design changes, utilities, weather, etc. When the nearly inevitable issue arises, ALICE can help reschedule the project and again consider multiple scenarios. So, projects can take a hit and still find a way to completion in the ideal time.

Soon, the industry is going to see an influx of highway construction projects. Completing those projects, and avoiding the highway to hell, starts with the right schedule. ALICE can help.

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