Why Does Road Construction Take So Long?

Why Does Road Construction Take So Long?

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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The Planning Phase

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.

money and priorities

Money and Priorities

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.

Bureaucracy and Red Tape

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:

  • Environmental impact: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires project managers to analyze the potential environmental impact of a proposed project before it can begin. For example, the earthwork needed to prepare a new roadway can cause erosion that damages habitats and disrupts nearby wildlife. Setting up erosion and sediment control measures would increase the chances of approval.
  • Quality of life: Construction companies must demonstrate that their project will not negatively impact the community around it. Or, you must provide a plan for any displaced businesses or individuals. Citizens who are most at risk include young children and the elderly. 
  • Funding: The FHWA requires construction companies to submit a detailed plan with accurate cost estimations and thorough risk management protocols to grant federal funding to any large-scale project. All roles, responsibilities and processes are also to be included with this information, and the company must file reports throughout the project, as well.
  • Transportation research protocols: Large-scale transportation projects require deep research into their potential impact, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). 

The project can only move forward if it gains approval in all these areas, so taking care in creating plans is crucial.

changes in scope

Changes in Scope

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.

Budget Miscalculations

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:

  • Soft costs: Anything that does not relate directly to the physical building process is a soft cost. Examples can include inspection fees, advertising and marketing fees, project management costs and insurance. 
  • Hard costs: These are expenses directly related to the physical construction of the roadway, like building materials, change orders and overhead costs. 

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.

Unrealistic Timelines

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:

  • Right-of-way: Account for the time it will take to research and acquire right-of-way for the project, including stormwater management, wetland mitigation and relocation assistance of displaced individuals and organizations. 
  • Procurement: The type of procurement can affect the certainty of your completion date, so be sure to create a contingency if yours is uncertain.
  • Contingencies: Add time to allow for any potential changes in scope or additions to the completed design. This cost is usually part of your baseline budget for the project, but that can vary from situation to situation.
  • Season: Include time to prepare for possible inclement weather events, especially for projects that will be underway during the winter or rainy seasons. 
  • Third parties: While it's usually best to avoid utilities as much as possible when designing the project, you should still include appropriate buffer time — third-party work tends to come with a high potential for risk and change. This is especially true in urban areas where there are many existing utilities in place.
design issues

Design Issues

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. 

Project Execution

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 and site preparation

Earthwork and Site Preparation

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.

workplace safety and labor laws

Workplace Safety and Labor Laws

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.

problems with equipment

Problems With Equipment

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.

poor organization

Poor Organization

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. 

Inclement Weather

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:

  • Identify risks: Evaluate the different types of severe weather your site is most likely to encounter. For example, if you're going to be fixing a road near a large body of water, your site is at risk for flooding.
  • Create an emergency plan: Once you've identified your site's potential for exposure to natural disasters, plan out how you'll protect your crew, your equipment and your project. Make sure to put this plan in writing and store physical copies in multiple locations throughout the job site — an accessible, written safety plan is an OSHA requirement for most companies with more than 10 employees. Even if you aren't required to have a written safety plan, you should implement one to protect workers and your project's timeline.
  • Run drills: Effective emergency plans have buy-in from employees. Run routine emergency drills with your crew and allow them to provide feedback on the experience. 
  • Get insured: Make sure you have the proper insurance in place to prepare for damages resulting from severe weather. Ensuring proper coverage can help minimize losses in the event of natural disasters, which is key to keeping your project running as expected.
physical obstacles

Physical Obstacles

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:

  • Bridges
  • Public utilities
  • Traffic signals
  • Highways
  • Waterways
  • Railroad tracks

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.

what can cause a project to fail

What Can Cause a Project to Fail?

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:

  • People: You need the right people with the right qualifications to ensure a project's success. Your team should have the proper training to operate equipment and solve problems that may arise on the work site.
  • Money: Your budget should be flexible to accommodate for changes and delays. As we discussed, scope creep is often a cause of delays — it can also cause a project to overrun its budget, which can be detrimental.
  • Time: A successful project has a realistic, manageable schedule that accounts for potential interruptions and changes. It's important to have a backup plan in case you run into downtime or work phases run into each other.

Here are a few tips project managers can follow to ensure the success of a project:

  • Document everything: Tracking milestones is key to understanding how close you are to meeting expectations. This information will be helpful for showing your stakeholders the kind of progress you're making on the project. 
  • Keep in touch: Lack of communication is one of the most common reasons projects fail. Every level of the operation should be on the same page at all times, from upper management to individual crew members.
  • Manage resources effectively: Poor resource forecasting is one of the leading causes of project failure. When your resources are unbalanced, so are your priorities, which can affect overall execution and delivery. You should know how much you need of each resource and for how long before construction begins, and identify any lack of resources early on so you can solve the issue.
  • Pay attention to red flags: Warning signs often appear when projects are at risk of failure. Incomplete documentation and slow mobilization are just two signs of a larger concern. If you notice something is going wrong, do your best to fix it early — you're more likely to save the project if you address risks before they become problems. 
  • Assign clear roles and responsibilities: Provide your crew members with clear expectations of their daily responsibilities. This way, they'll be able to get to work right away without potentially getting in the way of their coworkers. Workers who feel as though they have a defined role tend to be more productive than those who do not.
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Browse available rental equipment online, or find a location near you. Our knowledgeable dealers can help you find the equipment you need so you can get back to work fast.

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