Doing More with Less: Using Innovative Strategies to Manage Risk and Boost Efficiencies for Transit Infrastructure Projects

by Jerry M. DiMondo, PE

Infrastructure spending in the U.S. could get a much-needed jump-start later this year. Peter DeFazio, newly-elected head of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has promised to make infrastructure spending a top priority in 2019, and Congress is expected to begin grappling with the issue in the next six months. If a deal is reached, it could free up billions of dollars for airport, rail, highway, bridge, water, wastewater and power projects throughout the U.S. The ability to efficiently allocate funding in order to meet the extensive infrastructure demand will be paramount. Innovation, and in some cases “disruptive” approaches, will allow owners to “do more with less”.

As a Project Management Oversight (PMO) contractor to the U.S. Federal Transit Administration, Burns works collaboratively with transit agencies to evaluate if projects are being effectively and efficiently implemented, and to ensure they are completed on time, and within budget and scope. We align our interests around the common goal of a successful project.

In New York, for example, Burns teamed with Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) staff to identify and implement an innovative way to save money and time on a complex track renewal project. Concerned about the time and cost of replacing the track infrastructure using traditional methods, Burns suggested that LIRR look into using a track-laying machine, something not previously considered due to the presence of an electrified third rail. As a result, LIRR engineers implemented the use of a unique bracket that allowed the track-laying machine to effectively work around the third rail, dramatically reducing the cost of the track installation. LIRR achieved a much higher production rate using the bracket and track-laying machine, while taking advantage of valuable track outage time windows. The result – time and cost savings.

Oftentimes, projects can benefit from innovative, outside-the-box thinking. Following Hurricane Sandy, LIRR was challenged to quickly replace substations impacted by the storm to keep their system fully operational. The standard design of “brick and mortar” substations was originally proposed, however, during planning, LIRR realized that this would add a schedule burden and place the system at a higher risk of failure as new substations were constructed. Working collaboratively with LIRR, Burns suggested modular substations as an alternate methodology. We shared our own design experience, noting that the modular substation methodology had become better recognized in the industry, and could save both time and money. As a result, LIRR was able to replace three existing brick and mortar substations with modular substations, and did so nearly a year early, saving almost $20 million.

Facilitating “outside-the-box” thinking can be a challenge within established organizations where project staff stay with proven, traditional methods, sometimes unaware of industry best practices and productivity improvements. In our experience, design agency standards may not always be updated to include more modern methodologies. In addition, agencies often apply a risk-averse approach to project implementation, not realizing the full cost or schedule impact. Our experience tells us that there is often opportunity for new project delivery techniques to yield considerable benefit.

Innovation isn’t easy. Whether agencies are relatively new or have been transporting commuters for more than a century, change can be hard. But disruptive change can also significantly save time, reduce project costs, and even help how future projects are approached and managed. Ultimately everyone – transit agencies, commuters, and the tax-paying public – benefits from successful infrastructure projects that have been attentively managed, and utilize innovative, outside-the-box thinking to help “do more with less”.