TxDOT Amarillo District Refines Project Selection and Planning to Ensure Best Use of Funds
Since Brian Crawford, P.E., was named District Engineer for the Amarillo District of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) last year, he's worked to improve safety and develop collaborative processes that lead to better project planning and completion. In addition to teamwork within TxDOT, "We're putting a lot of effort into increasing our partnering efforts with contractors and other parties on our construction projects," he said.
The 17-county Amarillo District covers 17,848 square miles in the Texas Panhandle, with
840 bridges and 9,395 lane miles. As the district moves forward, priorities include a series of projects expanding SL 335 around Amarillo, as well as pavement rehabilitation and bridge replacements on I-40 and other state highways.
Rising Through the Ranks
Born and raised in Austin, Brian Crawford graduated from the University of Texas in 1985. "Right out of college I went to work for TxDOT and haven't worked for anyone else," he said. "I've been blessed with opportunities to work and grow in several different areas, including project design, construction, maintenance, transportation operations, administration, and management."
He spent eight years with TxDOT's Houston District after college, then five years in Austin and 18 years in Abilene before becoming Amarillo District Engineer. Crawford is a third-generation TxDOT employee. His grandfather retired as Abilene District Construction Engineer in 1974 and his father retired as State Director of Bridge Design in 1990.
As leader of the Amarillo District over the last 18 months, Crawford has drawn on numerous resources to enhance the decision-making process. "With funding increasing due to Proposition 1 and Proposition 7, it becomes even more important to ensure we use the money in the right places and in the right ways," he said. "One change I've made is moving to a collaborative team approach where we get all the key parties together internally. They all have a voice in project selection, project scoping, and the timing of delivery for the project. We use all their knowledge together to make the best decisions."
The first projects using that approach are now being delivered. "Contractors should see a more thought-out project design - something that will hopefully be easier to construct, then easier for us as the owner to maintain," Crawford said.
In the last six months, that collaborative approach expanded to involve contractor input. As part of a statewide initiative, "We're partnering with the Association of General Contractors and starting to actively reach out and get contractors' input in some of our designs," Crawford explained. "They have great expertise in the area of constructability, and they're giving us valuable feedback on whether the time we allow for construction is reasonable and attainable."
That input usually occurs at 60 to 90 percent of project design. "There's enough information for the contractor to review, and we still have time to use their input to make the project better," he added.
Once construction starts, "We're making sure we have good, timely, and frequent communication with all parties," he said. "We encourage contractors to share their ideas to improve project quality or enable us to deliver it in a timely manner."
Crawford also worked to improve the issue escalation ladder used in the district. "We had some issues that didn't seem to be resolved as quickly as they could, so with input from some of our local contractors, we're working together to ensure we have a formalized, clear, and concise issue escalation ladder for each project. We want to be sure that issues are resolved as soon as possible and at the lowest level possible to ensure there are no delays in project delivery."
To implement the enhanced process, "We made it part of our preconstruction meetings so everyone has that understanding before work begins," Crawford said. "We talk about it at every progress meeting. If personnel change, we revise it and go over it again. This is something we talk about quite frequently now that really wasn't happening much in the past."
This year, Crawford expects district budget numbers similar to 2016, when combined construction and maintenance expenditures - including contracts and work performed by TxDOT - totaled $210.9 million. "I think in 2018, though, you'll start to see the numbers rise because of the propositions that passed," he added.
Priorities for the district include improved pavement conditions and solutions for aging infrastructure. Among the most urgent issues: "A lot of the bridges on I-40, our major east/west corridor, are nearing or have reached the end of their useful lives so they need to be replaced," Crawford said.
The district's current bridge projects utilize traditional construction techniques, but in the coming years Crawford expects more accelerated construction. "I think we'll soon see a lot more prefabricated bridge elements; we're already seeing that in some of the state's metropolitan areas," he said. "It really helps minimize impact to the traveling public when you build most of the bridge off-site and just put it together onsite."
In addition to the projects summarized in the "Major Projects in TxDOT's Amarillo District" sidebar, work has begun to expand State Loop 335, which encircles the City of Amarillo and connects to every major highway in the city. "Due to intense development in the west and southwest parts of Amarillo, what was our loop with a free flow of traffic has become a congested boulevard with very high traffic volumes and a series of traffic signals," Crawford explained.
To solve the congestion issues, SL 335 will eventually move one mile to the west, converting from a two-lane roadway into a four-lane freeway with frontage roads. "We're planning a long series of projects on the south and west sides of Amarillo over the next 10-plus years," Crawford said.
The first SL 335 project began in 2014. After overcoming numerous utilities challenges, J. Lee Milligan, Inc., of Amarillo will finish the $32.2 million, 3-mile project next year.
In July, Allen Butler Construction, Inc., of Lubbock, Texas, was awarded a $42.6 million project scheduled to start this winter. At the intersection of I-27 and SL 335, "We'll build a new, upgraded interchange and continue our expansion of SL 335 to a four-lane freeway with frontage roads," Crawford said.
The next project will construct frontage roads through 7 miles in southwest Amarillo. That project will let in January 2019 with an estimated cost of $43 million.
"After that we'll continue moving to the north," Crawford said. "We'll construct frontage roads and build a new, two-level interchange for the relocation of the future freeway that will be SL 335 at I-40." That project is scheduled to let in September 2019 with an estimated cost of $40 million.
"The long-range vision is to upgrade all 42 miles of Loop 335 to a four-lane divided highway at a minimum, and to freeway standards in most areas," Crawford said. "Estimates show that will cost over $1 billion, so it will probably happen within the next 25 years or more."
To successfully achieve all the planned work, Crawford focuses on quality people. "We want to continue to attract, retain, and grow a diverse team of engineers, technicians, and administrative staff," he said "We're actually understaffed by 42 people right now - or 15 percent of our staff. We were recently authorized to increase our staff by 15 people but we also had some people retire or move on to other opportunities. We lost experienced personnel in engineering, construction administration and management, and maintenance so we're actively hiring in all those areas."
At full strength, the district will employ 281 people in maintenance and 78 in construction and administration. "My leadership style is to put the right staff in the right positions, provide some initial guidance, delegate authority and responsibility, and allow them to grow and operate under those parameters," Crawford said. "I think it's important for everyone to understand that mistakes will be made, especially when you stretch your staff and require them to grow, which is what's been happening here. It's OK to make mistakes - just use them as learning experiences and teaching moments."
With so many personnel in the district now filling new roles, "I'd like to compliment the contractors we've worked with," Crawford said. "They understood and worked right there with us toward our common goal of a quality project delivered in a timely manner. I feel like we're blessed to work with a great group of contractors, subcontractors, material suppliers, and others, and there will be even more opportunities in the future to become part of what we see as a growing construction program."