Ryan Mitchell, recently named director of the newly established Office of Major Projects at the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), joins the podcast.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) categorizes major projects as those with a price tag of $500 million or more.
Mitchell helped establish and refine the alternative delivery and critical project delivery programs of numerous U.S. transportation agencies, including the state transportation departments of Nevada, Texas, Alaska, and Michigan.
He explains the various types of alternative delivery of projects and the benefits.
Other links and references:
Innovative contracting at MDOT
MDOT’s Modernize 75 project
Hello, welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation Podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson. Ryan Mitchell, for the past 13 years, has focused solely on developing and delivering successful alternative delivery projects and programs across the country. Many of these are major projects that total more than $500 million. Today he's going to talk to us about a new role he's taking on at the Michigan Department of Transportation as the first director of an office of major projects. Ryan has helped establish and refine the alternative delivery and critical project delivery programs for numerous US transportation DOTs, including those in Nevada, Texas, Alaska and, of course, Michigan. He's established some long-standing and trusting relationships with the Federal Highway Administration's Michigan Division, which will be very important in this new role. He's got some big and innovative ideas about what to do to move forward on some of these major projects, especially as we continue to face a decades-long funding crisis for transportation in Michigan and with resiliency having to be built into the planning now as the climate changes and we face even more expenses in trying to build and maintain roads and bridges. Okay, so once again I'm here with Ryan Mitchell, who, I explained earlier, is the first director of the Office of Major Projects at MDOT. Ryan, congratulations again and tell us what you see this office becoming and what your vision is.Ryan Mitchell:
Sure thanks, Jeff. I really appreciate the opportunity to come on and talk about the Office of Major Projects and, yeah, delighted and honored to be selected to lead this new area of MDOT. So MDOT historically has been very successful in delivering mega or major projects. Major projects, as defined by Federal Highway, are projects that are $500 million or more in costs. But MDOT has also delivered many critical projects, projects that are important to MDOT's mission, and the Office of Major Projects will include both of these projects, project types and will also include the innovative contracting unit. The Office of Major Projects will standardize major project delivery and create consistent performance management expectations and more consistent results for major projects at MDOT.Jeff Cranson:
Well then, talk a little bit about your background and what got you here. You've worked in several state DOTs. MDOT isn't your first stop, right?Ryan Mitchell:
That's true, Jeff. Yeah, so actually I originally started when I was in school, going to school for project management at DePaul in Chicago. I worked for construction contractors working in hospitals, so doing vertical construction, very often utilizing design build for constructing hospitals and sometimes very old buildings, putting new modern medical facilities in very old, old buildings, and so design build and integrated project delivery was very common. We moved away from where I was from in Chicago to Nevada and I joined the Nevada Department of Transportation where I supported their alternative delivery program. At the time they were establishing their design build and CMGC they referred to as CMAR program. So was very fortunate to use my background with construction and alternative delivery to support transportation alternative delivery project development. So from Nevada DOT I went into consulting and continue to deliver projects in major design build projects in Nevada and from Nevada I moved to Texas where everything is bigger and worked on some of the largest transportation projects in US history on their very large alternative delivery program mostly P3, but also design build, very large design build projects in Texas, and actually one of the things that I worked on that is very important background for the Office of Major Projects was performance monitoring of major projects, both federal requirements for major projects and just the performance of design and construction of those projects. So that is one thing that I'll bring to this role and I think it's a critically important aspect of how we will leave this new area of MDOT.Jeff Cranson:
So, let's assume for a minute there may be just one listener who's not tremendously steeped in construction and road construction and bridge construction. Give us a little bit of a glossary of the terms and the different kinds of alternative project delivery that you're talking about.Ryan Mitchell:
Sure. So, at MDOT we very commonly use traditional delivery, where we design and then let a project and then the contractor builds it in accordance with the design documents provided by MDOT. Another method that we use is called CMGC construction manager, general contractor. That is where we hire a designer, but we also hire the contractor to provide commentary on the design and to provide cost, risk and schedule information during the design to help us improve our cost and schedule certainty and our risk management approach to the project. That's called CMGC. As I mentioned, we also utilize design build, where we hire a single entity to design and construct a project in accordance with specifications that we establish and an approximately 30 percent design. That's design build. We also utilize public-private partnerships or P3s at MDOT, which is where we initiate a partnership with a private sector developer usually. That often consists of design, construction, finance and often operations and maintenance or just maintenance of the project for a given term, usually 20 plus years of operations and maintenance along with the design, construction and financing of the project. Those are commonly used at MDOT. One emerging delivery model that MDOT is now utilizing is progressive design build. It's a bit of a hybrid between CMGC and design build. We hire a design build team to support the development of the project and provide risk and schedule information in a progression of design where we look at the cost, schedule and risk as the design matures. So that's kind of a quick briefing on delivery models that we use at MDOT. These are all used on very large projects, but also some smaller projects as well.Jeff Cranson:
So tell me, I guess I'm wondering about the pros and cons of each, because it seems like it takes a while for some people to get on board with this, whether they think there's not enough oversight by the governing unit, or it sets up more opportunity for cutting corners or various things. So, what are the pros and cons of these kinds of alternative deliveries?Ryan Mitchell:
It's a great question, Jeff. So yes, not every project is suitable for alternative delivery. That is true. Some of the things that make a project suitable for alternative delivery is a high level of complexity. That is a very good fit for a CMGC project. Very often, MDOT utilizes CMGC for very complex constructability issues related to, often, bridges that are either remote or just have very challenging construction rehab fixes. That is a common use of CMGC. Design build is a tool which we like to use when we think, hey, this is a project where the private sector could really provide some innovation. There are several ways that we could deliver this interchange, for example, or we could design this maintenance of traffic scheme during construction, or even a bridge, for example. We think that we'd like to see some competition to spur innovation around this design. Design build is a very good fit for that. Design build, construction, design and construction is often used in a P3 scenario. A P3 is a good fit when the agency may want to contract for the operations and maintenance services for an asset for a long term and may want the private sector to finance the project with repayment by the DOT. Those are some of the driving reasons behind why we utilize those delivery models. Finally, I'll comment on the newest of our delivery models progressive design build. That is a tool, as I mentioned before, that combines CMGC and design build aspects of CMGC and design build. It's a terrific fit for projects where we know that there will be challenges in the development of the project, that we want the contractor's input on schedule and the cost and the risk of permitting, for example, the environmental process and maybe stake all their engagement as well. Having a team that consists of the designer and the contractor to help us through that development allows us to have a very high certainty around cost and schedule as we enter into the construction phase.Jeff Cranson:
Going back to your work in Texas, it's no secret that Michigan has been in decades-long underfunding crisis for transportation infrastructure. No solution on the horizon. Some aggressive bonding has helped fill some holes with some big projects fixing some of the most important roads in the state. Obviously, when you look at your time in Texas, which is a growth state, growing tax base, been aggressive about tolling, frankly, just able to do a lot more with their system than we're able to here. How do you think, when you start even talking about $500 million or more, how difficult that is to fathom here in Michigan, but how does that make you feel in terms of the challenge?Ryan Mitchell:
I think you're talking about a lack of a sustainable funding source for our transportation network. You and I talk about this frequently and it's something I think we have a lot in common and, yes, I think we have more need than we have funding, and roads are very expensive. They are more expensive to maintain than the funding that we have to reconstruct and maintain them. There are many creative ways to finance and fund roads. You mentioned bonding and that is essentially. We've utilized that in the state, but honestly, you know that I'm a user fee advocate and I actually do think there's a lot of promise in looking at alternative funding sources for transportation.Jeff Cranson:
Yeah well you've heard my idea about treating roads like a public utility and taking it out of elected officials' hands and letting a public service commission entity make these decisions because we don't ask the legislature to keep the lights on.Ryan Mitchell:
So well, and everybody pays their fair share of those necessary utilities, right? Just like we pay a cell phone bill, a cable bill, if we're going to use our cell phone, if we're going to subscribe to cable, we have no objection to paying for that. Roads are very similar in that way. Actually traveled in Europe this summer and every high speed, high performance facility I was on was a tolled facility. Honestly, it's something that I see eventually evolving. It's just what we do in the meantime with the backbone of our economy in this country, which is our transportation network.Jeff Cranson:
Yes, you were paying those tolls, even while you were paying much higher prices for fuel too. I was. I was Stay with us. We'll have more on the other side of this important message.MDOT Message:
The Michigan Department of Transportation reminds you to slow down, follow all signs and pay attention when driving through work zones, because all employees deserve a safe place to work. Work zone safety we're all in this together.Jeff Cranson:
So how do you even get your head around a project when you're talking these kinds of numbers? You know I got to believe. When you think about the context I'm reminded of the quote of it's often attributed to a long ago Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen a billion here, a billion there. Pretty soon you're talking about real money. Mega projects demand rigorous structure and oversight to be successful. But how do you break that down in your mind? I mean, isn't it kind of overwhelming when you started thinking about a project that costs more than $500 million?Ryan Mitchell:
It can be overwhelming. It can be overwhelming. Historically, the need for a major project has been fairly sporadic, but they are also consistent over time. So through establishment of this new division within MDOT's Bureau of Development, we can provide for a consistent and efficient management of mega projects. Essentially, if you think about the group that's being integrated here, it's some of the most talented people at MDOT. There's really some amazing project managers in this new division. So it's really about providing resources for those mega project managers that currently report to various bureaus. Previously they reported to various bureaus and regions of MDOT. Bringing them together, they can collaborate and they can craft standard, consistent performance expectations and criteria. That'll result in a more predictable, efficient and consistent result for our mega projects. I see the use of standard procedures and templates, more consistent communication protocol for our major projects resulting in improved performance for these mega project managers. That translates to improved stakeholder outcomes, improved costs and schedule outcomes, improved quality and project lifecycle outcomes, and improved public trust and accountability, which is really what we're hoping to achieve with this new office, Jeff.Jeff Cranson:
I'm in awe of your optimism and willingness to take on this challenge and I just really appreciate it, because, when I think about what's going on with our already inadequately funded system and a lack of a sustainable solution, as you mentioned earlier and now we've got, you know, a rapidly changing climate to deal with and that's adding to the cost of these projects. How do you factor in building for resiliency into your development plans?Ryan Mitchell:
It's a great question and I was actually just having a conversation with our environmental services section about that topic. So I think the current administration is offering funding opportunities for sustainability. I think we'll see a growing need and recognition of building sustainability and resiliency into our projects and it's just a matter of how we respond to those opportunities and how MDOT is prepared to capitalize on those opportunities. I don't have a silver bullet as to how we're going to address the funding shortfalls, but MDOT is positioned to capitalize on those opportunities with the current state government administration and the federal government administration and I think when we capitalize on those opportunities through grant funding or through earmarks or through federal grant process, yes, but also formula funds right.Jeff Cranson:
Oh sure.Ryan Mitchell:
The mix of funding that we have currently. The job of the new Office of Major Projects is to package those projects and manage the performance of those projects so that we're prepared and can deliver when those opportunities are available, when those opportunities arise.Jeff Cranson:
When you talk about that and you put it in the context of funding and what we're able to do. Just maybe so that we have a little bit of an understanding, can you talk about a couple of things going on now or soon on the drawing board that would fit as major projects?Ryan Mitchell:
Absolutely. I'd like to draw attention to a project in Detroit on I-75, the segment three project which combines a major roadway improvement project, bridges and roads, a large segment of I-75, Interstate 75 in the Detroit Metro region, but it also includes a massive sustainability and resiliency project with a storm water detention tunnel. The project just reached substantial completion on time with no claims against MDOT by the contractor and it's just a huge success for MDOT and it actually is a P3 project. Not only is it a major project but it's a public-private partnership project and we just reached substantial completion. The project is managed by Mark Dubay, who will be in the Office of Major Projects, and the project will be maintained by the contractor, Oakland County Partners, for a 25-year term. Really, really successful. And it kind of hits all those notes, Jeff, that you mentioned.Jeff Cranson:
Well, yeah, that's a great example, especially with the tunnel to store water and then kind of meteor it out. Because, as we've talked about here before and probably can't talk about often enough that we kind of created this idea back when there was some major flooding about 10 years ago and then a couple of times since then. The reason that the freeways flood is because the power fails. There's no backup power to the pumps and if the pumps can't work, the freeways flood. Well, all the pumps and generators in the world aren't going to matter if there's no place for the water to go. And so what yeah, what you and people involved in the I-75 project have done have figured out an innovative way to store that water until the tributaries and the ground can take it in. So we'll be really eager to watch that.Ryan Mitchell:
Yeah, and we do have additional similar projects potentially, if we can secure grant funding, to continue to provide additional resiliency to the freeway network in Detroit, because much of it include depressed sections and that creates the drainage challenge that you referenced, where we've got pump stations available that can pump the water out, but if they're pumping into outlets that don't have capacity, then they're just cycling and not actually removing the water.Jeff Cranson:
Yeah, and the last thing I want to say about the innovations that are part of that 75 project overall is the addition of Michigan's first HOV lane. That bill was discussed in the Senate today and looks like, maybe with some amendments, that should be out of there soon. And you know that's a historic first for Michigan and maybe it's a baby step. I know I've talked before to people that you know it sounds like we're jumping into the 20th century and the 21st century, but it could lead to better things in the future, right.Ryan Mitchell:
I agree. I think that is a capacity improvement and certainly more of the like could benefit our customers. Absolutely.Jeff Cranson:
Yeah, thanks. And I think we'll be talking more as you kind of develop your office and as these projects go forward, and especially if we start to see more funding one way or another, both from the federal government and from some state solutions. So, you've got a lot going on and I wish you luck.Ryan Mitchell:
Thank you so much, Jeff. I appreciate the opportunity again. We're so excited to begin this new office within MDOT and to continue to deliver MDOT's mission.Jeff Cranson:
I'd like to thank you once more for tuning in to Talking Michigan Transportation. You can find show notes and more on Apple Podcasts or Buzzsprout. I also want to acknowledge the talented people who help make this a reality each week, starting with Randy Debler, who skillfully edits the audio, Jesse Ball, who proofs the content, Courtney Bates, who posts the podcast of various platforms, and Jacke Salinas, who transcribes the audio to make it accessible to all.