ADA and TDOT Local Programs Projects

The first time that I ever parked in a handicap spot was about 16 years ago. It was on a trip to Wal Mart with my mother who was dying of cancer. You see she had an edema and fluid in her lungs so that, even with my help, she was out of breath before we even reached the front door. I was grateful that we could get the handicap parking spot right up front, and I was grateful that Wal Mart (not my favorite place to shop to be honest) had free mobility shopping carts.

So, I get it. I get it that the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) is important. I think that doing your best to make all public facilities accessible to people who have mobility or other limitations is important.

And, as a person who is involved with projects that include ADA improvements, I get just how difficult meeting these standards can be.

We all have seen older building, perhaps built in the 1920’s or earlier that the only way in is through stairs. Tight winding hallways and architecture that makes it virtually impossible for people with limited mobility to get around. Add to that tiny bathrooms where there is no space for wheelchairs and you can have a big costly mess of a headache if you  want to even start on ADA improvements. The same can be seen in roadways with no sidewalks or places for people to cross the road.

What I am here today to tell you is that ADA is going to become more and more of an issue moving forward with our Local Programs projects. Right now it is already a big issue in the Transportation Alternatives (TA) project world. I can see the writing on the wall that it will become an issue in even the simplest and straight forward of Local Programs projects.

Using Surface Transportation Program (STP) funds for a resurfacing project within the existing Right of Way (ROW) is about the simplest, and cost effective project that a local government can move forward with. However, even with these projects you have to worry about making your curb cuts ADA compliant, and putting in ADA striping and signage.

If you are tying in your new ADA compliant curb cut into a non-ADA compliant sidewalk you can start getting into a gray area. Are you now responsible for bringing everything along your project route up to ADA standards? If not then which parts need to be brought up to ADA standards? If you complete a project several years previously up to what you thought was ADA standards, but those standards have now changed, are you responsible for now upgrading that project at your own expense? Are you going to have to acquire ROW to make these upgrades? As we all know acquiring ROW can blow the roof off the budget of any project.

There are those who will tell you (or scream at you) “I DON’T CARE WHAT IT COSTS! YOU HAD BETTER DO IT “RIGHT”!”

Yes, meeting ADA standards is the law. But these standards are also pretty far from being cut and dried on every single situation. And the big elephant in the room is cost. You can scream until you are blue in the face about justice, but the people I have seen and worked with on meeting ADA standards on projects are not trying to screw over the handicap or limit access to cut costs. They are like all of us, who have someone that they know or love who needs ADA access. They also have a very limited bucket of funds to get any project done.

You have been warned. From here on out, no matter how rural, no matter how simple the project a discussion about ADA issues had better happen on the front end. For the time being, this may not be an issue on a bridge replacement out in the rural countryside. But I would suggest you give it a look anyway. TDOT has been very clear that they are not in a forgiving mood when it comes to falling short on this issue.

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Project Development: How to Approach it

I can’t tell you how many times that I have met with Mayors, and Public Works Directors who have told me about a well intentioned citizen, or community organization that is coming down on them to “apply for free money” to get their pet project completed. In just about every instance these well meaning people are chasing an internet “shiney illusion”. It is either some program that really doesn’t fit their project, or an existing program that they already have projects involved with.

I have said this before, and I will say it again. If you are a community leader and looking for “free government money”: Beware. If you look for the money first, then create a project based around the funding, that may not work out well. All of these “free government money” programs are never really “free”. There is usually a local match, and there are always costs of time and resources to get them.

On the other hand if you develop the project first, THEN start looking for any State or Federal funds that you can use to help fund it, you have a much better chance of avoiding problems.

What I mean by “developing” a project is this:

  1. Go through a systematic process of prioritizing your projects. A Transportation-Land Use Master plan can be a great tool for doing this. As part of this process you look at ALL of the available transportation needs, and balance these needs based upon good estimates of what the potential costs will be. Having this as part of a public meeting would be a great idea. Be sure to get pictures and document this meeting for later on.
  2. Once your top priorities are set then get a good solid engineering estimate of what the total project costs would be. Doing this on the front end, can save you a ton of money and a lot of headache on the back end. This gives you additional information to make better decisions.
  3. Then look for potential funding sources for the project. TDOT has a host of transportation funds for communities across the State, so does the USDA. Just be clear on what the real costs of taking the grant money are on the front end. It may save time, headaches, and money to NOT take any grant money for the project and just use local funding instead. Do not be distracted by the amount of money that will be provided as a grant. Instead focus on what the total costs will be, and more importantly what your local share will be and what parts of the project will not be funded by the grant. What are you going to be on the hook for?

Now I am most decidedly NOT against State or Federal funding of projects. That is what I do every day, and is how I earn my paycheck! I work hard to help my communities understand what they are getting into on the front end. Nobody likes surprises, especially when they are costly.

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Other Funding Sources: USDA

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Jonathan Boyce of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) office here in Nashville. Fortunately his office is just down the street on West End, which was well within walking distance of my office. Mr. Boyce is part of the Community Program Division.

As some of you may, or may not know, USDA has funding that can be used for a wide variety of projects. One of their most popular programs are for water/waste-water system upgrades. What you may not know is that they have a Community Facilities Program that can be used for a wide range of projects that includes downtown improvements, roadway repair, and bridge replacement to name a few potential projects that it will fund.

Now to be honest most of these programs are in the form of a loan, or in some cases a loan in combination with a grant. That said, they can set up long (up to 40 years) terms with pretty low interest. It just depends on the project.

The USDA programs may, or may not be something that works for your community, or your project. But it is something to keep in the back of your head as you develop your project and look for ways to fund it.

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Trends in Local Programs

A lot is going on in the Local Programs World.

One of the things that I do for A2H are the Environmental Documents (NEPA) for our TDOT Locally Managed projects. All of our projects are some sort of Categorical Exclusion (PCE, C list, or D list), which is the minimum level of Environmental Document. So far I am on pace to complete 2-3 times the number of NEPA documents this year, as what I did in 2014. That is great, because that means a lot more projects are going on. But, that is also why I have not had time to post to my blog so far this year.

So, what are the trends in the Local Programs World as I see it?

  1. Right-of-Way: The ROW process and getting the ROW certification from TDOT for your TDOT Locally Managed project is going to have more scrutiny. As most of you know ROW certification has never been exactly easy. I have seen several indications that FHWA and TDOT are taking a much closer look at each project, and their tolerance for messing up is getting less and less. Things are getting less forgiving here. You have been warned.
  2. State Aid (Road and Bridge) Office: After years of talk, it looks like the TDOT State Aid office is going to get rolled up as part of the TDOT Local Programs Office. I can see how one could think that it would make sense to combine these two offices. Both offices administer funds to local governments for road and bridge projects. What’s the difference? Well, there is a LOT of difference. One is Federally funded, one is State funded. Not one of their processes are interchangeable. The way they do things is absolutely different in every way, at every step. We will see how this merger goes. Hopefully, things don’t change for State Aid.

This year has been the busiest year since I left TDOT. I am grateful for the trust of our clients to help them get amazing projects completed!

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Now is the Time for a Gas Tax Increase in Tennessee

Nothing can get people hotter under the collar faster than talking about tax increases. Most people feel their budget getting stretched every pay day. Myself included.

So why would I dare to talk about such a taboo idea? Because it is that important.

From my observations, the real reason behind most people’s frustration  with taxes or tax increases is because they feel that their money will be wasted. Wasted on programs or policies that they don’t support or agree with. Usually these are things that they can’t see or that happen far away from them.

Investing in roads, bridges, and transportation infrastructure is different. Everyone in this Country has a stake in the transportation system. It doesn’t matter if you drive, or use public transportation or not. Our economy is totally connected through our transportation system. The food you buy in the grocery store, to just about any job or employer is somehow linked through our transportation system. If you don’t think that companies (or people) select new locations based on the local transportation networks, you are sorely mistaken.

Here is the deal. Due to a whole range of factors, which include improved vehicle fuel economy, and changing driving habits, gas tax revenue has been flat or falling. This is the main source of revenue on both the State and Federal sides of the funding equation.

Hint: The price of roads, bridges, airports and other transportation projects has not been flat or falling. Construction costs have been rising at about 12%-15% per year.

So the cost of repairing, let alone building new roads or bridges has been rising, and the funding coming in has been flat or falling. TDOT and County Highway Departments have been trimming and cutting their operations for years. The are fast approaching the breaking point where they won’t be able to maintain the stuff they have. Many County Highway Departments are already there.

As you may have noticed this winter, the price of gasoline at the pump has fallen quite a bit (Thank You Saudi Arabia!). You don’t have to be a genius commodities trader to know that won’t last forever. This gives State legislatures a unique opportunity to do the right thing and raise the gas tax. Here are a couple of reasons why I think that now is the time:

  1. Everyone agrees that a new, fully funded, 4 year transportation bill that addresses  all of these needs and has a way to increase (not just keep the same levels as 4 years ago) revenue is the real answer to the problem. Everyone also agrees that Congress and Washington are in general gridlock and that there is no chance of this happening anytime soon. This is why I think the States (especially my state, Tennessee) need to take the lead now.
  2. Increasing the gas tax when the price of gasoline is at it’s lowest in years is the best time to do it. People won’t like it, but you can sell them on the benefits of better roads and bridges. It doesn’t sting as much.
  3. You can pay, or you can pay. I learned a long time ago that I could either pay for maintenance on my car, or I could wait until the engine blew. Either way you have to pay for work on your car. Oil changes are much cheaper than blown engines. Transportation infrastructure is much the same. It is a lot cheaper to plan for a bridge replacement than to wait until if falls into the creek.
  4. More spending on transportation infrastructure would help to improve the economy. Where do you think that this spending would go to? It goes to engineering firms (like mine), construction firms, contractors, surveyors, ect. You could get a lot of people to work in a relatively short period of time.
    Improved roads help the economy in other ways. There are some heavy equipment manufacturers that have to send their products far distances out of the way because the roads and bridges between “point A and point B” can’t handle the load. This ends up costing everyone. Examples like this are endless.

Just raising the gas tax alone may not be the best solution. With electric vehicles and improved economy we may have to look at new revenue models such as mileage use taxes. I won’t even get into long term improvements in rail and public transportation. Those are whole other subjects unto themselves.

Raising the gas tax won’t solve all of our problems overnight. In Tennessee it would allow TDOT to get several important projects that have been pulled from construction back and going again. It would possibly allow County governments to resurface 5 miles (most Counties are responsible for 300-500 miles of road) instead of only 3 miles of roadway.

It would be a good start in the right direction.

 

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TDOT Accelerated Delivery Pilot Program

The TDOT Local Programs Office has rolled out a new program called the “Accelerated Delivery Pilot Program”. You can find out more information on it from the TDOT website here: http://www.tdot.state.tn.us/local/adprogram.htm

Up until now TDOT, through the Local Programs Office has only had two ways to fund a project:

  1. TDOT Managed: With this process the local government signs a contract with TDOT. It is TDOT (through staff and consultants hired by TDOT) that handles everything from the Environmental document through design plans, and all the way through construction.
    The only thing that really makes it a “Local Programs” project is that they local government must use it’s STP balance, and contribute a local share (usually 20%) to the project. All the local government does is sign a contract with TDOT and periodically send TDOT checks to cover their percentage of the project costs.
  2. Locally Managed: The local government still signs a contract with TDOT, but they now control much of the responsibility of moving it forward. The local government hires it’s own Engineering Consultant firm (as per TDOT policy) who then does all of the things that TDOT would do in moving the project forward.
    It’s your consultant firm that gets the approved environmental document, that gets the plans approved by TDOT, that gets the permits/ROW/Bid book/Utilities/Estimates certifications from TDOT. There is a back and forth with between your engineering firm and TDOT the whole way to get these certifications. There are stopping points where TDOT must concur, and get additional funds obligated before moving between phases.
    From the local governments perspective, they have to be more involved. They have to oversee the work of the consultant, and more importantly, it is the local government who is writing the checks to the consultant, and later to the contractor for the project. Every month the local government then turns around and submits reimbursement requests to TDOT to get paid back for their expenses (minus any local share).

So, now TDOT is opening a third way with the Accelerated Delivery program. As it has been explained to me through the webinar and conversations with TDOT, everything through the approval of the NEPA document is just the same as the regular local programs project.

Once you get your approved NEPA document, that is where everything changes. Rather than getting Notices to Proceed (NTP’s) for PE-Final Design, Right of Way (ROW), and only after several reviews, Construction, you will just get a NTP for Construction.

You will still be responsible for following all of the correct TDOT process, but you will not get approvals along the way. Instead, you will follow the new Chapter 11 guidance in the Local Programs manual, complete the whole project including construction, and only after the project is totally completed will you schedule a review with the TDOT Local Programs Office. At that time TDOT will look at what you have done, how you have done it, and then, and only then determine if they will reimburse you for the project. Up to that point the local government has been floating the project expenses of engineering, construction, and TDOT oversight bills.

I applaud TDOT for looking at new ways to help local governments move their projects faster. However I have some real concerns about this process:

  1. Local governments have a hard enough time floating the month expenses of a project. Reimbursement can take from 45 to 180 days. This process would have a local government floating the project for 10 months to over a year or more, and that does not include the review process, and the reimbursement process once it is approved.
  2. This is a lot of risk for a local government, or an engineering/consultant firm to take on. TDOT requirements, and personnel are always changing. What happens if, even through the best due diligence, you get things wrong? Will TDOT not reimburse for the project? I can see bad things happening very quickly for everyone if this happens.
  3. Bottom line, I don’t see how this will speed things up. I have been working on projects that follow the TDOT Locally Managed program process from when the program got off the ground in 2006. ROW certification takes time. Design plans take time. Utilities certifications take time. All of these things take time to get completed. This new process does not say that you don’t have to do these activities, it just says that they will be reviewed at the end of the project, instead of during it.
    At the end of the day, when the dust settles, I don’t see how this process will actually save any time, or money.

Now please don’t take this the wrong way. Nobody is a bigger fan for TDOT and the Locally Managed process than I am. It is a great program, that even with it’s flaws, gives the local governments a great way to save time and money on their projects. Depending on the circumstances I am also a great believer in the TDOT managed process. It takes a little longer and you lose some control, but the TDOT managed route can be the best way to move forward.

I am also a big fan of the TDOT Local Programs Office, where I used to work. My biggest fault with them (and I have told them this) is that they are under-staffed and need more experienced people up there. I think that is something that they would agree on.

At this point I can’t recommend the Accelerated Delivery Program. I think that the best way to help move TDOT Locally Managed projects forward faster would be for TDOT to hire and train more staff. They easily need to double the amount of people up there.

We shall see how this new process works out. I could be totally wrong about it and in a year be writing a post on this blog “eating crow”. I am fine with that, it wouldn’t be the first time.

Please keep in mind that all if this is just my opinion and nothing more.

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How to Fund a TDOT Local Programs Project

Things have been busy in the Local Programs world for the past month. We just had another very successful workshop last week in our Jackson, TN Office. As with all of these Workshops some questions and issues  seem to come up again, and again. One of the biggest questions seems to be:

HOW DO WE CASH FLOW THIS HIGH DOLLAR PROJECT?

We are working with several rural Counties with Federal Off-System Bridge (BRZE) projects that are going to be $1 million plus projects. Even if these County Highway Departments could cash flow the engineering bills, what about when these things hit the Construction Phase? It would not be unexpected to get a $100,000, $200,000 or maybe even $300,000 bill for one month. Even if TDOT turns around the reimbursements in 30 days, that is still 30 days that the County has to “float the note” for that large amount.

The good news is that there is an answer already out there. It is called the Tennessee Municipal Bond fund.

You can go to their website here http://www.tml1.org/bond-fund.php or call them at:

TMBF
226 Capitol Blvd, Suite 502
Nashville, Tenn 37219
Phone: 615-255-1561

I have spoken with representatives of the Bond Fund about this very situation, and they can help. They can set things up so that you are writing checks for the project out of a loan, not your operating budget, that gets paid back when TDOT pays you back.

This is not a new thing. The Tennessee Municipal Bond fund has run loans for just about every City and County in Tennessee since 1985. You will have to get approval from the City council or County Commission for this. But consider this is not a long term loan. The most a Local Programs project will go on for is a year or two. Once the TDOT project is closed out, and you have gotten all of the reimbursements back from TDOT, then the loan will be paid off. The loan costs, including interest are going to be very low.

Remember that with a TDOT Local Programs project you are sending in monthly reimbursement requests. You don’t wait till the end to send in one or two big billings.

Full disclosure: Neither A2H nor I have any financial interest in you using the TN Municipal Bond fund. This is just a great tool that can help you get your project done with the minimum amount of headache.

 

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