Partners in transit

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
image description

Contractors with transit project experience rely on solid communication, developing a team culture and enhancing relationships to get them to a successful result.

Transit construction projects come with their own set of unique challenges, be it from the project alignment, political pressures, or financial constraints. Railway Age touched base with the past winners of the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Rail Construction Project of the Year award, which all happened to involve transit projects, to see what practices each adopted when working toward a successful outcome for their projects.

Developing an “us” culture

Stacy and Witbeck Inc. and Kiewit Western Co. (SWK) won the inaugural NRC award in 2011 for work performed on the West Valley TRAX Light Rail Project for Utah Transit Authority.

SWK had to deal with cost estimates that were over budget, delayed right-of-way acquisitions, stalled third-party utility relocations, soil conditions and alignment issues, and constructing a 780-foot, three-span curved bridge structure over an active Union Pacific classification yard.

Construction on the $199 million, 5.1-mile extension began in June 2008; the line opened for service on Aug. 2, 2011. SWK credits close collaboration with stakeholder agencies and the public with its ability to complete the project one year ahead of schedule and under the initial project budget of $202 million.

Ryan Snow, who served as project manager and is currently vice president for Modern Railway Systems, a subsidiary of Stacy and Witbeck Inc., said the number one issue regarding the relationship between contractors and transit agencies is communication.

“From day one, we put one another in each others’ offices. There were no secrets, there was open dialogue, and we worked together as a team to solve project issues rather than point fingers. I think that really translated into a successful project,” said Snow. “This project, like all projects, had its share of challenges, and it’s easy to start getting defensive in those situations and try to figure out whose responsibility it is. But when you tackle the challenges as ‘us vs. the challenge’ rather than focusing on figuring out who is culpable, then it really becomes a successful project because you get over the issue and you don’t focus on the reason behind it.”

Snow also points out that the project delivery method, Contract Manager/General Contractor (CMGC), allowed SWK to partner with UTA from the earliest stages of the project’s design and gave SWK a chance to solve many potential problems prior to construction.

“What was truly unique about our relationship with UTA was that the CMGC model brought SWK, the contractor, on as a partner long before the design was finalized, and it allowed us to provide constructive feedback throughout the design process to be more cost efficient and more schedule efficient,” said Snow.

Putting the project first

Another award-winning project that utilized CMGC and, coincidentally, was for UTA, was the FrontRunner South line, built by a joint venture of Stacy and Witbeck, Inc. and Herzog Contracting Corp.

The FrontRunner South project is part of UTA’s FrontLines 2015 program, which is composed of five UTA rail lines that will be in operation by 2015 and will expand the existing rail network by 70 miles. The FrontRunner South project scope of work included 30 bridges, two million cubic yards of earthwork, 50 miles of roadbed preparation and trackwork, 40 joint (with UP) at-grade crossings, signaling work, and station construction. Construction began in August 2008; the line began carrying commuters between Salt Lake City and Provo in December 2012.

Juggling the various elements of the 45-mile, $525 million regional/commuter rail project was a challenge unto itself, but the joint venture also had an impeccable safety record. The project had more than two million man-hours worked without a single lost-time accident.

Clayton Gilliland, project manager with Stacy and Witbeck, said key elements that made this project successful included the development of a “Project First” culture, where the needs of the job came before the needs of any individual team member; developing a compatible solutions-based culture among the owner, contractor, and designer; fair and clear risk allocation; developing a team environment through co-location and preconstruction phase, and having quarterly incentive review sessions to serve as a catalyst for frank discussions on contractor performance/expectations and develop issue resolution.

Gilliland points to the project team’s previous experience with CMGC, as well as similar experience working with UTA on the Frontrunner South project that allowed for efficient coordination with major project stakeholders, which also led to a comprehensive project understanding and equated to cost certainty. No contractor initiated changes on the project.

Much of the Frontrunner South alignment was constructed in close proximity to a Union Pacific main line. In addition to strong relations between project stakeholders and subcontractors, Gilliland said the project team had an excellent understanding of UP’s expectations, as well as good working relations, which translated into improved efficiencies when the line was being built so close to the active freight route.

Connecting client and contractor

Delta Railroad Construction, Inc., took on its largest project in company history when it was awarded the $81 million trackwork contract for the first phase of the Dulles Corridor Metro Rail project. The scope of work called for Delta to install more than 115,000 feet of track, as well as 11 crossovers and 17 turnouts, over two years. Following delays outside Delta’s control, the two-year window was then compressed into one year.

Delta had to meet two sets of expectations of the new line’s owner and its operator, perform work within one of the most populated areas in North America, and employ innovative construction practices in order to complete the project.

Delta designed and constructed specially made side formwork and end-dams for the direct-fixation track. According to the company, the forms were constructed to allow a monolithic pour of concrete that included the plinths and third-rail pedestals.

Delta also manufactured a tie handler that attached to an excavator to unload and stage 35,000 8.5-foot concrete ties in an effort to increase safety and production in the narrow work area. The company says it would have used a front-end loader with forks, but there was no room to maneuver a loader to handle the ties.

Larry Laurello, president of Delta Railroad Construction, said communication and patience can help navigate any potential issues regarding project specifications and construction best practices, but stressed that it is critical to have an understanding of specifications from the beginning of any project (from both the contractor and project owner).

Laurello also believes addressing and resolving issues as they come up is a better practice than leaving potential issues to be dealt with at the end of a project. The way to do this, he says, is to make sure there is a personal connection.

“In today’s world, there is corporate sterilization, where you don’t get communication anymore from people,” said Laurello. “It’s important to have personal communication and a connection with the client and contractor. Even though it’s bucking a trend of not having the communication and the relationship, it’s important to push through and have personal communication with your client. Otherwise, you can’t compete.”

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,