Governor Greg Abbott took time out of what must be an overwhelming schedule to address attendees of the AGC’s virtual conference series. Here, Abbott addresses the AGC crowd in person during a Public Affairs Committee meeting in early 2018.
The global coronavirus pandemic has impacted all of society with necessary changes – not all of them bad, agreed the TxDOT district engineer panel during the second session of AGC’s virtual conference series, held August 24.
People and businesses have found ways to improvise and old attitudes are changing, they said. More of the public are participating in “virtual public meetings” than ever before, says El Paso District Engineer Tomas Trevino.
“We’ve had more interaction because people can join and see a public meeting at their home. They don’t have to be at an event at a certain time, at a certain day of the week. You can have a virtual public meeting that goes on for a couple weeks, and they can provide their input and we have gotten pretty good at it,” Trevino said. “And we have had more feedback from the public than we had in any of our face-to-face public meetings.”
Trevino, who has spent most of his TxDOT career in the Corpus Christi district before his promotion to El Paso, described himself as a “Generation X” person from the post-boomer era. He prefers face-to-face public hearings.
“But I’ve changed my point of view. There’s a lot of good that comes from having virtual events and virtual meetings. I don’t see it going away,” Trevino said. “I think it’s something that has changed permanently for the department, and I think we’re only going to get better at it as we do more of it”.
TxDOT leaders and crews had to respond immediately in March when it became evident the COVID-19 crisis would cast far-reaching effects over a long period of time.
Houston District Engineer Eliza Paul said she immediately sent the agency’s design and office employees people to work at home. The department swapped all desktop computers for laptops a few years earlier, which made telecommuting easier.
Her field and maintenance crews practice the three essential pandemic-related safety routines of frequent handwashing: social distancing and facial coverings.
“It’s working really good, but we just need to have constantly remind employees about the 3 Ws,” she said.
Quincy Allen, TxDOT Director of District Operations, moderated the panel discussion. He asked Paul if any of the necessary changes had worked better than expected?
Virtual meetings make it more convenient and employees can make more meetings because they don’t have to travel, she said: “Now, we can actually schedule meetings backto- back, one after another because you are just sitting in your office or at home.”
She’s also hearing good reports from the Houston district employees. They tell her they have become more efficient and productive.
“It can trigger frustration when, for example, technology and communications systems don’t always work as planned... But safety remains the top priority”
“I’m not a big proponent of telework before, and my opinion has changed a little bit. We are forced to (improvise) and everybody’s doing it, and I think I’m changing my attitude a little bit. This telework is going to work for us.”
Beaumont District Engineer Donald Smith amplified the experiences of his colleagues. Laughing, Smith said he’s been running to meetings “except I wasn’t going anywhere so it’s a bit strange. You can actually run to a meeting - and you don’t go anywhere.”
He describes the pandemic experience as a “double-edged sword.” On one hand, the agency has been able to make up considerable time on projects because of reduced traffic. But a variety of conspiracy theories made it necessary to convince staff about the serious nature of the coronavirus.
It’s also taken some adjustment in the way he and other staffers greet people: “We are a little out of touch….we’ve had to proceed in ways we are not used to, like looking at a handshake differently,” Smith said.
“It’s a different environment. I’ve really challenged our crews to find solutions to look for ways to be effective and efficient and to continue to stay in touch,” Smith said. “I think we are adjusting now because we do realize that teleworking will be a reality for us in the office setting, and even in some of the field settings.”
Gov. Greg Abbott welcomed conference participants with brief remarks, thanking AGC of Texas members for building Texas.
“We all know we are dealing with trying times as we respond to the Covid-19 pandemic and as we work to revitalize our economy, but Texas is strong, and Texans are resilient. We are going to make it through this challenge together, and the Associated General Contractors of Texas will help literally pave the way,” the governor said. “Working together, we will bring the economy back. We will attract even more businesses to our great state and create even more high-paying jobs. As always, I thank you for your partnership and for your leadership and everything you do to build a better Texas and everything you do.”
The pandemic has forced all to work in different ways and to practice patience, TxDOT’s Allen said. And it can trigger frustration when, for example, technology and communication systems don’t always work as planned.
“It’s made us more focused on calendars to try to get everybody arranged for open periods. It used to be more run and gun. Now it’s more ready, aim, fire,” Allen said.
But safety remains the top priority, he said, with pandemic-related safety practices now becoming part of the culture: “And I’m talking about exposure -- washing hands; maintaining our distance or wearing our mask. I hope that it’s almost become a second nature for everyone.”
The economic impact of the pandemic will create some uncertainty in the upcoming legislative session.
TxDOT officials will recommend an annual $7.5 billion construction program, Chief Engineer Bill Hale told the conference.
Roughly $6 billion a year would go for traditional bid projects and $1.5 billion for design build projects, Hale said. The Legislature has limited TxDOT to 6 design-build projects for each two-year budget cycle. TxDOT will shoot for letting contracts averaging $500 million a month, excluding the design-build work, Hale said.