Averting Disaster

I just noticed that it has been almost a month since my last blog posting. The whole purpose of this blog is to be a service to the community of people who need help with their projects and understanding the process. I want to apologize for slacking on you.

Just about everything that I have written so far is about how to stay out of trouble with the TDOT Locally Managed Program process. Today I want to explain to you what to do if you find yourself in trouble with TDOT or the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) on your project.

First off lets define what I mean by “trouble”. Trouble is what happens when TDOT tells you that they are not going to reimburse you for an expense. The worst kind of trouble is if TDOT and the FHWA tell you that they want all the money back that they have given you for a project. Actually the worst kind of trouble is if you are looking at going to Federal prison, but since that is way beyond my scope of experience I will just take a look at the first two scenarios.

Now how do you get into trouble on your TDOT Locally Managed project? That part is fairly easy. The following is a great short list of how to get into trouble with TDOT:

  1. Deciding to not follow the TDOT process and instead do things the way you want to, not the way TDOT tells you to. 
  2. Not communicating with TDOT. Either not contacting them if you have questions or issues, or better yet ignoring their emails, calls, and letters for long periods of time.
  3. Approving change orders on the project without TDOT consent.
  4. Going to work on a phase of work ahead of receiving a Notice to Proceed from TDOT.
  5. Trying to cover up problems from TDOT that you should have taken to them immediately.

While this is not the complete list of ways to get into trouble with TDOT and the FHWA on your project I think you get the idea.

Nobody deliberately tries to get their project into trouble with TDOT. The core issue is that the process is very complicated and involves lots of human beings. As we all know the more people involved in something, the more opportunity for misunderstandings and breakdowns in communication. At the local government level the Mayor, City Administrator, Finance Director, Public Works, County Highway Supt., and a host of other staff can be involved in a project. At TDOT you have the staff of the Local Programs Office, the Environmental Office, Design Division, Permits, ROW, Utilities, Construction, Materials and Test, the list goes on and on.

Each one of these offices involve people. Each one of these interactions, or lack of, can cause misunderstandings and BIG problems for the project. All the barriers to communication that you learn about in high school are there to potentially cause problems.

Ok, so now for whatever reasons you and your project are in a pickle. The question is how to fix it?

From my experience there is only one way that you can hope to sort things out if things have gone bad and the local government is in trouble with TDOT:

Ask for a face to face meeting with TDOT.

  1. The meeting needs to be in the Polk Building in Nashville. This way all of the important players at TDOT can have the opportunity to be there. Is this a “home court advantage” for TDOT? Absolutely. But this is ground that they are comfortable on, so you may find them in a better mood than if they are facing a several hour drive after this meeting to go home. 
  2. The highest level of the local government needs to be there. Meaning the City or County Mayor, the Finance Director, and maybe the person in the local government has been acting as the project manager.
  3. From the TDOT side you need to have the everyone in the Local Programs office involved including the planner, the head of the program, and Teresa Estes. Also if it has gone this badly Mr. Jim Moore the Director of the Program Management Division needs to be there, and maybe even Mr. Paul Degges the Chief Engineer for TDOT.
  4. The attitude going into this meeting is very important. The local government needs to be coming from a place that says “hey, we have a problem, lets sit down together to help sort it out”. This is not the time to start yelling, pointing fingers, or otherwise getting ugly. I can guarantee that will not get a positive response from TDOT.
  5. Document, document, document. Go through all of your emails, and other correspondence and try and find where the communications break down happened. Write out a simple but complete timeline of the project from concept to that current date. Bring a copy of this to the meeting and have a copy of the same information to give to TDOT. The purpose is to show where things may have gone wrong. The goal is not to bury them in paperwork. Keep it clean and simple as possible.

Every project is different. There are some things that can be fixed, and other things that even TDOT can’t fix with the FHWA. My best advice is to have this sit down meeting with TDOT BEFORE any problems exist. At the start of the project ask for this meeting and sit down at the table and ask tons of questions. Don’t leave until you feel confident about the process forward. As the project is progressing you can also request additional meetings. Does this take time and effort? Yes. Can it help keep you out of trouble? Absolutely.


About arran375

I work for Askew, Hargraves, Harcourt and Associates, Inc. here in Nashville, Tennessee. The short version of what I do is that we help local governments spend the Federal funds they get from TDOT on road, and bridge projects.
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