Vehicle traffic, pedestrians, underground utilities and limited space make urban infrastructure improvement projects complex, but failing to properly engage utility customers and community stakeholders in the process risks stopping a program before it begins.

From power lines to pipelines, major renewal programs are underway around the country to address aging infrastructure and cope with increased population growth in cities. While utilities are accelerating the number of renewal projects, these efforts are met with increasingly significant operating constraints by municipalities aiming to control the disruption to residents and businesses. Some examples:

  • Workday restrictions: Urban construction projects often are limited to certain hours or a restricted number of shifts during the day or night. Because project job sites require time to set up and break down, these constraints cause delays, slow production and increase costs.
  • Seasonal work limits: In some cities, work areas are restricted on a seasonal basis, such as when work is prohibited around schools except in summer or not allowed near tourist areas during peak times.
  • Cost of restoration: Municipalities now often require utilities to absorb more of the cost of paving or road repair, many times restoring an area greater than that disrupted by construction. Some requirements stipulate utilities must replace antique decorative features or curbstones in historic urban districts.
  • Minimize disruption: Other conditions can include demands for significant traffic control from local police, even on lightly traveled roads, which can quickly escalate costs.

Project planning must contend with a range of limitations while achieving project goals. Utilities can address requirements and challenges by focusing on a few key areas that can help better manage infrastructure project disruption.

Proactive Coordination

While projects need to comply with urban restrictions, efforts that combine community or public relations efforts to respond to constraints while making a case for exceptions are worth the effort. Achieving even minimal flexibility in imposed limitations can free up valuable schedule time.

Working with other utilities’ schedules and improvement projects can aid in coordinating construction crew schedules and may open opportunities for joint trenching and shared restoration costs.

Utilities must make sure project design addresses feedback from the many other stakeholders who will be affected by construction progress. Communities should feel heard and receive early notification of inconveniences to help stabilize the quality of life during an otherwise disruptive period. Failure to do so can lengthen construction timelines and increase disruption to both schedules and communities.

Implement Innovation

Thoughtful planning and the use of innovative technologies can limit construction impacts and enhance a project’s overall efficiency.

Utilities should get started early with underground surveying, using techniques such as ground-penetrating radar, to map unseen utilities. Conducting preliminary aboveground surveys using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) can offer an accessible view of potential construction risks that could severely hamper project progress.

Construction techniques such as horizontal directional drilling (HDD) sometimes can be incorporated into a project plan to minimize surface impact. Communicating these efforts with stakeholders can help ease the inconvenience and raise awareness of project progress.

Control Complexity

The refurbishment and replacement of city infrastructure affects a lot of people, businesses and stakeholders. Whether utilities have program flexibility or are faced with municipality restrictions, project controls add tremendous value in helping to facilitate progress and control risk.

By deploying a formal project or program management system, municipal infrastructure efforts are streamlined and controlled among the multiple departments involved to coordinate efforts and increase efficiency. Control systems should be used to track every aspect of an urban improvement program, whether the infrastructure project affects the downtown in a major city or a single section of a specific urban neighborhood street.

A good schedule is critical and should cover all aspects of a project, from design and permitting through procurement, construction and restoration. Effective plans help avoid all-too-common scenarios in which a road has been opened but a crucial piece of pipeline material such as a tapping tee or mainline valve is missing, and the road needs to be plated and left unrepaired longer than planned. These unnecessary delays cause conflicts with municipalities, which are then more likely to implement added constraints on the next project.

With planning and a proactive approach, infrastructure project teams can maximize productivity and minimize the impacts of urban restrictions.  


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Jonathan Kadishson is a department manager at Burns & McDonnell, specializing in leading engineer-procure-construct project for large-scale offshore wind projects. With more than 20 years of experience in the energy industry, he brings vast knowledge to every project.