Resurfacing a street or replacing a cracked sidewalk, then digging up the work a short time later to install new utility lines followed by making the paving repairs again — and perhaps even a third time — is a time-honored Chicago tradition.
It riles drivers who are forced to endure lane reductions and reroutes, as well as boils the blood of taxpayers who may cynically see this wasteful pattern as an intentional ploy to feed city business to politically friendly construction contractors.
But in many cases, it's most likely a supreme example of municipal inefficiency that squanders millions of dollars in street-improvement funds each year and causes unquantifiable disruptions to the public.
The Chicago Department of Transportation is heading up a new program aimed at ending this expensive, vicious cycle. It harnesses computer databases containing the timetables for construction projects stretching out generally as much as five years and even over the next decade in the case of mega-projects like the ongoing modernization of Chicago's natural gas distribution system, spanning about 1,000 lane miles.
The planned construction information is then plotted on Web-based interactive maps that take into account projects ranging from street resurfacings to water main, electrical, cable TV and natural gas line upgrades. The maps also include the schedules for community events as varied as a 5K race through a neighborhood or the annual Chicago Pride Parade.
Do these projects and special events ever bump into each other? All the time.
That's why every Thursday afternoon, around a horseshoe-shaped table on the 11th floor of City Hall, CDOT First Deputy Commissioner Patrick Harney presides over a meeting of officials from his department's Project Coordination Office, the Chicago Department of Water Management, ComEd and Peoples Gas to work out agreements that coordinate priorities and project schedules.
Although voices sometimes become raised in this male-dominated weekly meeting that is politely called a "conflict resolution process," Harney has the final word. He, after all, controls the issuance of construction permits and he wields other powers, mostly financial, to issue incentives to public works agencies and utilities to follow the rules.
One example of cooperation and planning centers on the Ravenswood Run, a popular neighborhood 5K race scheduled for April 28. Word was given early about a water project on Eastwood Avenue between Damen Avenue and Leavitt Street, and the race course was detoured.
The roughly 25 participants in the conflict resolution room — each one convinced that their particular project is the most important — review the status of old conflicts and address new ones.
One conflict that came up for discussion at Thursday's meeting is at the intersection of Clark and Addison streets, directly outside Wrigley Field. Sewer lining work that started last year is being completed; ComEd needs to get in to work on below-ground electrical vault structures; a couple of special events are planned on Addison in late July; and nearby stretches of Clark and Addison are covered by construction moratoriums because work has recently been done at those locations.
While one official was providing a status update about Clark-Addison and the project's expected effect on traffic this summer, Harney, a lifelong White Sox fan, cut off the official in mid-sentence and said: "No. I think you need a new sewer."
Laughter erupted. And Harney added, "A big one."
The work of CDOT's Project Coordination Office has been expanded this year after being launched a year ago. By coordinating the work of city departments, the Chicago Transit Authority and the utilities, savings to the city totaled about $10.1 million last year, according to CDOT.
Almost half of the $10.1 million saved by not having to redo work, or $4.9 million, involved 1,224 wheelchair ramps for sidewalks that must meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ramps cost $4,000 each to build, documents show.
Bigger savings are projected this year. The water department plans to replace 75 miles of water mains and 17 miles of sewer mains, as well as line 49 miles of sewers. Also this year, CDOT, contractors and the utilities plan to resurface 64 miles of arterial streets, 130 miles of residential streets and 20 miles of alleys, said CDOT spokesman Pete Scales.
It has cost the city about $1.5 million to start up the Project Coordination Office, develop conflict resolution software and provide personnel, said CDOT Commissioner Gabe Klein.
The cost includes hiring Collins Engineers Inc., of Chicago, in a competitively bid process, Klein said. Collins has a staff of 12 people on the project, said George Keck, an engineer with the firm.
Getting utility and street work completed in the proper sequence on the first try — the equivalent of the old carpenter's rule to always measure twice and cut once — means more than just money saved, Klein said. It also translates into happier drivers and homeowners because tree-lined parkways are not being dug up repeatedly and open holes in the street aren't as persistent of a problem like they were in the past, officials said.
"At first the utilities said, ah, we don't know if we want this level of coordination," Klein said. "They started getting push-back from the aldermen and people in the community saying you only gave us a few days notice, we didn't know this project was coming and do you know there is another project getting ready to go in? Now the utilities get it."
City officials said the new process has helped make Peoples Gas more attuned to quality-of-life issues in Chicago neighborhoods as the natural gas utility progresses on a 20-year, $2.5 billion program to upgrade its distribution system, which requires new lines on virtually every block and individual new feeds to every residence.
"Peoples Gas welcomes coordination efforts with the city of Chicago and other utilities," said Peoples spokeswoman Jennifer Block. "We will continue to work closely with the community to minimize any disruption from our natural gas modernization program."
In addition to those benefits, coordinating utility projects with street reconstruction projects — doing the sewer work first, followed by utility work closer to street level and finally building a new concrete base and asphalt topcoat — helps preserve the integrity of the reconstruction by reducing the likelihood that crews will need to return soon to make small cuts, Klein said.
And when it's necessary to drill into pavement, a rule instituted under the new program requires the agency or utility doing the cutting to restore 5 feet on either side of an opening, said Scales, the CDOT spokesman. The old policy required the cut to be restored only 3 feet beyond the opening.
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