Chicago's Better Way to Dig Up the Streets

With a major effort to coordinate the needs of city departments, private utilities and residents, the city is tearing up its roadways less and saving a lot of money.
by | November 20, 2013

Local governments put a lot of effort into trying to deliver the services that their citizens pay for on time, without waste and at a level of quality those citizens expect. But all too often government managers stop there: After working to optimize individual processes, they decide that their job is done and push on ahead without stepping back and rethinking things from the ground up.

For instance, in most cities, utility companies and departments of public works and transportation constantly cut and re-cut the streets to maintain their infrastructure. But while these agencies work to bring efficiency to their individual operations, it's forgotten that each street excavation, even after being patched, shortens the time before a complete repaving is needed. And each time the street is torn up, citizens are inconvenienced by rerouted traffic and delays.

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With the introduction of a new Project Coordination Office (PCO), Chicago's Department of Transportation (CDOT) is trying to change all that. Rather than simply working to make each repair process smoother and more effective, CDOT Commissioner Gabe Klein, along with William Cheaks, the deputy commissioner for infrastructure management, took a step back and realized that a little more coordination could go a long way. Calling upon a local engineering firm to assist with implementation and ongoing coordination, Klein created the PCO to foster cooperation among all the departments, contractors and utilities that need to dig up streets.

Traditionally, CDOT and Chicago's Department of Water Management would coordinate their projects, but this was only part of the picture. The PCO brings in not only other city departments but also private utilities such as Peoples' Gas and Commonwealth Edison. By timing all projects to coincide, the city can cut the streets less often, reducing costs as well as inconvenience for citizens. The results so far are encouraging: Introduced in 2012, the PCO saved the city $10 million in that first year, with more savings expected in 2013.

Coordination is an easy word to say, but not an easy goal to achieve. To do so, CDOT combined the high-tech with the low-tech, employing both database scheduling and in-person group meetings. Public and private utilities enter their scheduled work into an Office of Underground Coordination database geocoded onto the street grid, cross-departmental reports are generated nightly, and weekly meetings sort out conflicts and find opportunities to combine work.

Relying solely on algorithms or digital processes to automate scheduling and resolve conflicts would be a huge mistake. And while getting department heads together in one place for weekly meetings can do wonders for resolving conflicts among different schedules and priorities, that alone would be a disorderly and time-consuming way to share schedules and data. By marrying the two, CDOT achieves the best of both worlds.

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In addition to the savings in both money and efficiency from simply making fewer cuts to the street, the Project Coordination Office has brought with it a few other key benefits. With the savings generated through coordinated street work, CDOT delivers a more technically complete repair in a shorter period of time. In the past, for example, the city would restore three feet of the roadbed on each side of a repair to account for damage to the surrounding asphalt. Five feet is the new norm.

Klein and his colleagues also recognize that the city's roadways are more than just conduits for transportation and utilities -- that the streets represent a significant portion of a city's open space for public use and celebration. The PCO's database approach allows workers to enter data on community events through a SharePoint site to ensure that road projects and community activities such as fairs and road races don't conflict with each other. By scheduling construction concurrently and working around other scheduled uses, streets are shut down less often and with less disruption to community activities. Along with savings, coordination ends up creating public value.

Most cities aspire to a higher level of this kind coordination, but few actually achieve it. By combining strong city leadership, administrative focus and improved digital processes, Chicago is doing just that -- saving tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure maintenance costs while substantially reducing public inconvenience.

Ben Weinryb Grohsgal contributed to the research and writing for this column. He is a research assistant at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and a student in the master's in public policy program at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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