Squeezing success into urban spaces

Eight best practices in program management of complex, underground transit projects

Every nearby building site, transportation mode, utility and pedestrian route adds to the risk and complexity of an underground urban transit project. However, by following the eight best practices below, owners can examine multiple alternatives, manage risks and mitigate negative effects to the community. 
 
1.    Bring greater certainty to the uncertain
A program manager shares the owner’s interest in satisfying stakeholders by planning and managing a complete project on budget and on schedule while also meeting or exceeding quality and safety standards. 

The traditional approach — with separate leaders for planning, design and construction — makes accountability difficult and finger-pointing easy. That’s why a start-to-finish approach that maintains continuity and control is a tenant of best-practice program management.  

An experienced program manager resolves competing demands, goals and priorities of agencies and stakeholders by balancing expectations and reality and maintaining focus on the project purpose. 

To be effective, program managers also assemble a team that possesses the required technical expertise and resources for underground construction. The team supports the owner and participating agencies by:
•    Efficiently managing technical challenges 
•    Managing risks and disputes
•    Working with delivery methods 
•    Contracting 
•    Conducting resource analysis 
•    Collaborating with the construction community and the public 
•    Applying program controls 
•    Assigning accountability 

2.    Let the construction community influence success 
Owners should conduct extensive contractor outreach before bidding and during the project. Meet with local contracting associations on a quarterly basis to share bidding schedules and solicit constructability ideas. Discuss qualification requirements and prior experiences of tunnel and underground work in the project area, including challenges and lessons learned. 

Informing all qualified contractors about a program before putting projects out for bid can reveal invaluable ideas for addressing risks, reducing costs and encouraging competition. The less contractors know about the project, the more they increase their bids to reflect variables. However, when contractors know what a program manager expects, and they have opportunities to provide input, they generally perceive less risk and submit lower bids. 
 
3.    Get four bids, maybe more
To maximize competition and minimize costs, multibillion-dollar programs, especially if they are underground, begin with a study of local construction markets. To incorporate the construction community’s best thinking, the process should include strategies for engaging qualified firms before bidding. Not all contractors in the area, or even nationally, will be interested or qualified to bid on tunneling or underground projects. Having multiple qualified teams is essential for competitive bids. 

The program manager’s role is to separate the project into manageable, biddable components that are priced competitively. Getting four or more bids is ideal for arriving at a truly competitive price.
 
4.    Analyze resources strategically 
The 2004-2006 market for railroad materials found many program managers scrambling for resources. HNTB program managers anticipated the gravel shortage and pre-purchased the future production of a gravel pit. Likewise, they foresaw the 2007-2008 shortage of structural steel and pre-purchased a supply. 

That kind of forward thinking is especially valuable for large, urban underground transit projects, which may take years to complete. The program manager should conduct an independent study to assess the impact of any future resource constraints, including qualified labor and equipment resources, and develop strategies to get around or in front of those constraints. 

The program manager also should recommend an investment pace and schedule that modulates cash flow in time with funding availability and project demand. 
 
5.    Make community collaboration essential 
Today’s design and management process now includes two words that largely have been absent in the past: environmental justice. Successful program managers listen to public concerns and ameliorate and minimize a design’s negative effects, especially during construction of underground facilities. 

Using local community outreach to communicate potential design elements or construction processes and to effectively respond to objections, helps turn potential project opponents into supporters. Issues, such as street opening, impact on traffic, utilities, trucking of excavated materials and impact on local businesses and residents should be addressed early in the project development. 
 
6.    Ensure accountability with controls 
Program managers need to demonstrate they are transparent and fair when enforcing controls and resolving disputes especially as they relate to the differing ground conditions clause for underground construction.

Controls include: 
•    Change-order responsibility: Implementing changes at the lowest possible level minimizes delays and cost increases. This may require giving the program manager greater authority for approving change orders. 
•    Implementation of a geotechnical baseline report: The baseline report is a mechanism of sharing ground-condition risks and unforeseen developments between the owner and the contractor. It is essential to assign each risk in the baseline report to the entity best suited to manage it. Fairness and transparency are essential for successful implementation of baseline provisions. 
•    Dispute resolution: Program managers must establish a clear framework for issue escalation and a commitment to resolving disputes within 60-75 days. 
•    Project targets: Program managers must clarify financial, schedule and quality targets for each project phase, and then monitor, adjust and regularly communicate those targets to all affected. The linear nature of tunnel construction imposes additional challenges of maintaining and meeting the project schedule. Monitoring early deviations is critical to maintain the project schedule and to recover any delays.
•    Reporting and tracking: All participants must abide by guidelines for reporting and tracking budgets, requests for inspection, drawings, change orders, estimates and timing. Configuration management is essential throughout the phases of the program to maintain the overall program budget and to provide the most essential program elements.
•    Quality management: Everyone involved must implement the same quality-management system and integrate it into reporting and management. 
 
7.    Develop a risk register
A risk register is an exhaustive account of potential risks, their probabilities and consequences, along with strategies for risk mitigation, reduction and management. Risk management should start early and continue throughout the life of the project. The contractor should adopt the risk register and develop it further to anticipate potential risks and mitigate them early. It should be noted that risk mitigation should be assigned to the entity most suited to deal with it. 

The risk register for an urban tunnel project, for example, should cover these major categories: 
•    Geotechnical risks: Geological and ground-water conditions affect construction means and methods. Revealing and mitigating geotechnical risks requires comprehensive investigation, including ground testing, ground-water control measures, estimating potential ground loss during excavation and potential settlement, and predicting how the ground will behave during construction. The investigation also examines all obstructions and adjacent infrastructure to assess the impact of the construction on nearby buildings, facilities and utilities.
•    Stakeholder risks: Effects of the design and construction on transportation, traffic and pedestrians should be taken into account. Interfacing and coordinating with utility owners, public and private agencies, and other stakeholders are essential for a successful project. 
•    Environmental issues, including noise and vibration: Effective program managers work with the community and participating agencies to establish guidelines for minimizing noise and vibration from blasting, equipment movement and other construction activity and to maintain good air quality and acceptable working hours. They also monitor and enforce compliance.  
•    Transit integration: It is critical to ensure tunnels can accommodate all systems necessary (i.e., power, signals, communication, train control, track and track bed) for trains to operate safely and at the service level required. If the underground transit system is part of an existing system, new components must be integrated with minimal impact. 
•    Fire and life safety: The register should look at prevention, protection and rescue during construction and normal operations. Design considerations include how to manage smoke, evacuate people and ventilate the facility. Design also should take the roles of first responders and operators into account. In addition, the potential impact of fire on structures and the facility’s infrastructure must be addressed, including steps to harden the facility, if necessary. 
 
8.    Seek alternative risk-management strategies  
Design-build and public-private partnership projects often accelerate work, allow less time for risk examination and planning and may put distance between technical experts and decision makers. 

The extensive period of operation and maintenance for P3 projects also complicates risk assessment and mitigation. Finally, tunneling imposes unique risks, generally takes longer and costs more than at-grade projects, which may require a tradeoff between long- and short-term expense. 

A program manager faces these challenges with alternative risk-management strategies. For example, HNTB often investigates risk during the bidding process, uses a baseline geotechnical report as the basis for bidding, and recommends setting aside contingency funds. 
 
The future holds challenges 
Program management of future transit projects will become more challenging as population and building trends converge on already developed cities. Exceptional program and risk management for underground transit, that is truly strategic, will become even more critical.