Strategies to keep light-rail projects on track
If one were to go strictly by the headlines, it might seem as if all new light-rail lines were either doomed to run over their budgets or to hit legal and regulatory roadblocks that push back opening days by months or even years.
Construction of the nearly $6 billion, 16-mile Purple Line in Maryland was delayed by a year because of activists' lawsuits and the roughly $2 billion Southwest Light Rail extension in Minneapolis had trouble early on after state Republicans tried to kill the project and contractors’ bids came in higher than original projections. GoTriangle’s $3.3 billion Orange-Durham light-rail line in North Carolina was scrapped last month due to financial and logistical challenges as well as tenuous relationships with critical partners such as Duke University.
But not all light-rail projects follow this pattern.
Phoenix's Valley Metro Regional Public Transportation Authority (Valley Metro) has seen several projects delivered on time and within budget, including a $1.4 billion, 20-mile light-rail line inaugurated in 2008 and three subsequent extensions.
The agency can’t distill its recipe for success down to one secret ingredient, however. “There are lots of things together that make it successful,” Wulf Grote, Valley Metro’s director of capital and service development, told Construction Dive. And it all starts with planning.
Planning for funds, land acquisitions
The first step in the planning process, Grote said, is getting buy-in from the community before the agency gets too far into the design process. “If we understand their issues,” he said, “we're then in a position to accommodate them to the greatest extent possible and to not have to change direction late in the project, which is always very costly.”
And well before a project team can even start thinking about shovels hitting the dirt, building a solid relationship with officials at the Federal Transit Administration is a must. The FTA sinks billions of dollars into light-rail projects via its Capital Investment Grants program and is the go-to source for light-rail project funding.
"If we understand [the community's concerns], we're then in a position to accommodate them to the greatest extent possible and not have to change direction late in the project."
Director of capital and service development, Valley Metro
“I think one thing that we have finessed over time,” added Hillary Foose, Valley Metro director of communication and strategic initiatives, “is our relationship with the FTA.” It’s not uncommon for projects to move ahead before they have federal cash in hand, but when Valley Metro breaks ground under that scenario, it’s a “safer risk,” she said, because they have built credibility with the FTA by giving them good data and whatever reassurances the administration needs to demonstrate that the project is on the right path.
Securing federal funding and seeing that process through, HNTB Associate Vice President Greg Boulanger told Construction Dive, is extremely complex. HNTB, he said, is often hired to handle the financing side of big light-rail projects, and that includes helping the owner agency navigate through federal, state and local funding requirements. That involves a sea of paperwork, financial reports, the development of schedule and contingency projections and other measures aimed at protecting the taxpayer’s investment.
But once the federal funding is approved, Boulanger said, things “start to move very, very fast,” with yet another set of goals and deadlines that have to be met as a condition of winning a grant.
Proper planning also includes timely land acquisitions, as the failure to do nab what's necessary could hold up construction progress. There’s no set-in-stone percentage of land that Valley Metro likes to secure prior to starting construction, Project Controls Manager Kyle Strickland told Construction Dive, as long as the team is able to sequence construction activity around certain parcels to account for any potential gap in purchases.
Promoting collaboration early on
While winning the support of the community is important, so is developing a positive relationship with the other agencies that play a part in the project’s success, Foose said.
Interagency cooperation, according to Strickland, can help mitigate one of the two biggest project risks — utilities, which is right up there with land acquisition as a potential schedule killer. “We spend a lot of time working on master agreements with third-party utility companies,” he said. “We get those in place [so that they can] start relocation of their utilities far in advance of … the construction phase.”
If it's necessary to preserve the schedule, Strickland continued, Valley Metro will offer assistance to third-party utilities and relocate critical utility infrastructure itself. Collaboration is a core part of the agency's culture, Foose said, and necessary in relationships with these outside organizations.
The Valley Metro board has 18 individuals representing local jurisdictions who have to work together to reach agreements on transportation goals for the Phoenix metro area on a regular basis. The authority must also work with the Arizona DOT's Metropolitan Planning Organization and other grant and funding partners.
One practice that helps facilitate collaboration is co-locating designers, contractors, city representatives and agency staff in the same working space during administration of a rail project, which Strickland said makes a big difference in the quality of communication.
Oftentimes, when the owner, designer, contractor and other project stakeholders occupy separate offices, he said, differences of opinion can devolve into letter-writing campaigns or worse. With co-location, according to Strickland, parties can simply walk across the hall and resolve issues face to face early on.
Alternative delivery methods
Valley Metro has learned through its experience "that alternative delivery methods are to our advantage,” according to Grote. The authority has used construction manager at risk (CMAR) and design-build exclusively for all extensions to the line, which was first built under a design-bid-build framework. Valley Metro has yet to try a large-scale public-private partnership, but it doesn't rule out the method for future projects.
Like many proponents of CMAR and design-build, Grote said that there are benefits to bringing the contractor in at the earliest design phases, such as working out scheduling conflicts or necessary changes before they become expensive to fix out in the field.
There’s no doubt on the part of Valley Metro that this early meeting of the minds with contractors has saved the agency money. When President Donald Trump’s tariffs were about to drop, for instance, the construction manager at risk for the agency’s $200 million Tempe Streetcar project, Stacy and Witbeck, suggested buying track right away to avoid rising prices in the run-up to and after the tariffs went into effect.
Careful project controls
But no agency can plan for everything, and that’s where strong management and project controls come into play, Grote said. “Watching the schedule, the risks and making sure that we don't have cost creep along the way — all those things are very important to a successful project,” he said.
“It's definitely important for the [owner] agency to have people that are experienced in delivering these types of projects and absolutely important to have experienced consultants,” said Boulanger. The size of the agency, he said, will determine how much consultant support is necessary, as will the level of in-house expertise.
But the sheer length of time it takes to develop a project means that all sorts of impactful events can take place between the time that initial budgets and schedules are set and construction, and that includes changes in political leadership and community sensibilities, both of which are hard to predict.
Light-rail and other transit projects "[start] off in the uncertainty column,” Boulanger said. “You really need that political will and that champion … to remind people of the benefits all the time. These projects will take hits, costs go up and things happen. During the course of your project, you're probably going through two or three administrations in Washington. So it's just another challenge, but you have to work with that, and that's all part of it."
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