Episode 31 — Northwest Corridor Project

Episode #31
Original Air Date: 04.04.2017

30 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Stephen Lively and Paul Rogowski

Stephen Lively and Paul Rogowski join the cast of Manage This to discuss managing the biggest project that the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) has ever funded. The Northwest Corridor consists of 30 miles of roadway in the 9th largest urban area. With a budget of $834 million dollars, they are tasked with bringing reversible lanes to nearly 600,000 daily commuters.

Stephen Lively is the Program Delivery Manager for Major Projects with the Georgia Department of Transportation, or GDOT.  Paul Rogowski is the Senior Project Manager for HNTB.  He’s the Program Management Consultant.  And together they have worked on projects geared toward helping to alleviate some of the worst traffic tie-ups in the nation. 

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"I guess one of the biggest risks is just the size, the sheer size of the project, $834 million.  So you’re wrestling with “Am I missing something?”  That’s one of the things that I always worry about.  Am I missing something?  Is something small, that we may have perceived as small, coming back to bite us?"

- Stephen Lively

"There’s other risk here that, you know, I think that in the beginning of time that I think we really try to take a close look at, you know, even before, you know, Stephen came onboard.  And you don’t always want to take a risk, which I call the three cancers of any project, which is your right-of-way, your permits, and your utility relocations."

- Paul Rogowski

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ANDY CROWE ● BILL YATES ● NICK WALKER ● STEPHEN LIVELY ● PAUL ROGOWSKI

NICK WALKER:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  This is our conversation about what matters most to you.  Whether you are a veteran PM, or just thinking about becoming certified, we’re here to inspire excellence, stimulate creativity, and help you avoid some pitfalls along the way.

I’m your host, Nick Walker, and with me are the chief motivators, Andy Crowe and Bill Yates.  Andy, we have a couple of guests on the line today who have experience with a project that kind of hits close to home with all of us who have to negotiate the highways of project management, both figuratively and literally.

ANDY CROWE:  You know, there’s a lot of metaphors that could be used here, there’s no question.  We’re excited about it.  And one of the things I’m really excited about here is just the size and scope of this project.  I think a lot of us can learn from this.

NICK WALKER:  Well, let’s get into it.  Stephen Lively is the Program Delivery Manager for Major Projects with the Georgia Department of Transportation, or GDOT.  Paul Rogowski is the Senior Project Manager for HNTB.  He’s the Program Management Consultant.  And together they have worked on projects geared toward helping to alleviate some of the worst traffic tie-ups in the nation.  Stephen and Paul, welcome to Manage This.

STEPHEN LIVELY:  Well, thank you.  It’s good to be in conversation with you and your listeners today.

NICK WALKER:  Well, the project you’re involved in right now is in the Atlanta, Georgia area.  It’s called the Northwest Corridor Project.  Can you just give us a little bit of background to this?  What is the Northwest Corridor?

STEPHEN LIVELY:  The Northwest Corridor is a tolling project that begins at the I-75/I-285 interchange on I-75 traveling north to Hickory Grove Road, which is in Cherokee County.  So the project starts in Cobb and ends in Cherokee.  And then, on the 575 corridor, the project ends at Sixes Road.  So it’s approximately 30 miles long of tolling lanes.  From 285 to the 75/575 split, there will be two tolling lanes to the west of the existing 75 main line.  And then north of the 575 split on 75, there will be one lane utilizing the existing median.  And also on the 575 corridor from 75 to Sixes Road, the project will have one tolling lane utilizing the existing median.

NICK WALKER:  So I think it’s clear that this is a massive project.

STEPHEN LIVELY:  Yes, yes.  Actually, we rode the project yesterday.  And one of the gentleman that was riding with me, he said – and this speaks for me as well – that “I’ve never worked on a project with this magnitude of work and the length of the project,” actually the largest project that GDOT has ever undertaken in general.

NICK WALKER:  Tell us about the roles that you guys play, Stephen and Paul.  What are your roles in this project?

STEPHEN LIVELY:  My major role is just to coordinate the activities, daily activities, and keeping the job moving, working with FHWA –  just a representative for the department, a face, if you will, to keep the job moving.  And I’ll let Paul kind of describe his role in HNTB.

PAUL ROGOWSKI:  Sure.  My role had started back in 2010, and my role was to really set up the first design-build finance contract in the state.  This was a new model that had not been ever executed in the state.  And as a design-build finance course, it took a lot of changing in really the culture and somewhat thinking on GDOT on how to deliver a project.  Normally, they would have mostly internal staff to try to manage, you know, their typical projects.  But with this magnitude, there is anywhere between, I would say, 50 to 60 people that Stephen and myself have to manage on a day-to-day basis, besides the contractors’ work, and just try to make this thing happen.

BILL YATES:  Got it.

NICK WALKER:  Hey guys, just give me a bottom line.  How is this going to make my commute to work easier?

STEPHEN LIVELY:  So you have a choice to make.  You can either use the general purpose lane, or you can use the tolling lane.  So the beauty of the tolling lane is it being dynamic.  Of course, as the need goes up or demand goes up, the price goes up because the ultimate goal is, what, to keep that lane open and to keep traffic flowing in a manner that’s expected by the traveling public.  In fact, the goal is to never drop below 45 miles an hour in the tolling lane.

BILL YATES:  I like that.

NICK WALKER:  Yeah.

STEPHEN LIVELY:  So, you know, when you – as the price goes up, that’s the reason it’s going up, to keep the lane moving and to minimize impact.  The beauty is that you get to have a choice.  But the overall savings, if you use the express lane, is estimated at 43 minutes as compared to now.  But also another benefit is if, you know, when we take people and put them in the tolling lane, or travelers, you lessen the number of travelers in the general purpose lane.  So the expected savings in the general purpose lane would be 16 minutes.

NICK WALKER:  How many cars are we talking about on the road?

STEPHEN LIVELY:  Approximately 450,000 vehicles use the 75/285 interchange.  And then north of Windy Hill it’s approximately 214,000 travelers use the corridor north of Windy Hill on a daily basis.

NICK WALKER:  That is a massive project.

BILL YATES:  Paul, I was going to ask you – this is Bill.  I wanted to ask a quick question.  As I think about – so you two are managing 50 to 60 people fairly directly.  But this managed lane system is massive.  So, you know, as Stephen described, it’s about 30 miles of managed lanes.  And I think, my understanding is, this is similar to systems that are in Houston, L.A., Minneapolis, and Seattle.  And it’s directional, so you guys have to take into account there are two lanes of traffic going southbound on the morning commute and then going northbound on the evening commute.

PAUL ROGOWSKI:  Correct.  Yeah.

BILL YATES:  So this is a new – this is the first time we’ve implemented anything like that in the state of Georgia.  So this is new technology, so to speak, and a massive – the largest budget, the largest project that you guys have had.  So I imagine that kind of ups the ante for you guys; right?

PAUL ROGOWSKI:  Oh, absolutely.  There was a lot of things, like I said, since, you know, I had come onboard, and we had to work with GDOT.  And, you know, they were willing to take the risk and go in different directions they’d never gone before.  But it was the only way really we can produce the product for the state.  So it was a really big change in thinking for delivery of this.  And the other thing, too, is, you know, you’re talking to the two people here, I guess, kind of delivering the project, in a sense.  But there’s somewhere where it has to be plugged into the wall, in a sense.

BILL YATES:  Right.

PAUL ROGOWSKI:  And, you know, we’re building the vacuum cleaner.  It’s the most expensive vacuum cleaner you’ve ever seen.  But at some point it’s go to be plugged into the wall and to be working.

BILL YATES:  That’s right.

PAUL ROGOWSKI:  And so there’s a whole other effort that’s out there that we’re not really discussing too much in detail.  But, you know, the whole operation side of this, and the gate system, and the toll system, and compliance, you know, with the tolling and things is another massive undertaking that, you know, SRTA is involved with GDOT.  There are several agencies to assist to make sure that gets it done.  There are several departments besides GDOT and just what Stephen works for to deliver the project, as well, and then also to operate the project afterwards.  So it’s a huge endeavor.

BILL YATES:  So given all these stakeholders and all these participants, Paul and Stephen, how do you guys keep everybody on the same page?  What kind of communication advice do you have for project managers?

STEPHEN LIVELY:  Before I got to the project, they were meeting weekly – the team being GDOT and HNTB’s management team – met with NWER’s management team on a weekly basis.  I believe that’s a big effort.  Also, we meet weekly internally, Monday and Tuesday morning internally, to determine how the project’s going and looking at questions or answers that need to be addressed.  Paul likes to talk about this, and I think it’s a great tool that we’ve used, e-Builder.  Paul, what is it, 4,000-plus correspondences that have…

PAUL ROGOWSKI:  Yeah, 4,000 submittals.  Really, it’s a web-based tool, project management tool.  And if you’re going to ask the single most reason for success, I would think that it doesn’t necessarily have to be e-Builder, but there’s other, you know, options that are out there.  But having a web-based project management tool is very critical because, if you could imagine handling over 4,000 submittals, and somebody running down to GDOT’s offices, and just the staff that they have, it would be impossible for us to turn over, you know, all the reviews and things that we have to accomplish on a day-to-day basis.

But going to back to your question, too, with a project of this magnitude, as well, and Stephen alluded to the communication aspect.  You know, I always call this kind of like the octopus, you know, complexity of the project because you’ve got so many different areas that you’re trying to tackle at the same time.  You know, you’ve got tolling, you’ve got maintenance, you’ve got construction, you’ve got right-of-way, design, and I’m sure I’m missing a few here.  I mean there were just so many areas that – this is the most complex project.  I think you’ve got everything  that you could imagine.  You’ve got finance.  You’ve got the legal piece of this.

So there’s so much that is at stake on a day-to-day basis that is really not your typical project because of the fact of just the scope and what it demands.  So we do have a series of meetings, and we always project it out on a weekly basis.  And I think as maybe a recommendation to the PMs that are listening out there, is you’ve got to have a plan set forth.  But try to have as much communication, but not to the point where you’re going to over-communicate, where people can’t get their jobs done.

So we had a lot of things planned out because of those different areas and different areas of expertise that you’ve got to have in place in order to be able to execute with such a fast pace.  But e-Builder, like Stephen talked about, was probably the main thing that allowed us to go ahead and accomplish what we’d have to do on a day-to-day basis.

ANDY CROWE:  As we go through this and talk about projects, you know there’s always risks associated.  And one of the obvious risks that you’d think of with an infrastructure project would be weather.  And, you know, in the project management world, we talk about risks being positive or negative.  And so I guess with a lot of the milder weather we had over the winter, that was sort of a positive risk in a lot of ways, I assume, for the people actually doing the work.  What other risks do you guys encounter with something like this?  What keeps you awake at night?

STEPHEN LIVELY:  That’s the beauty of this model, if you will.  You know, this is a design-build instead of a design-bid-build.  So the weather, while it is a consideration on this project, I believe we minimized that risk because we’ve put the design and the construction practice totally on the developer.  So we’ve mitigated that risk.  But that is a risk that we do consider and worry about.  And it’s been, like you said, it’s been a milder change in weather over the past year and a half.

Some of the other – I guess one of the biggest risks is just the size, the sheer size of the project, $834 million.  So you’re wrestling with “Am I missing something?”  That’s one of the things that I always worry about.  Am I missing something?  Is something small, that we may have perceived as small, coming back to bite us?  Also, another risk for the department is this is one of the first models in the state, this design-build finance model that we’re using.  The delivery method of the design-build of this sheer size, it’s a paradigm shift for the department.  You know, in the past, most of our work was design-bid-build projects.  So there’s the department engaging in a new endeavor, if you will.  Paul alluded to it earlier.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  Stephen, describe that difference.  Just as you’ve said, this is a different approach that you guys are taking.  Go into that a little bit further.  What do you mean by that?

ANDY CROWE:  Design-build versus design-bid-build.

STEPHEN LIVELY:  Design-bid-build, the department would either internally design the project with staff, or consult that out to a consultant company.  Then we would finalize those said plans, let it out to a contractor for them to bid on the work, and then of course award it to the successful bidder.

In this phase, we’ve allowed the developer, Northwest Express Road Builders, to design and construct the project.  They set the staging.  You know, they’re in total control of the plans as far as – we set parameters, of course, for them.  But inside, you know, those parameters, they’re in control.  So, for example, and this is just a small example, but like in a design-bid-build project, we would have staging plans that we set up.  Well, in this model they do that.  You know, that responsibility is on them to stage the work and meet our expectations.

So it’s a different model for us to look at, and how you manage that, you know.  The beauty of this model is to create innovation, you know, and allow the market, if you will, or the team on the other side of the fence, so to speak, create innovation that’s in an acceptable manner to the department, that’s something we can live with.  The e-Builder process is another innovative way.  You know, that’s something we haven’t done within the department.

PAUL ROGOWSKI:  It’s the first time GDOT’s ever had, also, the design-build team allow for frontline inspection, as well.

STEPHEN LIVELY:  Right.

PAUL ROGOWSKI:  And I don’t know if that was literally what Stephen just said.  But I’d just be specific to that:  That’s the first time ever that that’s been done because you’re trying to shift the quality responsibility onto the person who could most control that, which is the developer building the project.  Now, that doesn’t mean that they totally do the inspection, and we just let things go.  We also have two other teams that also do what we call “oversight inspection” to make sure that that’s being – taking place.  But if for some reason something is constructed in the field wrong, GDOT’s not in the path of direction for directing them to do something that could be wrong, where then GDOT’s in the light of having to reconstruct something.  It’s totally on them, on the risk, as far as for controlling the quality of product and also making sure that design that they designed is being constructed per their plan on their side.

BILL YATES:  Paul, that seems to me like there’d be a lot less finger-pointing and saying, hey, that’s not my job.  There’s more ownership there, and a better partnership with those that are doing the construction.

PAUL ROGOWSKI:  Yeah.  And that’s the goal because we’ve had situations in there where, you know, they’ve had to come back, and they’ve had to reconstruct certain items.  And they couldn’t look at GDOT and say, “Well, you kind of told me it was okay.”  So it is a different shift.  You’re also, too, trying to help schedule because you don’t want to be there in their faces every step of the way.  You want to have them have the flexibility.  But still, at the end of the day, they have to comply with the contract.  And we still have plenty of safe relief valves in place to make sure that that happens.

STEPHEN LIVELY:  Yeah.  There’s parameters set up in the contract that they’re expect – you know, we give them freedom inside those parameters.  And I’ll give one example.  You know, if there was, in a design – you had asked about design-bid-build.  In the design-bid-build world, if we had a major flaw in the design, or some flaw, then, you know, the department opens themselves up for a claim, possibly.  Or they try to mitigate, we, I guess, as a department try attempts to mitigate that flaw in the design.

In this case, in this model that we’re using, you know, if there’s a flaw in the design, you know, it’s not the department’s flaw, it’s the developer’s flaw.  So, like you said, the finger-pointing is stopped at that point because, if it’s brought to our attention, we just say, you know, you’re in control of the design.  You just have to mitigate your design.

BILL YATES:  Right.  Right.  It’s classic risk management.  I like it.

STEPHEN LIVELY:  Correct.  Correct.

PAUL ROGOWSKI:  And the other thing, if you don’t mind, and since I’m almost the last one standing at the top of the hill in this project – I’m getting ready to be pushed off maybe after this podcast.  There’s other risk here that, you know, I think that in the beginning of time that I think we really try to take a close look at, you know, even before, you know, Stephen came onboard.  And you don’t always want to take a risk, which I call the three cancers of any project, which is your right-of-way, your permits, and your utility relocations.

So because of this project and the longer procurement, GDOT did look at those risks because those are the things that get in the way of a contractor because you wait to give them the contract.  And then through design-build, if he’s responsible for all that, it’s very hard for him then to set his schedule and accomplish the mission, if he’s starting so late in the process on those things, because right-of-way can take 18 months on some parcels.  So we took a very aggressive route in trying to acquire the right-of-way in conjunction with the procurement.  So when the person came onboard, and they came onboard, we could tell them which parcels were able to go to clear certain areas so they can work in it.  So that was one thing.

And then the other thing was the permits.  You know, we started working with the agencies to the scope that we knew, we understood they had flexibility in design.  But if they changed anything, it was their responsibility to come back to that agency and make the changes.  But at least we started discussions.  At least we moved the permitting process further down the path so they can start sooner, as well, and clear certain areas, as well.

And then the third thing is the utilities.  It was all on them.  So utility relocation, because of design they owned, and they can control multiply on utility relocations, the utility relocations was totally their responsibility.  And enter into agreements, which is totally new to GDOT, with the contractor.  So those three things, too, I’m just going back in time, which really set up, you know, I think for the success to what we’re talking about today being one year away from the project finish, that those are things, too, maybe your listeners are curious to hear.

On these large projects, it’s kind of known, but there’s an alternative technical concept process.  That happens before the contract is awarded and allows innovation to come in at the time when you have concept drawings that you’re getting your environmental approvals, and allows them to change certain things that the owner would get a benefit, and both time and money could be saved.  And that way they can incorporate that into their bid.  So that’s a very important thing when we’re starting to talk about risk, too, as well, and innovations.  That alternative technical concept process, this project also was the first ever in the state, too, to utilize that process, as well, as part, as of the bidding.

ANDY CROWE:  Interesting.  Guys, when you were talking about acquiring right-of-way and utilities relocation, it reminded me.  I have a friend who was managing a project in Mexico City and working for the Mexican government.  And as they began to excavate for their capital, they found Aztec ruins underneath.  And that complicated things greatly.  So I’m sort of – it would have been fun to find an ancient civilization underneath the corridor, but I’m kind of glad we didn’t, in a sense.

Let me ask you a question.  As we talk about a project of this size, and we talk about the integration aspects of it, talk to me about your role as coordinator a little bit.  You have 60 people.  You have multiple vendors.  You’ve got to keep the public informed.  You’ve got stakeholders up and down the chain who are interested in what’s going on.  How do you coordinate all of these efforts with all of these different interested parties?

STEPHEN LIVELY:  We, for example, Cobb County, we meet with Cobb County monthly.  Amanda, who I mentioned earlier that’s in the room with us, she reaches out to the different agencies for us, provides updates to those said agencies.  You know, it’s Cobb County, Cherokee County, City of Holly Springs.  There’s City of Acworth, City of Marietta.  We’ve got a website that is updated weekly.  Some of the things that’s included in that website is our environmental information, our travel alerts.  But just our coordination and our effort to reach out to the stakeholders, they contact us, probably, sometimes daily and weekly with questions about the project.  So they feel very – I hope they do, and I believe they do – they feel comfortable reaching out to myself or Amanda or Paul, or even our internal GDOT communication staff, so we provide those answers in a timely manner to them.

PAUL ROGOWSKI:  For any citizens, too, there’s a project hotline they can call in.  We actually use, you know, we talked about e‑Builder, and we work on responses back to the public.

ANDY CROWE:  Yeah.  I think in general there’s a lot of coordination that has to take place.  And something that was mentioned earlier is, look, we’ve got one part of this.  But, you know, then there are other parts with the toll components that have to work, et cetera.  So there’s just an awful lot of coordination and interfacing there.  I just wanted to hear more about how you guys approach that.

STEPHEN LIVELY:  And I’ll give one example.  I’m sure you are aware that the tolling lane on I-75 South opened up at the end of January.  So it’s in operation now.  So leading up to its opening, the department, in coordinated effort with HNTB and SRTA, internal GDOT, created a Go Live Task Force.  So Paul alluded to it earlier.  Our big task, I guess, moving from this point forward, of course, is opening the project.  But the next big task is, like you said, plugging it in.  So we have a Go Live Task Force that includes SRTA employees, HNTB employees, GDOT employees, because we don’t want to get to next year and not have the effort, you know, ready to go, so to speak.

So we’ve got a steering committee, if you will, of some of the managers for each agency.  And then outside of that you have, and I’m going to give the example, you have incident management work.  You know, this is something that a lot of the people may not even be aware of, incident management moving forward when the project opens.  How do you manage incidents inside the corridor?  That’s some of the big questions that people are asking.  The local governments are asking, how do we get in the corridor and assist in emergency management?  So this past Friday we hosted a communications meeting, and all of the incident management, the fire, police, towing, were invited.  So we’ll meet with those individuals monthly moving forward until the project opens.

Internally, GDOT, the maintenance, you know, I’ve told somebody before, this one project is similar to what one district would perform in one year, some of the work, if not more, meaning that there’s 39 bridges on the project, 68 retaining walls, 45 sound barriers, 273 cameras, and 14 toll zones.  So just the maintenance that the department and SRTA will take on when we open the project up is a big deliverable that we have to account for moving forward.  Data collection, the IT aspect of it when it’s opened up, how TMC plays into the – and actually, I’m learning stuff as we move forward.  Actually TMC, SRTA, and GDOT will have one person sitting side by side, you know, to manage the tolling operation on a day-to-day basis.  The HERO units will be – I think GDOT is looking to utilize between 35 and 40 HERO employees just for this project because they’ll assist in the opening and closing of the tolling lane on a daily basis.

PAUL ROGOWSKI:  TMC is the Traffic Management Center.  And there’s 14 groups, and I would say about 50 people that Stephen’s describing, not only our day job here about getting the project accomplished, but this is now the focusing role of just these 14 groups and about 50 people.  And it’s called, actually, the Go Live Task Force.  And, of course, you know, I call it the Go “Lively” Task Force.  But this is really, you know, really the gist of where we’re heading in that direction.  So it’s a whole ‘nother undertaking besides just the day-to-day work and how we function on just to accomplish the project, to be able to plug it in.

BILL YATES:  Right.  Guys, when I hear the scope of this project, and I think about the impact that it has on so many people in a community, and the daily impact, and I look at the budget of over 800 million, it’s really impressive to me that you guys look beyond that to sustainability and who’s going to maintain this.  How are we going to get those HERO units on those lanes when somebody breaks down or has an accident?

And so this Go Live Task Force, and many of the people that are behind the scenes right now, it’s impressive to me to think about the planning that you guys have when you think about, all right, not only are we going to complete and deliver this new system, but we’re going to be able to maintain it, and it’s going to be a great coordination between all these different bodies.  So, well done in that regard.  I’m impressed by that.  So I appreciate your input on that.

NICK WALKER:  Thanks so much for being with us here on Manage This and giving us some insight into really what I guess is almost an heroic task of officially moving thousands of people every day.  We’ve got some gifts for you here.  You can’t see it, but we have a beautiful Manage This coffee mug that we want to send both of you.  Use it every day.

PAUL ROGOWSKI:  Well, we appreciate that.  I’ll have to find my old Bradley University mug to send back to you guys.  And Stephen might have something from Southern Poly.

STEPHEN LIVELY:  Well, thank you for having us.  We like to communicate with people, get the message out.  And thank you for allowing us to do that today.

PAUL ROGOWSKI:  Yeah.  It was a great discussion.

NICK WALKER:  Thanks, guys.  We want to let our listeners know that, if they have any questions about the Northwest Corridor Project, they can email northwestcorridor@dot.ga.gov.  That’s northwestcorridor@dot.ga.gov.  Or the project hotline is 678‑486‑3767.

Well, thanks again, Stephen and Paul.  Andy and Bill, as always, thanks for your expertise.  We want to remind our listeners of that extra value that we provide for just listening to this podcast.  Your time is worth PDUs, Professional Development Units, toward your recertifications.  To claim your free PDUs for this podcast, go to Velociteach.com and select Manage This Podcast from the top of the page.  Click the button that says Claim PDUs and just click through the steps.

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