Everyone talks about the project that goes wrong. The City of Edmonton has certainly learned that lesson in the past year after seeing delays on high-profile infrastructure projects like the Metro LRT Line, the 102nd Avenue Bridge and the Walterdale Bridge.
But 90 per cent of city projects stick to their budgets and over 85 per cent come in on time, notes Adam Laughlin. As the acting general manager of the city’s new integrated infrastructure services department, Laughlin’s job is to ensure those percentages keep moving in the right direction. With Edmonton’s capital budget set at $4.3 billion for 2015-18 and major projects like the Valley LRT on the horizon, this will be no small task.
Established in January, the integrated infrastructure services department is part of a major corporate restructuring that has brought together 1,200 full-time equivalent staff to oversee project management (final staffing levels will settle somewhere between 800 and 1,200 later this year). No longer will new projects be divided between the various siloes of city administration. Now, a dedicated group can tackle the challenges of helping projects run smoothly—and make sure the public knows exactly what is being done to fix the problem when things don’t go according to plan.
Alberta Construction Magazine editor Joseph Caouette met with Laughlin at City Hall to learn more about the city’s evolving approach to managing infrastructure construction.
ACM: What is the goal of this new department?
Laughlin: Any project, it doesn’t matter what it is, you have a strategy, a concept, a design phase, a build phase and an operating phase. The city is setting up an operations department and a strategy department— that’s the sustainable development department—and the integrated infrastructure services department will handle concept to build. We’re also very engaged in the strategy and with those that are going to operate the project, but we will steward it from concept to build. The mandate is essentially to ensure that we’re delivering projects on time and on budget, that they meet the expectations of council and citizens, and that we’re doing it in a very transparent way.
ACM: How does this set-up contrast with the old system?
Laughlin: Previously, line departments would have infrastructure delivery areas within their own department. So transportation would deliver transportation projects. Community services would deliver their livability projects within community services. The approach now is taking project delivery out of the line departments and consolidating it so that we can look holistically at how we’re delivering infrastructure. It’s not a drainage project or a road project or a park project—it’s a community project, and we’re coming in to fix the roads, repair the pipes and build a park. We’re still going to have all of the strong standard approaches to how we address these projects, but we’re going to be doing it in a way that considers the bigger picture.
ACM: Do you have an example of how that might work in practice?
Laughlin: The Neighbourhood Renewal program is a good example of integration. If we have everyone working together on a Neighbourhood Renewal project, we can come in and build a great neighbourhood through the infrastructure funding that we have. Rather than come in and just repair a road, we’re addressing the drainage issues and fixing the roads, and then we’re looking at any community programs that we can address. Are there any traffic safety issues that we can address with this infrastructure funding? In every neighbourhood there’s a park. Is it in a position where you could be doing park renewal while working on the road? To me, that’s a perfect example of one area where we’ve done fairly well, but now we can go from good to great.
ACM: How could the department have helped address some of the issues involved in projects seeing delays, like the Walterdale Bridge or the 102nd Avenue Bridge?
Laughlin: I’ll start with the 102nd Avenue Bridge. We ran into issues, and we’re going to continue to find projects where issues will happen. What we’ve tried to do is tell the story of what the issues are, what we’re doing to fix them and how we’re doing everything we can to make sure they get addressed as quickly as possible. Providing a clear picture of what’s happened and how we’re fixing it is something we need to do more of going forward.
For the Walterdale Bridge project, council identified that we want a signature bridge, and I think that’s the right thing to do. Quite frankly, that bridge is going to be the new post- card for Edmonton once it’s complete. There are factors that delay projects, but the plan- ning that went into that project has retained the infrastructure to support the movement of people through the river valley and minimize traffic impacts significantly. There was a real good plan and design to make sure the existing bridge remains open while the new bridge is being constructed, and I think that gets lost in this talk about the project get- ting delayed.
The other side of that is with a signature project comes risk, because it isn’t a traditional cast-in-place concrete deck bridge. This is a project that will push the boundaries of how we’re going to build a bridge like that, and with risk comes the potential for impact. You will run into issues, and responding transparently and quickly is key.
ACM: There’s expected to be a lot of infrastructure spending coming down the pipe from the federal and provincial governments in the coming years. Was that a factor when creating this department?
Laughlin: We’re one of the fastest growing cities in Canada, and there’s recognition that we aren’t building small construction projects. We’re doing complex city-shaping infrastructure projects, so even before those infrastructure-spending announcements, there was a need to take a more holistic approach to how we build. If this infrastructure funding makes its way to Edmonton—and hopefully it will—we’re going to be in a position to act quickly to deliver on those expectations. From that perspective, the new department can draw on all of the resources from across the City of Edmonton to deliver on whatever priorities council sets for those stimulus packages. As a group, we’re going to be able to assess our capital commitments and priorities, and we’re going to build a team that makes sure we get things done as quickly and efficiently as possible.
ACM: Will this department improve cooperation between the city and the construction industry?
Laughlin: Industry is our partner in delivering these projects, and we work closely with engineers and architects, suppliers and the construction industry. Those relationships may have been with the individual line departments in the past, but the relationships are there. With everything under one umbrella in integrated infrastructure services, we can now bring in a cross-departmental perspective. When our transportation folks want to have a conversation with the Consulting Engineers of Alberta, we can send our building folks with them to talk through whatever issues arise. We’ve got good relationships, and we need to continue building those relationships. In the end, successfully delivering capital programs does not just come down to the City of Edmonton. We need the industry to help us.