With billions in federal stimulus funding expected to flow into state budgets this year, those states that plan on using the stimulus dollars are in the process of prioritizing their shovel-ready projects.

It’s projected that $130 billion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) is set aside for the construction of highways, buildings and other public works. As of this writing, the U.S. Department of Transportation has released $27.5 billion of the stimulus funds to the states for highway projects. The economic-stimulus package promises to be the most significant infrastructure investment in decades. Amidst the anticipation of putting the stimulus dollars to work, contractors must ask themselves one very important question before the first shovel breaks ground: “Do you know where your underground utilities are located?”

Now more than ever, getting a construction site “shovel-ready” is of critical importance. And with 50 percent of infrastructure-related stimulus dollars expected to be allocated within 120 days of the bill’s passing (because of use-it-or-lose-it mandates), the time to consider getting a site shovel-ready is now… well in advance of any actual ground breaking. Subsurface utility engineering (SUE) experts who provide subsurface, value engineering to construction projects know firsthand the cost of not locating and mapping utilities prior to construction.  Unfortunately, most construction designers and planners proceed today without a subsurface utility investigation.

Risks of Not Being Shovel Ready

The risks of not performing a SUE evaluation before breaking ground on any construction site are enormous. Government-funded projects are no exception, bringing with them the added responsibility of effectively managing taxpayer dollars. In light of the current economic climate, any perception of negligence resulting in a delay, scope and/or budget creep, or accidents (or injury) would only be amplified. With the sense of haste that will likely come about with the delivery of stimulus dollars, it’s important not to put projects at risk by rushing into construction without a subsurface utility investigation. Here are some of the potential hazards of not performing a SUE evaluation to locate and map utilities:

  • National organizations estimate more than 400,000 utility lines are damaged or severed each year in the United States
  • Gas pipeline explosions can result in fatal accidents
  • Frequent environmental spills can occur
  • Complications can cause traffic congestion in work zones
  • Business and communities are disrupted
  • Taxpayer dollars are squandered
  • Public loses faith in elected officials, contractors and engineers in charge of projects
  • Litigation is often pursued when utilities are damaged during construction
  • Severed 911 phone lines can cause safety concerns to public

What Is SUE?

SUE is a branch of civil engineering developed by the Federal Highway Administration (FWHA) in the early 1980s dedicated to managing risks of underground utilities. SUE focuses on the integration of new site characterization and data processing technologies that allow cost-effective collection, depiction and management of existing utility information during the early development of a construction project.

There are many ways that the SUE process helps consultants manage the risks on projects with underground utilities. The full range of services that a subsurface utility engineering firm can provide include: utility mapping, coordination, relocation and utility design, conditions assessment, communication of utility data to all concerned parties and implementation of utility accommodation policies. As is often the case, existing contract plans and maps do not adequately expose buried utilities. Only through a proper SUE investigation can the risk of incurring damage during construction be reduced.

In a 1999 Purdue University report titled “Cost Savings on Highway Projects Utilizing Subsurface Utility Engineering,” 71 projects with a combined construction value in excess of $1 billion were studied to evaluate the effectiveness of SUE. The findings contradict the perception that SUE is a luxury item in the construction world, when really it is a necessary tool for cost-savings. The study revealed that a $4.62 savings was achieved for every $1 spent on SUE. Qualitative data was not measured, but the report made it clear that those savings were significant and may be many times more valuable than the quantifiable savings.

DOT Study Cites Utilities as Leading Cause for Delays

A recent DOT study revealed that utility relocation and utility differing site conditions were the leading causes of construction delays in federal and state DOTs (study sponsored by the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and conducted by Dr. Ralph Ellis and Dr. Randolph Thomas as a part of the National Cooperative Highway Research Program NCHRP 2-24 [12]). DOT projects have far-reaching impacts and commonly intersect with an abundance of underground utilities, including: metropolitan areas, airports, process plant highways and bridges. The potential negative impacts are obvious.

Impacts on Airports and FAA

When dealing with airport construction projects, unique considerations must be made to comply with regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). Airports fall outside of the public jurisdiction since they function according to Airport Operations Area (AOA) safety guidelines. Because of this, contractors must obtain permission and agree to strict legal requirements before even stepping foot in an airport construction site.

According to FAA requirements, it is understood that the owner of a facility does not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of location information relating to existing utility services, facilities or structures that may be shown in existing plans. However, this does not absolve the contractor from the responsibility to protect underground utilities from damage. In short, the burden falls on the contractor to cooperate with the FAA, NOAA or any other government agency to ensure the prevention of unscheduled interruption of utility services and facilities. Under such conditions, it pays to request a proper SUE investigation.

The risks that some contractors are willing to take to expedite the construction process is often alarming. SUE engineers who have been called in to investigate airport utilities have witnessed cases where excavation had already begun based on the owner-provided plans. Had the SUE investigators not provided their own markings of the site utilities they uncovered, critical utilities would have been broken, resulting in the interruption of key services (such as NOAA-related instrumentation).

Methods of SUE

SUE engineers have a variety of tools at their disposal with which to identify underground utilities. Computer-aided design and mapping of construction projects combines many different design aspects into a common database or base map. For example, this is often used to consolidate right-of-way maps. Vacuum extraction provides a nondestructive method of removing dirt and debris. This is performed at critical points along a subsurface utility’s path to determine exact conditions of buried utilities, including location, type, size, material and condition. Geographic information systems (GIS) and global positioning systems (GPS) combine software and hardware to develop a database using coordinates of various land features and mapping techniques.

Michael Twohig is SUE manager for SUE services nationwide for Woolpert Inc., based in the Orlando, Fla., office.

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