Functioning roadways are essential to our society. Just think of all the traveling people do in their everyday lives — commuting to work, taking a trip to the grocery store, traveling to religious services or going to the gym. According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the average person drives about 13,476 miles in a year. That figure breaks down into around 1,100 miles per person per month, or about 37 miles per day.
Since we spend so much time on the road, it's only natural to wonder why road construction takes so long. Often, it's simply a result of the standard process. After all, when it comes to high-risk industries like construction, slow and steady is the way to go to maintain safety.
Many other factors can affect construction timelines. In this post, we'll discuss these causes and suggest some steps you can take to keep your projects on track.
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It can take months or even years to get road construction projects off the ground. Often, this phase tends to stretch because the project must secure funding and clear bureaucratic red tape.
This stage of the process is more complicated than it may seem. Designing and planning out a project can also keep it in the air for longer than expected.
Depending on how high-priority the project is and what kind of funding is available, it might take additional time before construction can begin. For example, a high-priority project with low projected costs is more likely to gain funding than a low-priority project with high projected costs.
The length of the project also depends on who's providing the money. Generally, federally funded projects will take longer than projects that receive funding from state or local sources.
Before a construction project can begin, it must receive approval from government agencies at both the federal and state levels. This process can take a long time to complete, as sometimes plans must be revised before they can be approved.
The following are examples of the analysis a project must undergo:
The project can only move forward if it gains approval in all these areas, so taking care in creating plans is crucial.
Inaccurate scope definition contributes to both construction delays and cost overrun. According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), over 30% of construction projects worldwide experienced scope creep. Scope creep is when the project's scope begins to extend beyond the original agreement due to uncontrolled changes.
All the details of a project are calculated based on its initial scope, including budget and schedules. If the scope changes at any phase, the whole plan will need revision, which takes additional time and resources.
Variation in design expectations can also affect the scope and contribute to delays. Taking the time to thoroughly define the terms in your statement of work (SOW) and understanding the specific details of the project are key to reducing scope creep. Eliminate any vagueness before the project gets underway.
When the funding runs out, construction must stop — at least until more money appears.
Your budget should be flexible to accommodate for uncontrollable costs like equipment repairs and extra building materials. Dividing the project's expenses into hard costs and soft costs can help you prioritize effectively:
One important cost to include in your hard costs is for contingency — the money you set aside just in case you need to cover any unexpected repairs or other surprise expenses. Having that extra funding can mean the difference between a long delay and a short blip.
Planning to complete the project in too short of a span of time is one way to set yourself up for delays. Even without setbacks, a large-scale road construction project can take over a decade to complete simply due to its scope.
According to the FHWA, large-scale construction projects like road construction should account for the following factors when determining project deadlines:
Relying on traditional drawings can lead to issues when the plans don't match the site conditions in real life. For example, a standard two-dimensional map may lack important topographical features that would require extra work to level.
Utilizing new technologies like aerial drones and orthomosaic maps can mitigate these issues by providing a more accurate view of your work site. These more modern options can reveal changes in topography that a traditional map might lack.
Road construction projects are usually more complicated than they may appear on paper. After the plans have been laid out and the bids have been won, it's time to prepare the site for work.
Once it's underway, a project's duration depends on both controlled and unpredictable factors.
Earthwork is often a necessary process when building new roads. Workers must remove soil from areas that are higher than the proposed roadway and transport it to low areas to fill the space. Once the area is filled, a bulldozer or motor grader smooths it into an even lift, which is then compacted.
Every few layers, workers must use the Proctor compaction test to check the density of the compacted soil. If the lift is close to its maximum density, then work may continue. But if the soil is too loose, it needs to be compacted again. This process is one of the main reasons why construction projects take so long.
Compacting is a lengthy but crucial process — it provides the strong foundation roads need to be functional. Poor compaction can cause the soil to settle, which damages roadways.
Earthwork can also cause a lot of disturbance to local communities and nearby wildlife habitats. Before beginning work, the site must install erosion and sediment control measures like mulch socks and silt fences — these barriers keep soil from washing away and clogging up local waterways.
Keeping workers safe while on the job is crucial to the success of any construction project. Before a project can even begin, safety inspectors must thoroughly examine the site and approve it.
And while the project is underway, the site must undergo ongoing inspections, and site managers must submit reports to the appropriate authorities. When an inspection is underway, work must slow or stop completely.
During these periods of planned downtime, you can keep your crew productive by assigning low-priority tasks and errands, like making deliveries. This way, your project will be more prepared to start back up after the inspection than it would be if work had come to a complete standstill.
Rushing construction work, especially on roadways, can create unsafe situations and, ultimately, lead to accidents. From 2003–2019, road construction sites experienced an average of 124 fatal work-related injuries per year. When workers get injured on-site, work must slow or stop until emergency services arrive.
Labor laws also play a role in determining the duration of a construction project. Overtime pay, for example, is costly. It's often more cost-effective to work shorter days for longer spans of time than racking up overtime hours to keep the project short.
Aging machinery that is improperly maintained can cause problems on job sites, from poor performance to complete breakdowns. When a valuable piece of equipment breaks down, it can bring the whole operation to a halt, leading to long periods of downtime and escalating costs.
Keeping up with scheduled maintenance routines can significantly reduce the risk of operating issues and unexpected breakdowns on your site. Have operators perform walkaround inspections at the beginning and end of each shift and keep careful records of all repairs and maintenance for your machines. This way, you can identify patterns and potential issues before they escalate into problems on the job site.
Sometimes, breakdowns can happen even when you've prepared for every possibility. In those instances, using rental equipment is a great way to fill productivity gaps. Partner with a nearby rental provider to ensure you can line up the correct rental equipment when you need it, even in emergencies.
Large-scale projects involving many different contractors can suffer delays as a result of inadequately designed work schedules and miscommunication. Coordinating schedules between these parties can be difficult, especially when one phase of the project is taking longer than expected. In those cases, contractors will have to wait for others to finish before they are able to begin their own work.
Inappropriate scheduling can devote precious time and resources away from critical objectives by prioritizing non-critical tasks. As a result, critical activities will suffer and experience delays.
Often, this problem results from unfamiliarity with scheduling technology. Project managers should take the time to familiarize themselves with these tools before drafting schedules for projects. It can also help to choose intuitive, user-friendly tools — these programs often require minimal training for effective use, so the chances of scheduling errors decrease significantly.
Proper communication between every level of the project is another key factor to keeping work moving along. For example, ensuring every member of your crew is on the same page is crucial to getting work done on time. When employees have a clear idea of their roles and responsibilities, they're more likely to get work done right the first time, keeping the project within its time estimate.
When bad weather strikes, work slows. Many times, it's often safer to stop and wait for clear skies than it is to power through the storm. Naturally, this pause stretches the timeline and impacts contractors' schedules.
Upon returning to the site, the crew has to clean up the aftermath before work can continue. Especially violent weather can cause damage to work you've already completed, which pushes progress back even further.
Proactive preparation for bad weather can minimize a project's risk of getting pushed back. Here are some steps any construction leader can take to equip their site:
Projects that have to cross over bridges or geographical obstacles will take longer than those on small, flat surfaces.
Common obstacles that get in the way of road construction can include:
Steep slopes and other natural geographical features can also slow construction work because, if handled improperly, they can cause dangerous situations for workers. For example, an operator using an excavator on a steep slope must take increased care to keep the machine within normal operating parameters and avoid tipping over.
According to the PMI, 12% of construction projects failed in 2021. While the length of a project is far from the only predictor of its success, it's still important to understand that allowing too many delays can lead a project to failure.
There are three main factors that cause construction projects to fail:
Here are a few tips project managers can follow to ensure the success of a project:
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