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How to Repair Hundreds of Bridges Under Budget

How to Repair Hundreds of Bridges Under Budget

Lessons from Oregon

by Bruce Harpham

Decaying infrastructure is a significant problem across the world. According a 2013 report card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers, America’s bridges received a C+ grade, a grade lower than many other infrastructure categories. ASCE estimates the average age of America’s bridges at 42 years old. The problem goes beyond mere age: ASCE describes one in nine American bridges as “structurally deficient.” The prospect of damage and death from bridges looms large.

Fortunately, this is an infrastructure problem that calls on the unique talents of project managers and engineers to address. The state of Oregon deserves recognition for its success in repairing and replacing hundreds of bridges through the 2000s. In 2015, the Oregon Transportation Investment Act III State Bridge Delivery Program (OTIA) was listed as a finalist for the PMI Project of the Year Award. The program’s achievements, methods and overall approach represent a significant innovation. There’s plenty to learn from Oregon’s experience, even if your work has nothing to do with bridges or infrastructure.

The Program at a Glance

In operation for over 10 years, the Oregon State Bridge Delivery Program represents one of the largest programs carried out in the state.

  • Program Budget: $1.3 billion (actual spend was $45 million under budget)
  • Program Duration: 2003 to 2014
  • Program Objectives: Replace or repair over 271 bridges in Oregon
  • Program Delivery and Management: The Oregon Department of Transportation oversaw the program. Oregon Bridge Delivery Partners, a joint venture created by Fluor Corp and HDR Inc., acted as program manager.
  • Apprenticeships: The program provided over 25,000 work hours for apprentices in several trades including electricians and carpenters.
  • Economic Stimulus: Approximately 90% of the program’s budget was spent with Oregon companies and residents. In employment terms, the program sustained or created over 20,000 jobs.

Growing Local Talent: Apprenticeship and Diversity

Heavy construction requires a variety of professions and trades to act in concert. During the planning stages, apprenticeship and labor force development issues were directly factored in contracts and project plans. All told, several hundred apprentices were introduced to their respective trades and received significant experience. How did Oregon manage that achievement?

“We realized early on that boosting the ranks of the skilled trades was important for this program, which included providing opportunities to apprentices in the trades,” explains Tom Lauer, Technical Services Manager and Chief Engineer at the Oregon Department of Transportation. “At first, we took a highly prescriptive approach—we wanted to see a certain number of people recruited to roles in carpentry, electricians and other trades. That approach was not successful.”

That early setback led to a better approach to encouraging the growth of trades. The second approach was to create incentives for contractors while respecting their autonomy. “We required contractors to include a minimum number of apprentice labor hours at a prescribed pay rate. There were also financial incentives to go beyond that level,” Lauer commented.

The less-prescriptive approach was a change for an organization accustomed to specifying project and program requirements in great detail. The program made it clear that contractors working on the program would directly benefit from hiring apprentices. If your program or project has a talent development objective, consider adopting Oregon’s approach: directly incentivize that activity, especially if your project involves vendors and contractors. There were significant numbers of carpenters, electricians and ironworker apprentices on many of the program’s projects.

Oregon’s efforts show that talent development and diversity goals can be achieved. The key step is to clearly define the objective. Once it is defined, projects and programs offer the potential to grow local talent. The Oregon Bridge Delivery program also shows the importance of continuous improvement in the area of writing effective contracts.

Minimizing Disruption by Collaborating With Stakeholders

Repairing and replacing hundreds of bridges in Oregon soon posed a major challenge for stakeholders. How would this program impact the ability of residents, trucking organizations and others to travel across the state?

“We formed a mobility committee with representatives from the American Automobile Association, Oregon Trucking Associations and the Manufactured Housing Association and other groups,” Lauer explains. This input played a role in minimizing traffic disruptions. In addition to stakeholder needs, the program needed to be able to transfer staff, goods and equipment using the state’s roads. Shutting down all roads and bridges for the multi-year program was not an option.

“We sought to avoid a scenario where a traveller would encounter multiple project-related delays and detours as they went through the state,” Lauer explained. This program management view proved essential in sequencing projects that impacted the state’s main highways. “I’ve seen other infrastructure projects and programs elsewhere in the country that have not done this well.”

One can easily imagine the civil and economic outrage that would accompany prolonged disruptions to the state’s transportation system.

Long-Term Benefits

For Oregon, the program has yielded significant benefits that go beyond improved infrastructure. “I have seen increased confidence in using outside consultants and companies to carry out the work and program management,” Lauer explains. “That positive experience with outsourcing meant we were able to deliver the program quickly compared to hiring internal staff.”

As agility and flexibility become more important, ODOT’s increased skill with outsourcing arrangements will stand it in good stead. The program also introduced an effective process to streamline government decision making. The program used a single environmental permit process that yielded $73 million in cost savings. This process meant expedited dealings with state and federal agencies and contributed to the project’s success. Permit procedures often dramatically slow the progress of projects; this program shows that an expedited, effective process is possible.

Lessons from Oregon’s Experience

What can we take away from Oregon’s successful bridge program? There are industry-specific lessons and project management lessons. “As a result of this program, the Oregon Department of Transportation improved its ability to articulate requirements for projects, which is essential when you outsource a program at this scale,” Lauer explains. “Finding ways to repair bridges, rather than replacing every single one, also helped us to deliver the program under budget.”

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About the Author

harpham bruceBruce Harpham is the founder of, a resource for growing IT project managers.