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Infrastructure Bill Increases Opportunities for Work Zone Safety Funding

The passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), represents a generational investment in our roads, bridges and other critical infrastructure that will keep LIUNA members working for years to come. What’s been given less attention so far is that the bill also provides construction contractors and project owners with new mechanisms to secure safety funding that can better protect workers in highway work zones.

LIUNA General
and LHSFNA Labor
Armand E. Sabitoni

“Protecting LIUNA members in highway work zones often starts with securing the funding to pay for necessary safety measures,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “Work zone contingency funds can address this issue by setting aside funding for when traffic safety issues occur during construction.”

Guidance from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) outlines how the infrastructure bill creates new opportunities for state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) and other local governments to access a greater share of federal funds for roadway projects. This is referred to as the “federal share payable” – the percentage of federal funds available to state or local DOTs under FHWA programs. Current examples of safety-related items eligible under federal share payable requirements include the addition of traffic circles, pavement markings, rumble strips and the installation of guardrails or retroreflective markings.

Typically, the federal share payable is capped at 80 or 90 percent for many project line items, leaving states to find funding for the rest. But under the infrastructure bill, new FHWA eligibility requirements have increased funding levels to 100 percent for certain safety-related line items.

Making Work Zones Eligible for Safety Contingency Funding

FWHA guidelines now provide a federal share payable up to 100 percent for projects that use “innovative project delivery” methods to improve work zone safety for motorists or workers. The BIL amended the definition of innovative project delivery to include “provisions that provide safety contingency funds to incorporate safety enhancements to work zones prior to or during roadway construction activities.”

Work zone safety contingency funding should bring significant safety benefits to both workers and motorists during roadway construction projects. For years, public road projects built by state DOTs have largely operated in a low-bid environment. With agencies forced to take the lowest bid that meets their requirements, additional safety measures that protect workers – such as the use of positive protection instead of ineffective cones and barrels – often get left out. In other cases, some safety measures may be included in the bid, but there’s no leeway for additional funding when unexpected traffic safety concerns come up. This can be the case even when the contractor and agency agree additional safety equipment is needed – the funding simply doesn’t exist.

These funding limitations put roadway workers and motorists at risk and directly contribute to the thousands of injuries and hundreds of lives lost in highway work zones each year. FHWA statistics show the number of deaths per 100 million miles traveled hasn’t improved significantly over the last decade. More recent data shows that crashes and fatalities in work zones spiked in 2020.

Work zone safety contingency funding can address this issue by providing additional dollars for a range of interventions, including:

  • Redirecting traffic away from workers by using existing ramps, adding pavement markings or putting down temporary pavement
  • Traffic control items such as mobile barriers, intrusion detection systems or portable rumble strips
  • Deploying additional signage to give advance warning to motorists
  • Additional law enforcement presence in work zones

To make use of these safety contingency funds, state DOTs and contractors need to add a “safety allowance” line item in their bid specifications. This is often two to five percent of the total project estimate. Some state DOTs have been using these funds successfully even before their federal share payable was increased to 100 percent. For example, the use of safety contingency funds on DOT projects in the state of Texas grew from $1.1 million in 2014 to $17.1 million in 2019.

Including this safety allowance line item in the original bid allows safety measures to be implemented as soon as they are needed. Without this funding, unexpected traffic safety issues that arise during construction end up going through the normal change order process. While the contractor waits for the change order to be processed and hopes it will be approved, the project continues and workers continue to be put at risk. Pre-approved safety contingency funding allows safety concerns to be addressed quickly and efficiently.

“It is critical to act quickly where we see opportunities to enhance safety for drivers and for TxDOT and contractor employees,” said Gina E. Gallegos, Director of the Texas DOT Construction Division. “Establishing a safety allowance force account line item on our projects allows us to do that.”

New Funding for Vehicle-to-Infrastructure Communication

The BIL also amended the definition of federal share payable to add “vehicle-to-infrastructure [V2I] communication equipment.” Current examples of this technology include smart traffic lights and parking areas. Ever enter a parking garage that showed the remaining number of spaces available on a digital counter? That’s a basic use of current V2I technology. In the future, V2I communication will be incorporated into road markings and traffic signs that motorists’ vehicles can recognize and react to.

In our April issue, we covered how new digital alert technology can warn drivers when they’re approaching a work zone by sending an alert to their onboard navigation system or cell phone navigation app like Waze. That’s another example of V2I communication. By adding V2I communication to the list of qualifying federal share payable items, FHWA is providing a funding opportunity to integrate this type of safety technology into new and revamped infrastructure projects.

Safer Roadways Part of Broader Administration Goals

The Biden administration’s Build a Better American plan calls for infrastructure investment as a central part of promoting safety for all road users, fighting the climate crisis and improving equitable access to transportation. FHWA notes that investments and projects that align with this plan “improve the condition, resilience and safety of road and bridge assets.”

The LIUNA members and other roadway workers on these projects need to be viewed as assets too. We need to take every available step to improve the conditions of highway work zones and protect the safety of these workers. That often begins long before the job even starts by securing the funding necessary to pay for safe conditions.

[Nick Fox]

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