Road Construction Update

Road Construction Update
Posted on 09/02/2020

This Street Construction is Taking Way Too Long!

For the past few years we have had pretty positive feedback about street projects in Norwalk. More recently the City has taken steps to increase funding for street work which has led to improvements to our more heavily traveled roadways. It is possible this is bringing more attention to streets and actually causing some frustration. I thought it might be a good idea to share with citizens and businesses how we plan for and execute a street project. I am writing this from the City Manager perspective so I may oversimplify. For the engineers reading this article (and I personally know half dozen civil engineers that live here in Norwalk) please excuse my brevity.

 

General Process for Street Management

1.     Planning (why do we choose some over others)

a.     Norwalk has a Street Management Plan and a Capital Improvement Plan. Both of these documents are fluid and change regularly based on new information (i.e. The City discovers a roadway needs full reconstruction instead of an overlay or the City finds that another roadway has fallen to disrepair after a critical winter causing a change of timing).

b.     Both documents guide decisions five to ten years into the future. The plans are based on a Pavement Condition Index (PCI) from the Iowa DOT, traffic counts, underground utility needs, safety improvements, and public input.

2.     Find funding (more projects, more taxes)

a.     Street projects are expensive. Simple overlays are a low cost option but they don't last as long. Full reconstruction is the best for long-term but it doesn't make sense if we anticipate traffic volume increases that may require significant alignment changes.

b.     Finding the right time to invest in roadway expansions is challenging. One of our neighboring communities made a tremendous investment in a street where they felt there would be traffic increases. Today that street may need to be relocated due to a large development project.

c.     How do we pay for street projects? Most of Norwalk's major street projects are funded with property taxes. On full reconstructions of local roadways, a portion of the project is assessed to adjoining property owners

d.     The Road Use Tax (fuel sales, licensing and registration, etc.) you pay funds for many state-wide projects (interstates and state highways). The portion that flows back to Norwalk funds things like snow removal and other general roadway maintenance, but not large projects.

3.     Design of Streets

a.     Bigger and faster is better, right? Not always. Sometimes streets are designed to purposefully calm traffic or make pedestrians feel safer interacting with vehicles.

b.     Design is also related to budget. You can build a larger/wider street to handle future traffic. But if that traffic doesn't happen for 15-years you have just used up 1/3 of the useful life of that pavement without a need for it.

c.     A changing suburban community - Norwalkians feel different about delays when we are driving through our town compared to delays when we are driving through downtown Des Moines. We are a smaller community so traffic should be easier to navigate. This is true, yet we are growing and we will continue to see impacts of increased traffic and the improvements necessary to handle the increase.

d.     The design of a roadway should take into account safety, traffic flow, pedestrian interaction, budget, future growth, utilities, and many other factors.

4.     Contractor (lowest responsible bid)

a.     Not every contractor that gives a low bid is the highest quality. Not every quality contractor makes our project their top priority. Contractors are often working on several projects simultaneously

b.     Contractors have sub-contractors and they too can make or break a project. Subcontractors also are normally working on several projects simultaneously.

5.     Equipment Orders

a.     Stoplights and specialized street lights tend to be special order items. Stoplight systems are controlled by computers that have to be designed, built and programmed to function for our situation. It also takes engineering to determine how long that turn lane should wait before they get a green arrow. I don't know about you, but even as little as three additional seconds can seem like an eternity to me when I am late for an appointment.

6.     Utilities

a.     Water, sewer, storm sewer, gas, electric (above ground and underground), data, phone, fiber-optic, and even irrigation lines can all impact a project and potentially add cost and time necessary for construction.

7.     Property Owners

a.     Sometimes the City needs additional ROW. We must follow a specific process that seeks to provide property owners with fair compensation for their land. This can extend the timeline of a project significantly.

8.     Timing (this is my attempt to prepare people for North/Hwy 28 project, which will interrupt School traffic given the length of the project)

a.     It isn't often that I hear someone say, "wow, that street project went quickly." There are many factors that influence the timing of a project.

b.     During one project I dealt with there was over-excavation of a utility line and the backhoe caught the corner of an unknown underground storage tank. Later it was discovered that the tank had been used to store expired paint and solvents decades ago. The material had to be pumped out, treated and the tank had to be mitigated. The budget was wrecked and so too was the timing of the project. You never know what you’re going to find when you start digging.

c.     Another factor is weather. Enough said.

d.     Contractors are variable. As mentioned earlier, rarely is a contractor only performing a single project. If they have issues at other project locations it could mean a delay. Norwalk has discussed fines and penalties. We have also offered incentives or bonuses for speedy work. We still can't say conclusively if either concept is 100% effective.

e.     The best thing we can do is work with contractors in a professional manner.

9.     Project COMPLETE! That was easy.

10.  Wait, after construction, there's more...

a.     Trench settlement - now we have to bring back the contractor to tear out new concrete to further compact and pour new concrete.

b.     Concrete cracks - rout and seal or tear it out and re-pour.

c.     New utility or new connection - tear out a section and re-pour.

11.  Crack seal and ongoing maintenance... if there is funding available.

We are all in agreement that we want streets smooth and free-flowing for traffic movement. When we do a project we all want that project to be completed as soon as possible, including the contractor.

 

We want to preserve and improve why people want to live and work in Norwalk. If you have ideas of how we can do things better, we want to listen. Give me a call or text at 515-493-9971 or drop me a line at lnelson@norwalk.iowa.gov

 

Drive safe and give those road construction workers plenty of room.

 

 

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