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March 21, 2016 Q&A

Transportation focuses on engineering innovation

Q&A talks about the challenges of urban infrastructure development with Carrie Rocha, associate vice president, Connecticut office leader of engineering-consulting firm HNTB Corp.

Q: Talk about improving I-84 through Hartford has been gathering steam as of late. What are going to be some of the engineering challenges if and when this project gets the green light?

A: There are many challenges to improving or replacing highways that run through major urban areas such as I-84 through Hartford. Engineers typically consider many alternatives and go through a lengthy process to determine those that meet project goals and improve safety and efficiency of travel along the highway as well as improving connections.

One major challenge is how to stage or phase construction to minimize impacts to the traveling public and allow access to neighborhoods, businesses and other destinations. Other challenges encountered on these projects include limited space for construction activities, the presence of pre-existing infrastructure such as above- and below-ground utilities, environmental and subsurface conditions, preservation of historic features and multi-modal connections.

Q: In the old days, i.e. currently, the tendency is to keep highways partially open while doing the work. But with I-84 there seems to be a sense of tearing it down and then building the new highway. What approach is going to work best and why?

A: A decision about the best approach will come after a thorough evaluation of the options weighing the impacts of each alternative. Among the factors typically considered are the expected duration of the construction process, routing of detours or other travel alternatives and the impacts to stakeholders, including the neighborhoods, business owners and highway users directly impacted by the construction.

If the decision is to keep I-84 open during construction, there are numerous examples where this has been successful. Among them are the recently completed widening of a portion of the New Jersey Turnpike and the current construction on the I-35 Mixmaster interchange project in Dallas.

Similar highway improvement projects have been successfully completed in other parts of the country by the use of advanced traffic management technologies, the effective use of proven program management and construction management techniques that can help accelerate the completion of projects, manage costs and minimize the impact of the construction process.

Q: What are some innovations in engineering that are being used in construction to keep costs down? And keep things moving?

A: One new management technique is alternative project delivery. One alternative delivery method increasingly used today is design-build, which involves a partnership typically comprised of the design engineer with a construction contractor who conducts both the design and construction of a project. Design-build can help to shift project risk, reduce project changes and improve overall duration, which all directly impact the cost of a project.

Another area of innovation is the application of advanced-program management, general-engineering consultant and construction-management techniques. These represent comprehensive approaches that define, develop, deliver and operate major capital improvement programs. Components include risk management, financial planning, alternative delivery, communications, project controls and technology, quality and asset management.

Additionally, there is the application of creative approaches to planning and engaging stakeholders and the public that improves communications with those affected by, and benefitting from, transportation improvements. These can save time, or minimize delays, in the environmental, design and construction phases of the process.

Q: What are accelerated construction techniques? How are they being implemented from an engineering perspective — and not just for highway projects?

A: Accelerated construction involves a wide range of construction techniques, processes and technologies designed to maximize construction or reconstruction operations while minimizing project delays and community disruption.

One application is accelerated bridge construction (ABC), which utilizes innovative methods of project planning, design, contracting and construction to significantly reduce time needed to replace a bridge, particularly when compared to traditional methods. ABC uses pre-fabricated components built off-site and put in place once on-site, or can involve an entire structure built off-site and transported into place.

Using ABC, a bridge can be removed and replaced in a matter of days — sometimes in one day or less — minimizing traffic disruption and traveler inconvenience. ABC is used for both highway and railroad bridges. One nearby example is on I-84 in Southeast, N.Y., where twin bridges over Dingle Ridge Road were replaced over two weekends with road closures in each direction of less than 20 hours.

ABC can reduce cost or project duration, or both. When all costs are considered, ABC is usually a very cost-effective approach.

Q: In general, how is engineering doing as a field of study? Are schools creating enough engineers to meet the needs of the industry?

A: Today, the demand for engineers is high, while supply is low.

Job opportunities for engineers are good, with starting salaries among the highest for all college graduates. Six of the 10 college majors with the highest starting salaries are in some branch of engineering.

Civil engineers are one of the largest branches of engineering in the world, accounting for one in five of all engineers working today. Civil engineering is going through a period of significant growth, projected to be 20 percent from 2012 to 2022 — faster than the average for all occupations.

One of the biggest factors accounting for this growth is that most of our infrastructure in the U.S. was built after World War II and now needs replacement or repair.

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