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joined 2023 January 25 13:50:16 UTC


User ID: 2125



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User ID: 2125

If anybody is interested, the shenanigans that I described almost exactly a year ago in my "Six Months in the Life of a Civil Engineer" AAQC have not gotten any less ridiculous.

  • The "unusually large" project mentioned in the previous post had a length of seven miles on two intersecting segments of two highways, as well as around 900 individual stripes. (The figure of 800 that I gave previously was erroneous.)

  • In contrast, the latest project assigned to my office has a length of fifty miles spread across ten non-intersecting segments of six highways, and has around 1600 individual stripes. (The new project has fewer stripes per mile because it's mostly on two-lane cross sections and includes no interchanges, while the "unusually large" project was mostly on six-lane cross sections and included several interchanges. In terms of lane-miles, it's an increase from 55 to 120.)

How did this happen? Supposedly (as relayed by my immediate boss), the bigwigs decided to merge multiple smaller projects into a single gigantic project, so that the paving contractors will bid lower unit prices on the larger quantity of thin-surface-treatment material. Decisions of this nature have been made before. An egregious example on which I worked:

  • A pavement-preservation project was originally slated to cover a single nine-mile-long segment of highway (reusing the topo files of an older resurfacing project that included the same segment).

  • Then, for reasons to which I was not privy at the time, the bigwigs decided to split it up into three three-mile projects prior to the start of design.

  • And, finally, after the three projects had already been designed by three different engineers and submitted for initial review, the bigwigs decided (again, for reasons to which I was not privy at the time) that they had to be glued back together into a single project in the brief period between initial review and final submission!

It was utterly mindboggling.

On the bright side:

  • It seems that four of the new project's ten segments have been resurfaced within the past few years, and we may be able to reuse the electronic files of those resurfacing projects. So "only" twenty miles of baselines/topo/stripes, rather than the entire fifty miles, will have to be drawn from as-builts and satellite photographs.

  • Supposedly, the topo drawing for this project will be done by my organization's drafters, rather than by us designers. How well the arrangement will actually work out remains to be seen.

On another bright side, the HTML/Javascript program that I mentioned in a comment that I was writing as a replacement for a clunky old Excel/VBA program has turned out to be surprisingly functional. The engineers of my office have successfully used it on multiple projects so far.

It's reasonably simple:

  • Manually measure all the quantities in your project's prop (proposed-work) files.

  • Using Excel, input the numbers into a bunch of CSV files with predefined columns (pay-item ID, pay-item name, sheet group, sheet number, quantity, unit, location on sheet, comment, etc.), arranging the pay items in and among the files however you want—e. g., one CSV file for each construction sheet, one CSV file for all the project-wide boilerplate items (like mobilization and steel price adjustment) that aren't associated with a sheet, one CSV file for all the project-wide environmental items (like silt fence and concrete washout) that aren't associated with a sheet, etc.

  • Open an HTML file on your computer and "upload" the CSV files into the HTML file. (The dataset is still in your computer's memory, not actually uploaded to an external server.)

  • Click a button to process the input.

  • Check the warning and error messages. (Did you input a quantity as zero or negative? Did you input a non-integer quantity for a pay item (other than permanent signs, which uniquely are allowed to be non-integer quantities of square feet)? Did you forget to add the federal project number or a "state-funded" placeholder? Did you forget to list your initials in the "calculator" column and your immediate boss's initials in the "reviewer" column? For a project-wide lump-sum pay item, did you input a quantity that is not 1 (100 percent)—or, if the pay item is split between multiple funding sources (I haven't personally seen any such projects, but the author of the old Excel/VBA program explicitly mentioned this as something that (1) does happen and (2) can't be handled by his program), quantities that do not sum to 1? Did you input pay items with the same ID but different names in two different places? Et cetera.)

  • Click another button to get in HTML format ("printable" directly to 22″×36″ PDF) the table of quantities that always constitutes sheet 2 of the project's sheet booklet.

  • Click a third button to get in HTML format ("printable" directly to 8.5″×11″ PDF) a list of all the quantities in the project sorted by ID and sheet, with location on the sheet noted (required by the Construction people).

In the semi-near future, this manual process may be partially or entirely superseded by automatic quantity-calculation functionality in the new CAD software that I mentioned in the same comment. (That functionality appears to be accomplished via VBA. Sigh.) But I still am quite surprised that a random civil engineer who has done a little programming in his spare time can whip up in just two or three months something that seems a lot more intelligible than the Excel/VBA program that's been used for twenty or thirty years by the designers of an entire reasonably-large transportation organization.

More people need to make lengthy posts about their cool jobs in the vein of my previous post! I've been waiting with bated breath for the past year to hear about the dreaded "scrum master", "daily stand-up", and "Git merge conflict" from some of the 10× programmers that supposedly frequent this website. Maybe we even have an architect who can complain about his clients' wishy-washiness and scoff at all the pathetic free (libre) attempts to compete with Chief Architect, or a paving contractor who can express his hatred of his local transportation authority's resident engineers and in-house designers in the strongest of terms.

But perhaps there's more creativity involved than it sounds like.

Drafting in general always requires some creativity.

The new CAD software that my organization is phasing in has a fancy option to lay out all the construction sheets in an entire project automatically—and I have exactly zero plans to use it. A road is not just a baseline that winds through a featureless plain. Rather, laying out the construction sheets (and the striping sheets, which are just copied-and-pasted from the construction sheets) is a task in itself (which I forgot to describe in the post, probably because it's one of the few parts of this job that I can describe as enjoyable).

The engineer starts with a 36″×24″ (Architectural D) paper size. In theory, after allowance is made for match-line symbols at the short edges and other mandatory stuff at the long edges, each sheet is able to hold two 1500′×350′ bands at 1/600 scale (1 inch to 50 feet—okay for pavement preservation, but too zoomed-out for projects that include much more work than that). But it isn't as simple as just laying out a bunch of 1500′×350′ bands and washing your hands of the matter. The engineer must also avoid placing match lines in places and in orientations that are ugly and confusing.

Check out this example. The band is 1500 feet long and less than 350 feet wide, so it should be fine, right? Wrong. The engineer should adjust the north and south edges so that they cut across the ramps perpendicularly rather than obliquely. And the east edge of this suggested band is quite egregious, because its placement probably will lead to nasty slivers of area (1) at the end of the ramp and (2) in the milling to maintain the clearance under the bridge. Much better alternatives are this or this, or even this (1500′×700′—just one band for the entire sheet) if you're doing work on the other highway as well. And it only gets worse when you're working on a land-service highway, with zillions of intersections and driveways that you probably don't want to cut into confusing little slices, rather than on a freeway that just has ramps and structures to worry about. Maybe an automated sheet-layout program could do something half-decent on the basis of baselines and manually-entered road widths, but the engineer usually won't draw baselines for minor side streets, and never will draw baselines for driveways. It's simpler for the engineer to just do the layout himself from the beginning.

So, even laying out construction sheets in one dimension is not suitable for automation. I've done enough typing for now, so I won't go into detail, but—as a person who (1) is not by any means a programming guru, but (2) dabbles enough in the dark art that he is seeking to replace an Excel/VBA program that has been used by hundreds of people at work for many years with an HTML/Javascript version that is easier to maintain and arguably has more functionality than the original—I think I am qualified to say that laying out detour plans in two dimensions is even less suitable for automation.

your professional opinion

Don't give me too much credit. My career so far is significantly shorter than a decade.

your [insider] opinion is that the vast majority of this work is providing no value and just shouldn't be done in the first place. And the rest is being done very inefficiently.

Well, it isn't quite no value.

  • It can be argued that baselines are necessary even on a pavement-preservation project because the contractor needs to have reference points for the start and end points of stripes (e. g., "stripe starts at station 300+56 and ends at station 789+44", instead of "stripe starts 700 feet upstream of ramp XH78's physical gore and ends 100 feet upstream of the same physical gore").

  • It can be argued that typical sections are necessary even on a pavement-preservation project because the contractor will be doing a small amount of milling and a tiny amount of pavement repair.

  • Measuring twice and cutting once on stripe and inlet quantities definitely is better than just taking a rough guess and running the risk that you're off by more than 25 percent, giving the contractor a chance to renegotiate (inflate) the price halfway through construction.

  • The old "maintenance and resurfacing"–style projects that used no baseline or topo at all (except maybe some typical sections), and just did everything by milepost, are rather confusing to look at in hindsight, and do not communicate much useful information to future designers.

  • Obviously, it's important to maintain existing clearances underneath overhead structures.

Et cetera. This post is just an upvote-farming rant, not a thoroughly-reasoned call to action. Don't read too much into it. (But maybe it doesn't count as upvote farming if you use a throwaway account and you're using a website that doesn't even show your upvote total on your profile.)

some of this seems like software could be doing it for you, at least things like drawing detour routes which sounds like something Google Maps more or less already does

Clarification: Drawing the detours isn't that annoying by itself. What's annoying is the accumulation of little things that the engineer has to do for each detour.

  • Figure out a detour route (preferring state roads, then county roads, and finally municipal roads as a last resort, because telling the contractor to shunt traffic onto other governments' roads may cause anger during construction, leading to political repercussions)

  • Reference into the sheet a little map showing the detour (if it's a long detour, you may have to reference two little maps separated by jagged lines)

  • Highlight the roads taken by the detour (just copy up the lines from the reference and increase the line weight)

  • Write down a list of all the turns that will be taken by the detour

  • Write down a list of all the sign stacks that need to be placed before all of those turns

  • Copy-and-paste drawings of those sign stacks in positions surrounding the map, and draw a leader line from each stack to its corresponding turn

Repeat all that for LITERALLY A DOZEN CLOSED RAMPS (if you're unlucky). Each detour may contain half a dozen turns.

(Most of the time, the detour route that I draw is the same route that motorists would have taken anyway after going past the closed ramp. To be fair, though, I do occasionally run into situations where it's better for motorists to take a detour before hitting the closed ramp. In those cases, I suggest (these detour plans are just suggestions—the contractor can disregard them as part of its "means and methods") that the contractor set up a portable message sign alerting motorists of the detour beforehand.)

It seems like the actual problem is that there's no one responsible for figuring out how to get all of this done more efficiently, and I'm not sure how to fix that.

(insert joke about government, bureaucracy, or government workers here)

Do you have a source for this? It sounds uncharitable to claim they don't also take safety into consideration.

It's true that traffic engineers use as their primary metric the "level of service", which essentially is based on traffic volume. However, traffic engineers are subordinate to planners, who base their decisions on cost–benefit analyses that take into account both traffic volume and safety.

what could be built fifty to a hundred years ago in 25 pages now takes 250

To be fair, in my opinion the old as-builts that condense everything onto the construction sheets, rather than having separate construction/striping/tie sheets, tend to be very cluttered and confusing to read.

One option is to go back to the old "maintenance and resurfacing" style of projects: allow the proposed work to be shown exclusively in text and tables, with no drawings. Another option is to go back to a practice that I've seen in some old (1980s and 1990s) as-builts: allow work to be drawn directly on aerial or satellite imagery. Either of those options would be rather ugly (and still would require the baselines and the quantities to be estimated with at least a modicum of accuracy), but also would allow effort to be concentrated on resurfacing and full-scope projects, rather than being wasted on pavement-preservation projects.

Note that (I assume) any change would have to pass some kind of FHWA review—a local transportation organization can't just unilaterally change its standards when the purse strings are held by others.



The engineers were just following orders.