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Bridges 2.0: how applying Web 2.0 tools — and attitudes — to public works can cut costs and contribute to economic recovery

I had an op-ed in Engineering News Record, the “bible” of the engineering and construction industry, this week, dealing with what I call “Bridges 2.O,” how using Web 2.0 tools such as wikis and structured data feeds, and, equally important, the Web 2.0 ethos of collaboration, can revolutionize public works projects.

As I point out, it’s particularly crucial right now because public works are likely to be important parts of the Obama stimulus package, yet traditional projects take so long to implement that that their effectiveness as stimuli (unless we go back to the WPA pick-and-shovel approach!) is limited. The cost savings through such and approach is also critical because of the deficit.

This grew out of a conversation I had with MA Gov. Deval Patrick just before he announced a bridge reconstruction package last spring, when he bemoaned the fact that even a relatively small bridge project takes up to 10 years from concept to ribbon-cutting (of limited appeal given his 4-year term…). He said he’d been able to jawbone transportation officials down to a 5 year horizon, and I speculated that a Web 2.0 approach could cut that even more!

A few of the specifics I mentioned:

Put videos of the bidders conferences on YouTube, as the District of Columbia now routinely does for major procurements. Not only can bidders repeatedly refer to the video to make certain they are responding accurately to what was said, but also the process’s transparency dramatically reduces the chance of costly and time-consuming legal challenges from losing bidders.

Post all bills and payments to contractors on line to help build public confidence in the project and its transparency

Coordinate the construction schedule by on-line calendars:The exquisite interdependency of contractors and sub-contractors in a bridge project can bring the entire process to a halt if even a single small subcontractor doesn’t show up on time, inflating costs and delaying completion. Making certain that all participants have access to the schedule and their role on a real-time basis will help remove those coordination problems. Allowing the public, officials, and the media to subscribe to the schedule would also increase accountability.

Create RSS feeds to which the public, media, and all contractors can subscribe

I hope the Obama Administration will experiment with this approach. I’m convinced it can simultaneously improve efficiency, cut costs, and restore public confidence.

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Profile Photo Steve Ressler

Good post. I think gov’t will find that on the web there’s more interest in their projects than they think. People want to know what’s going on and schedule for various projects. For example, I would love to know the schedule on a couple highway construction projects near me. And I’d love to follow the construction of the new museum in my city.

Profile Photo Pam Broviak

Although all of your ideas are great and most definitely should be done (some states like ours – Illinois – are already doing some of this), they all seem to deal with the construction phase of the project which typically is really a small fraction of the overall time required to take a project from concept to completion.

Come, follow me into my world, and learn what those of us delivering these projects face:

After years of passing laws to make sure we are not damaging the environment, that we are making sure everyone living near the project has the chance to give input, that nothing of historic significance will be impacted by the project, and that we are complying with a multitude of other requirements, we have gotten to the point that a project can not even begin design until all of this has been addressed and the project has received a golden stamp of approval.

This is the reason that projects are taking so long to implement. I am not making a judgment that these laws have been right or wrong – this is the simple fact. Making sure we comply with all the regulations and getting the approvals and sign-offs from all the agencies involved takes significant time. Design and construction is nothing compared to the time involved in this first, or planning, phase.

Can Web 2.0 help there? Yes, most definitely. Communities and state DOTs can begin interacting with the public immediately upon conception of a project using Websites, blogs, wikis, microblogging, 3D visualizations, etc. All of this will help meet the public hearing requirements. But the actual analysis of the project will still have to be done which involves research and study and report writing and then review by the appropriate agencies. Perhaps Web 2.0 can help with encouraging better collaboration between design agency and permitting agency, but I cannot see how it will significantly decrease the actual time it takes to do the work involved in meeting these legal requirements.

Sometimes I wonder if it would help to take another look at the actual laws that were passed. I will leave you with one simple example, and you can come to your own conclusion about whether the laws might need another look or not and whether that could help minimize some of this time:

We are planning a small road improvement project in our city that will use federal funds. Because of this we need to submit a project development report detailing the specific components of the project, and this report must be approved prior to the start of the design phase. The report has changed over the years so that now it incorporates many requirements, one of which says if we are digging any linear trench, and if the site is within a mile of a CERCLIS site, the city must conduct an environmental study or analysis of the area including soil borings and testing.

Our small city (10,000) needs to remove and replace the existing sanitary sewer under this road because it is not performing well and there are backups. So because there are 7 CLERCLIS sites in our city, virtually every point in the city in which we need to install sewer on a federally funded job will require this comprehensive environmental analysis.

Now this particular project area was a farm in the 1800s and subdivided for homes in about 1906. The sewer was most likely installed soon after. Back then construction methods would have been to backfill with the material that had been removed – they would not have trucked in material from one of these CLERCLIS sites because it was not the practice and would have been costly. However remote or unlikely the chance is for any material from one of these CERCLIS sites to have found its way into that backfill above the sewer, it doesn’t matter. The city must bear the cost and the time to have this study done to make sure there are no environmental hazards because that is the law – federal funds, within a mile of a CERCLIS site, and digging a linear trench. The cost: about $15,000 (only because a state agency has agreed to do it for us); the time: 4 months. And this is on a 1/2 mile, pavement removal and replacement project that will cost about $400,000. I can design it in a month, and the contractor can build it in 4 months.

Planners, engineers, and environmental specialists are delivering projects as fast as they can, following the laws that have been passed at the will of the people. People (politicians) need to decide: do they want it fast or do they want it to comply with the regulations they have established? Or do some of the regulations merely need fine-tuning?