Three Common Challenges Encountered on Urban Infrastructure Projects

For more than 27 years, I've had the opportunity to be part of infrastructure improvement projects in New Jersey—the state where I've been a resident for most of my life. Engineering projects by their very nature bring unique challenges to overcome, but designing to accommodate utilities, including community involvement in the design process, and minimizing construction impacts are challenges that have to be managed on almost every project. These challenges provide opportunities for our team to develop creative solutions, build consensus, and ultimately provide local and regional improvements that benefit generations to come.

Managing Utilities in Urban Environments

One of the biggest challenges in any design is managing and accommodating utilities—especially in urban environments. Whether above ground or underground, our teams consider how utilities will be impacted by improvements, including during construction. One potential solution is incorporating advance relocation work which is performed by the companies themselves or by one of their pre-qualified contractors. For example, one of my complex projects adjacent to the Hackensack River in New Jersey included roadway realignments, new bridges, retaining walls, and a stormwater pump station requiring significant utility relocations. By coordinating the complex utility work and performing portions of the work in advance, we reduced the overall project schedule and potential for delays during construction. The utility companies were also able to coordinate their crews to work on their own schedule, rather than coordinating with the contractor's overall operations. This helped facilitate construction of the main contract and avoided costly delays. The remaining utility work within the main construction contract was sequenced and identified in the contract plans, as well as the utility relocation plans and agreements.

As part of the design process, planned utility company improvements are integrated into the schemes of accommodation for the project. By coupling the required utility replacements as part of the capital improvement project with independent utility company facility improvements, the infrastructure within our state remains at the required level to serve the region and provides an opportunity to incorporate resilience and sustainability to meet future demands.


Keeping Communities in Mind

Engaging the community and other stakeholders early and often adds to the success of a project. Open and honest discussions with the community allows for the reduction of impacts and development of mitigation strategies. In urban environments, businesses, pedestrians, transit facilities, and parking need to be taken into consideration during design and construction. The maintenance and protection of traffic and construction staging plans provide the concepts to minimize impacts for both vehicles and pedestrians. One of my recent downtown urban projects involved a road diet of a four-lane, heavily traveled roadway. The corridor was lined with residences, businesses, schools, churches, and other facilities. We worked closely with a diverse community, incorporating multilingual outreach to obtain input on the design and to build consensus and support for the project. This ultimately led to a preferred, balanced alternative that addressed vehicular traffic concerns, enhanced safety, and improved the pedestrian and bicycle operations.


Minimizing Impacts During Construction

Regular meetings with the community during the design and construction phase offer the opportunity to explain how potential construction impacts, such as detours, noise, and vibration will be managed. Construction techniques, such as drilling or auguring piles instead of driving piles, can minimize vibration impacts on the homes and other structures. Temporary noise barriers or acoustic blankets can be incorporated into the design and staging to mitigate construction noise. Noise and vibration threshold criteria, as well as time periods when specific types of activities can be performed, can be incorporated into the contract documents to require the contractor to use means and methods that reduce disturbances. Being aware of the public concerns and keeping them informed during the design and construction phases will help keep the project on track and avoid delays.

As engineers, our mission is to develop solutions with the community in mind throughout the entire process, so upon completion, the facility improves operations, safety, and quality of life. A large, complex project has the potential to lead you down a road with many twists, turns, and bumps. We overcome these challenges by building on our experience, expertise, strategies, and techniques. Working with our clients, we strive to consistently deliver infrastructure improvement projects that enhance the communities where we live and serve.

  • Pete Agnello
    Pete Agnello
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