Tested Strategies for Improving Utility Coordination

Posted on Wednesday, June 9th, 2021 by
In Roadway, Stormwater, Survey, tagged in
utility coordination strategies

Utility coordination is an important component of many of our projects. In today’s post, we interviewed Survey Technician Brandon Gann, Project Engineer Maeve VanLandingham, and Project Engineer Jacob Wilson about their favorite strategies. Find out what works well for them and how their strategies change based on the utility and phase below.

What are a few keys to success when managing utility coordination? What has worked well?
Brandon: Organization, organization, organization. For me, being organized is the best way to manage utility coordination. On any given project we can have upwards of 10-15 different utilities to keep in contact with and get any information they will provide us. To keep track of all this information, we keep a record of every email chain, maps, or request letters we send them or get from them. This helps organize the information keeping it accessible for whomever might need it.

Maeve: Early and often communication, spreadsheets to track correspondence and outstanding task items, meetings at each stage of the design phase for us and them, on-site visits to discuss conflicts and solutions, and persistence are all keys to success. It’s important to remember they are juggling a lot of projects too, so we have to keep ours in front of them or it will go by the wayside.

Jacob: I agree. Contacting the utilities early and checking in with them frequently really helps to get things moving. Also, having a good relationship with each utility representative is helpful.

How do your strategies change throughout the different phases of a project?
Brandon: My strategy does not change much as the project goes into other phases. Once I call in markings for the field, I send out a letter for a mapping request and make sure that what is on the mapping reflects what is picked up in the field. Once that process is complete, our engineering team figures out how to proceed.

Maeve: In the preliminary stages, I’m giving more of a heads up. We have a meeting to let them know there is a project at a particular location and what it will entail during construction. We give them the chance to identify their system and if they anticipate any updates or conflicts. As our design becomes more finalized, theirs does as well. Then, we can nail down the conflict areas, and they can design their solutions. As we wrap our plans up and go to bid, the utilities should have their relocation completed or at least scheduled. At this point, we’re just keeping tabs on if they are out of the way for the contractor to begin.

Jacob: In my experience, the main change is in the frequency of contact with the utilities. It increases later in the project. It also becomes more important to get construction schedules for relocations from the utility reps, so the client and contractor won’t be delayed on the project.

Does your approach vary based on the type of utility? If so, how?
Brandon: The type of utility can matter more than others depending on the project. If we are placing a storm sewer pipe and we cross a gas line, then it becomes more of an issue to avoid the gas line. We will have to do more research on finding that pipe with bore holes or requesting information on the depth of the pipe. Each projects has its unique challenges to overcome.

Maeve: It varies to some degree, but I think that may also be more so based on the utility representative. They each have their method of doing things and communication levels they prefer. For example, Johnson County Water knows exactly what they have and where it will be. They generally know what they need to do or let us know what they need from us by the second meeting. Whereas fiber representative may be using general information to locate lines. They might need to pothole or go into the field to find us more information.

Jacob: Certain utilities have a much longer lead time for relocations. It’s important to contact them early and get the relocation started as soon as possible. In some cases, we can modify our design to avoid utilities, if the relocation time is too large.

As you’ve worked with utilities over the years, what have you learned? Has anything surprised you?
Brandon: If I have learned anything about utilities in the last 3 years, it is not to be surprised. Roll with the punches and find a solution to the problem.

Maeve: No big surprises. I know I need to stay on top of where things are in their queue. I use a spreadsheet to track who has responded and what they are supposed to be doing. This helps me manage all of the moving parts, so details aren’t lost along with way.

Jacob: It has really surprised me how often utilities need to be relocated. Before working with the utilities, I was always under the impression that once they were in the ground, they didn’t move very often. In talking with utility representatives, it is a never-ending process of relocation for projects throughout the area.

Tell me about some strategies clients are using to ease utility coordination.
Brandon: I do not typically talk to clients after the mapping process is completed. At that point, it goes to the engineers as the project moves on. I will say communication is the best strategy. Sharing plans and other information with the utility companies when it becomes available works well. That way they can relocate lines or make other arrangements to get the project completed on time and budget.

Maeve: Some clients hire a utility coordinator to focus solely on the utilities in their city. Olathe has had this in place for a while, and it has been tremendously helpful in getting all reps on the same page and continuing to keep a project moving forward.

Jacob: As Maeve said, some clients are adding staff positions for permanent utility coordinators. This seems to be pretty successful, because the utility coordinator can develop relationships with the utility reps and get questions and conflicts cleared up quickly.

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