Is TxDOT Ready?
As we begin 2017, the Texas Department of Transportation is preparing for two very important events: first, our 100th year of service to the citizens of Texas, and second is the 85th Legislative Session and our department’s Sunset review. It is the Sunset review that I want to focus on in this column.
Last November, the Sunset Advisory Commission staff prepared its report for the commission, outlining its review findings and recommendations.
In that report, the staff praised TxDOT’s good-faith efforts to address prior concerns, but cautioned TxDOT to be more proactive and efficient in delivering highway projects. A fair observation in light of the $70 billion that TxDOT has programmed over the next 10 years. It is this significant increase in funding that lead Sunset staff to pose the report’s pivotal question, “Is TxDOT ready?”
The answer is, unequivocally, yes we are. While the 2017 Unified Transportation Program will be the largest project program in the department’s history, this is not our first time managing projects with funding levels of this magnitude.
TxDOT has a proven track record of planning and developing projects. But as any business enterprise knows, there is always room for improvement. The Sunset Staff Report offers some valid observations and recommendations. And we welcome the feedback.
While we will not know the final outcome of those recommendations until the end of the legislative session, we have made and will continue to make improvements to our processes. Let me share a few of those enhancements with you.
We’re working on two tools that will provide greater transparency and improve timely and accurate decisions for our districts.
The first tool will give each district a better idea of its project portfolio health and resource needs. The second tool will help districts make decisions about project prioritization by giving them a department-wide view. Districts will see project readiness statuses and project prioritization statewide. And once the tools are deployed, they’ll also provide project and portfolio information to the public as well.
The real power will come when we have a modern, web-based, information system that combines all aspects of project delivery. Using near real-time data from the other tools, the information system will run scenarios that generate estimated performance outcomes, which will then be evaluated against the Texas Transportation Commission’s strategic objectives. This will support the commission in making informed, performance-based decisions on funding, project selection and prioritization.
In 2014 and 2015 we noticed a trend of construction delays that resulted in projects not being completed on time. Projects had been let, but in some cases parcels of right of way had not been acquired nor had utilities been relocated. A delay in one step in the process created a slowdown in subsequent steps.
We implemented a new policy that requires projects to be clear of outstanding right of way and utilities, prior to the start of construction, unless excepted by a TxDOT administration approved management plan that demonstrates there will be no effect on construction activities. As a result of these efforts, for low-bid highway construction projects during calendar year 2016, almost 93 percent of the projects were let with all the necessary right of way, and over 81 percent had possession of all right of way and no pending utility work. We believe that by continuing with this policy, we will see greater improvements.
Another issue addressed in the Sunset staff’s review related to the delivery of projects on time.
While we fully understand that project delays are frustrating to drivers and businesses near project locations, we do take steps to shorten project durations.
We use all the contracting tools that are at our disposal, but we are selective about their use. We have found that these tools are most effectively used on projects that potentially have the greatest impact to the traveling public. We also use standard criteria and guidelines for deciding appropriate contract incentive provisions to include on projects.
We don’t take lightly our responsibility to deliver projects on time and on budget. One of my responsibilities as chief engineer is to monitor the status of projects, and provide monthly updates to our executive director, James Bass, on the status of projects being assessed liquidated damages.
The real key is early identification of potential delays. Districts are responsible for project management and regularly meet with contractors to discuss schedules and issues for resolution. We encourage open and honest communication by all the parties. That is critical to on-time project delivery.
Business Opportunity Programs
One final issue I want to address from the Sunset Staff Report is the department’s business opportunity programs, namely the federal Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program, the state Historically Underutilized Business Program and our Small Business Enterprise Program. These are important programs to TxDOT, and we want to move away from being merely compliant with federal and state requirements, to offering businesses more opportunity to compete and win contracts. In doing so, not only do the participants in the programs win, but so do our prime contractors and the state as a whole.
To get there, we have some work to do. The Sunset Staff Report outlined some specific recommendations – like the active recruitment of new businesses for certification – and we’ve already added these recommendations to our 2017 Civil Rights Division Strategic Plan.
We appreciate the work of the Sunset staff and the Sunset Commission, and we will continue to work hard to make our good efforts our best efforts to serve the citizens of Texas. We look forward to working with our construction partners to implement these important programs and deliver transportation improvements for Texas.