July 14, 2014

DOT aims to align operations, multi-modal mission

Photo | Pablo Robles
Photo | Pablo Robles
James Redeker, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, said his agency must transform to meet the transportation needs of the future.
Photo | Contributed
The I-84 Southington bridge project was the first time DOT used an accelerated method to minimize the length of construction impact on the traveling public.

The state Department of Transportation will start outsourcing more of its engineering work to private firms as part of a larger strategic shift that aims to better position the agency to carry out Connecticut's long-term infrastructure plans and needs.

Using recent changes in state law allowing DOT to hire private contractors to design and build projects, the agency will shift away from doing all its own construction prep work — which left contractors with no risk and little to do but carry out DOT's marching orders — to contracting out management responsibilities to private firms that will take on much larger roles in maintaining and building Connecticut's future transportation infrastructure, said DOT Commissioner James Redeker.

This shift is only a small part of a significant overhaul DOT is implementing to become an agency better aligned with the transportation infrastructure needs of the future, Redeker said. Rather than focus mostly on highway and bridge maintenance, DOT is trying become a multi-modal agency with better communication within its divisions and other vital state agencies, particularly the Department of Economic & Community Development and the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection.

The goal, Redeker said, is to better position DOT to carry out a 50-year transportation infrastructure plan for Connecticut, which is currently being hashed out. While DOT has laid out previous future visions for the state, it has had trouble implementing them because the agency's internal structure was rooted in the past.

"There is a long history of this DOT preparing plans for the future," Redeker said. "Basically what those plans ended up doing is sitting on the floor a mile high."

For example, roughly half of DOT's $2 billion operating budget goes toward public transit, but only about 100 of the agency's 3,000 employees are dedicated to that focus area. As Connecticut becomes more reliant on buses and trains to move people around — through projects like the CTfastrak busway and the New Haven-Springfield rail line — more DOT personnel will be moved into the public transit division.

This doesn't necessarily mean DOT will be employing more people; in fact, it could be less, Redeker said. The agency's employment levels are already down 40 percent from its high of 5,000 workers in the 1990s.

Rather than focusing on the number of people, the agency's overhaul will seek to add different areas of expertise while subtracting others, Redeker said.

"We are going to need to build different capabilities, and we will do that slowly and incrementally, unless we need to make wholesale changes, and then we will," Redeker said.

TransformCT initiative

DOT is in the midst of its TransformCT initiative, where it is gathering information and opinions from thousands of residents and stakeholders to decide what transportation infrastructure suits Connecticut's long-term needs. After the vision is decided, DOT will look further inward to ensure it is proficient enough to carry out its new marching orders.

"We will be looking for gaps: what kind of people do we need and what kind of capability do we need," Redeker said.

Even though DOT traditionally has held varied responsibilities including overseeing bridges, airports, ports, transit, ferries, rail, and ridesharing, the agency put most of its attention on road maintenance and repair, Redeker said. That will change in the future so that the entire transportation infrastructure receives its due attention. Part of the shift has included transferring oversight of the state's airports and ports to newly created, quasi-public authorities, freeing up DOT resources.

Redeker said he is also pushing DOT divisions to work in concert with each other, so transit projects can benefit highways and one hand always knows what the other is doing.

"We are working together as one agency, perhaps more than we ever have in the past 50-60 years," said Michael Sanders, DOT public transit administrator. "We have to look at the menu of services [we provide]."

As DOT develops its future transportation vision, the agency must cooperate with DECD and DEEP as those agencies develop the state's economic and energy roadmaps. Such interagency cooperation hasn't been easy to achieve in Connecticut state government, but since all their efforts interrelate, they must work in concert to develop the best overall strategy to maximize Connecticut's viability, Redeker said.

Some of the major, game-changing projects DOT will consider include new high-speed rail corridors, such as connecting Hartford with Boston; more highway interchanges; new branches of rail lines; more dedicated bus routes like CTfastrak; improving highway speeds with methods like congestion pricing; more direct-service transit options; and private car-sharing service providers like Zipcar.

How exactly the TransformCT initiative turns out will be decided in the next six months, but based on initial public input, DOT will be looking at some major changes.

"The early indication is our vision is very bold," Redeker said. "People are saying, 'I want Connecticut to have the best of every place I've been to.'"

As part of any future plans, DOT must maximize benefits of its existing infrastructure — particularly roads and bridges — and make sure they are in good repair, Redeker said.

DOT has a $3 billion capital budget to repair roads and bridges over the next five years, but it will need significantly more money complete other, grander projects like reconstruction of the I-84 viaduct in Hartford, which carries a $3 billion to $5 billion pricetag.

New construction methods

Meantime, the agency's transformation must include adopting new project management methods that improve speed and efficiency, Redeker said. In addition to relying more on design-build contractors rather than in-house engineering, DOT will move forward with project methods like the one that closed I-84 during the first weekend in July to replace a bridge in Southington.

DOT used an accelerated bridge project methodology, in which contractors built sections of the bridge off the roadway without interrupting traffic and then installed it over one weekend.

Traditional road project methods would have forced the shutdown of different portions of I-84 while the various sections of the bridge were constructed, taking as long as two years to complete, Redeker said.

A similar methodology will be used for bridge projects in Bridgeport, Norwalk, and Stamford.

"We have a lot of work to do on our system, and we don't want the projects to take forever," Redeker said.

These changes along with technological advancements — such as tree trimming equipment that can clear a mile in a day as opposed to a work crew felling 10 trees per day — will help DOT become the agency that fulfills its responsibilities while building toward the future, Redeker said.

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DOT’s planning relies on public input

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