Relationship Building and How to Leverage Expertise Across Agencies
Remember seesaws... that simple playground equipment that was once a tradition in many parks? The thing that you and a friend spent hours going up and down on, and would adjust your positions so much so that one of you would end up closer to the middle?
A seesaw is a type of lever and a lever is regarded as one of the world’s greatest inventions. A lever is how many believe that large stones were moved and lifted to build the ancient Egyptian pyramids nearly 5,000 years ago. Just as they were central to early construction, they remain in use today.
It takes two people for a seesaw to function properly. The size, weight, or height of each person does not really matter. This relationship is a lot like a partnership. A partnership is grounded in having at least two people aligned in achieving a common goal. The partners can represent organizations of different sizes, structures, and functions but when there is a mutual objective to accomplish, they still function together.
For the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Federal Lands Highway (FLH), partnerships are a mainstay function of doing business. FLH’s partners come by way of the Federal Land Management Agencies—the National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Forest Service (Forest Service), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Tribal Governments, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Department of Defense, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and Bureau of Reclamation. These partners come from all corners of the Nation, whether urban, rural, remote, big, or small. The common bond of these partnerships is the mission to serve American travelers by providing the world’s premier and safest transportation network. Like on a seesaw, and as with any relationship, there is a time when either party must pivot to find a balance. This delicate balance can be attained with skills such as emotional intelligence, listening, negotiating, and ingenuity—bound together by a shared commitment to fulfilling a mission.
Partnering on Prioritizing Safety Projects
The North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT) partners with the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and the Mandan, Hidatsa, Spirit Lake, Arikara, and Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Nations to identify future projects that could improve traffic safety on Tribal roads. This identification is a cornerstone of the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP), a core Federal-aid program with the purpose of determining which safety projects can achieve a significant reduction in traffic fatalities and serious injuries on roadways.
While NDDOT safety engineers actively promote a Vision Zero approach to identifying key transportation improvement projects, programs governing Tribal roads may be less equipped to carry out such tasks. Hence, to help fulfill the goal of eliminating motor vehicle crash fatalities and injuries on all State roads, multiple jurisdictions collaborate. “NDDOT’s Vision Zero Plan is a strategy to eliminate motor vehicle crash fatalities and serious injuries on all roads within the State, and we need to partner with city, county, and Tribal agencies to accomplish this goal,” says NDDOT assistant local government engineer Bryon Fuchs.
HSIP—a key component of FHWA’s overarching zero deaths vision—requires a data-driven, strategic, and systemic approach to improving public roadway safety. Many Tribes proactively identify safety improvement projects and communicate fatalities, serious crashes, and other safety concerns through their transportation safety plans. These plans often detail data-driven approaches. The safety improvement projects identified on Tribal lands still require a data-driven strategic approach but use Federal HSIP funding for the preliminary engineering phases to ensure projects stay on track.
As part of its partnership to reduce roadway incidents statewide, NDDOT provides services to Tribes that expedite the full delivery of their safety projects—including the traditional planning and programming phases. In 2021, NDDOT was granted authority to expand its service offerings, making it possible for Tribes to seek assistance for project design and in obtaining construction permits, National Environmental Policy Action (NEPA)-related clearances and the completion of other preliminary engineering-related actions.
“We are excited about this new opportunity to expand our partnership and collaboration with local tribes,” says NDDOT traffic operations engineer Justin Schlosser. With this expansion of services, Tribes can now meet expedited timeframes for HSIP projects. In addition, expedited project delivery often yields significant cost savings. For example, by purchasing materials more sooner than later, price escalations can be minimized. Plus, projects are usually devised to fix a problem; the quicker a project can be completed, the faster the solution can be implemented.
Partnering on Alternative Data Collection Tools
Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have come into the spotlight in the past several years as an excellent tool for many surveying and engineering applications. These applications include aerial photography and videography, land surveys, quantity calculations, geotechnical investigations, bridge inspection support, and asset management. Aerial photography with UAS fills the gap between someone on the ground taking pictures with a digital camera and a full-blown manned aircraft photographic mission.
Since 2017, FLH has worked with the Forest Service, NPS, USACE, State departments of transportations, and county governments, to leverage their expertise in conducting UAS flights. Among other things, FLH has used UAS to map terrain after landslides, scope projects, and monitor construction projects and roadway conditions.
Using UAS to assess road conditions has many benefits. First, aerial photos are far superior to shots captured from the ground because they collect more data from the wider angle of view. Photos of areas outside the immediate roadway are also easily obtained this way. Though they may not be needed initially, having them as a reference later in a project’s lifecycle can be invaluable. For example, during a pavement preservation project, the scope grew to include guardrail improvement because of details observed from the aerial photos. While the original length of the guardrail may have not been included in photographs taken from the ground, the lengths were captured in the aerial photos, permitting multiple improvements to be completed at the same time, using the same funds and resources.
A notable asset condition assessment was conducted as a collaboration between the Western Federal Lands Highway Division (WFLHD) and Crater Lake National Park in southwestern Oregon. In 2019, WFLHD evaluated the historic stone guardwall along the park’s East Rim Drive, much of which is at the top of very steep slopes resembling the rim of an ancient volcano.
The use of UAS saved FLH countless work hours and significant project development investigation funds, and the high-quality photographic products were used to establish a maintenance and repointing contract. NPS was thrilled with the work FLH accomplished.
“[FHWA] made a monumental surveying task look easy,” says Kirsten Hardin, Crater Lake National Park chief of facility management. “The final product was the closest observation we have had of the historic rock walls since they were constructed in the 1940s.” This was one of the last UAS flights piloted by WFLHD. Following 2019, the U.S. Department of Interior banned UAS flights in national parks, except for emergency operations. The ban restricts flights for asset condition assessment, but the agencies continue to collaborate, seek peer advice on equipment purchases, expand piloting expertise, and collaborate on agency policies.
Today, UAS proves to be an important tool to assess assets. FLH has upcoming flights planned to help develop USACE’s Bridge Inspection Support Program. In addition, FLH has flights planned to map and evaluate pavement surfaces in Idaho in advance of pavement preservation projects. USACE and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service both have research projects funded through FHWA’s Highway Research and Development Program. Both projects focus on asset condition assessment using UAS as a supplemental means for collecting data—one project is for unpaved trails and the other for steel-member bridges.
Partnering on Innovative Contracting
The Lower Brule Highway 10 Reconstruction project in South Dakota illustrates how alliances, ingenuity, and balance solved funding shortages for roadway improvement on an essential road for the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe.
In fiscal year 2017, the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe was awarded $21 million through the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program. The TIGER grant program provided discretionary funding for investments in road, rail, transit, and port projects.
The Lower Brule project surrounded the reconstruction of 13.5 miles of BIA Route 10, which serves as a major access road for Lower Brule, SD, and is the only direct route between the Lower Brule Tribal Reservation and Pierre, the nearest city.
Due to several decades of limited funding, Route 10 remained in poor condition. This condition was caused by pavement heaving due to a degraded base from erosion and the continual freeze-thaw weather conditions in South Dakota. The TIGER grant funding and nominal Tribal Transportation Program safety funds were the only two financial resources available to improve the roadway’s condition and to ensure that the communities that depended upon Route 10 access to the city of Pierre for food, work, school, and emergency response were able to maintain their standards of living. As such, the total project cost needed to stay within the available funding amount of $21 million.
In spearheading this project, the collaboration between BIA and FHWA’s Central Federal Lands Highway Division (CFL) experienced a period of adjustment. BIA completed the NEPA documentation, public engagement to seek opinions on the project, and the consulting party activities required by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. With these public processes completed, CFL could focus on the engineering design of the road.
Based on South Dakota’s market conditions and bidding environment, and per BIA’s plans and specifications, it was determined that there was likely insufficient funding for the full reconstruction of Route 10. Because assistance was needed to advance the delivery of the project within its budget, CFL conducted field assessments and calculated that the route’s western portion showed less pavement fatigue and that subgrade concerns could be rehabilitated with a reduced scope as opposed to full reconstruction. Moreover, FLH’s engineers, with their innovative contracting savvy, ensured the project—substantially completed in October 2022, with the road opened to public traffic—would be adequately constructed and meet national design and safety standards.
Various contracting options were discussed among the collaborators, and a fixed-price Variable Scope contract was determined to be the best option. This contract type maximizes the available funding for construction during the competitive bidding process and required less preliminary engineering. In essence, the team leveraged industry experience to determine how much reconstruction and rehabilitation could be constructed within the available funding.
Just like the seesaw is a metaphor for establishing meaningful balance or a harmonized relationship, so are the project-delivery relationships created by FLH staff. There is a give and take among the partners of any productive relationship, and the examples in this article are no different. Some relationships may not start well but, in the end, once balance is obtained through ingenuity, tenacity, and endurance to strike an equilibrium, a mutual, beneficial playing field can be established for both sets of partners.
Karyn Vandervoort is a technology transfer specialist and national program manager for the Research and Innovation section of the Office of Federal Lands Highway.
Zekial Rios is a civil engineer and land surveyor with the Office of Federal Lands Highway, and currently serves as the FHWA unmanned aircraft systems coordinator, and land services manager for the Western Federal Lands Highway Division.