A visit from Brad Wieferich, director of Development

Talking Michigan Transportation – Sept. 12, 2019

A visit from Brad Wieferich, director of MDOT’s Bureau of Development



Jeff Cranson: Hi, welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I’m Jeff Cranson, Director of Communications at the Michigan Department of Transportation, and this is our weekly conversation with experts in transportation and all things related to mobility, and today we're talking with Brad Wieferich, who is the Director of the Bureau of Development at MDOT. Brad, thanks for taking the time to do this.


Brad Wieferich: I appreciate you having me.


Jeff Cranson: So, let's talk a little bit first about your background, and how you got to the position you're in, and what your path was both inside and outside of MDOT.


Brad Wieferich: Certainly, yeah. Coming out of school I actually started my career in the private sector. I went to a small firm in Chicago area and did lot of field work, construction work, geotechnical work, and that really gave me a good basis for how things are built. I came back home to work at MDOT and became a designer and I really loved design.

To me, it was almost like putting a puzzle together, and having that construction background really helped make me an even better designer, but then I moved on into project management, worked in three of our TSCs, our Transportation Service Centers, in three different regions. I ended up managing the Marshall Transportation Service Center before I became the head of design - which is MDOT’s Engineer of Design position. For the past four years I've been in the bureau director’s position.


Jeff Cranson: So, when you talk about design, I think a lot of people probably think - obviously, a lot of what we’re doing now is maintaining roads. MDOT has not had the money to build new roads in a long time. I think the last freeway was M-6 completed in the early 2000s outside of the Constantine bypass, a two-lane bypass around a city in southern Michigan, and the M-2/US-31 bypass in Grand Haven, which is another two-lane highway that's hoped to be bigger someday - we just haven't done a lot of new building. So, what's involved in design if the road is already there?


Brad Wieferich: Well, that's a good question. New construction on a clean slate is quite a bit different, but the concepts are still the same. We still need to be able to provide the geometry, from a pure design standpoint, to fit into the existing environment, and that’s probably one of the more difficult things. It's easier, in my opinion, to design a new roadway where one isn’t already there. When you have an existing roadway there's quite a few more constraints.


Jeff Cranson: Yeah, okay, well that makes sense. So, talk about how it’s changed over the years. Not to date you by any means, but these things do evolve.


Brad Wieferich: You know, it has changed - obviously, a lot of things have changed. Technology has been moving right along. When I was the designer - yes, we did design on computers, it wasn't, you know, ink and pens and whatnot - but things are changing now, mainly with respect to the output, the deliverable that we give to our construction partners, contractors, and our inspectors for what they actually use in the field, and what is the contract vehicle.

So, for many, many years we would have a set of plans. You know, everybody can imagine a set of blueprints, big sheets that you can roll out on the hood of a pickup truck out in the field to take a look at. We are still providing a form of those, but they're now electronic. They’re PDF image type files that you can look at on the computer screen, you can print them out if you want. We’re actually moving more and more to fully electronic deliverables, things that the contractor can use from a three-dimensional perspective on how the road is built, how the slopes come together, how the alignment of the road raises, and falls, and turns within the environment.

So, that's probably the biggest thing that I’m seeing is, yes, we're still designing, we still have to have alignments, and cross-sections, and water still runs downhill just like it used to, but the actual file deliverable that we give to our partners in the field is really what’s changed, and it's a natural progression. I think, he biggest thing we need to understand, though, is how people can consume it differently. Like I said, you used to be able to roll as set of plans, and still can unroll a set of plans out on the hood of a pickup truck while you're looking around and pointing at things in the field. Eventually that'll be all on your laptop, or your tablet, or some other electronic device.


Jeff Cranson: So, part of designing a project is putting together estimates, and having up-to-date information on material, and labor cost. I think those are all things that your Bureau factors into design, I assume.


Brad Wieferich: Absolutely. We have, within our Quality Assurance section in the Design division, a unit that’s dedicated to specifications and estimates. It's a big part of what we do at MDOT, because even when we program a job, you know, five years out for inclusion in our Five-Year Transportation Program, we need to have a pretty good idea of what that final estimate is going to be.

MDOT contracts are based on pay items, so items of work - imagine a ton of asphalt, or a square yard of 10-inch concrete - so they're very unit driven. We keep track of the costs of those pay items - we have for many, many, many years - and we use that historical information and average unit prices to be able to provide us the most appropriate estimate, and if I was estimating a job today, we have a system that we'd be able to go into, and it would look at these historical prices over the past couple years, and it will take into account things like the quantity that you’re proposing, even the geographic location that you're working in, and it has a little algorithm that will run through and spit out what is a fair estimate of what that work can be.

So, we really build our estimates based on the amount of work that's going to be in the contract, and when we have those unit costs, again, like a ton of asphalt, it includes all of the labor, materials, transportation, and other costs associated with that work. So, when the contractor bids $80 a ton it includes all of those things.


Jeff Cranson: So, what are you seeing with materials costs, and what’s the trend, you know, going back a way, or more recently, and what do you think is driving it?


Brad Wieferich: There's lots of things that are driving it right now. When we look back at - we have a basic report, it's just something that shows us trends - and we look at our big-ticket items - the big things that we do are asphalt, concrete, steel, both reinforcement steel, and structural steel, and more recently we've been looking a lot of our aggregates, the stone, and sand and whatnot - we have seen upticks.

The prices are going up, obviously inflation goes up too, but it certainly appears that we're probably outpacing inflation by a fair amount. I think – and I’m going from memory here - in 2006 we paid around $35 to $40 a ton for asphalt, and the last year were up over $80 a ton. So, those costs just for the asphalt piece - and I'm not picking on them because concrete's very much in the same realm - that's what we're seeing, is nearly a double in the cost of the pay items that we've been keeping track of since about 2006.


Jeff Cranson: So, I mean, basically what that says is that whatever amount of money we get, or we would decide on, in a budget - and budget negotiations are ongoing with the governor and the legislature about road funding - it’s really, really hard to predict what kind of prices we are going to see a year from now, five years from now, ten years from now.


Brad Wieferich: It is hard to predict. Like I said, we do keep track of this stuff over time to look for trends so that we can do that forecast when we're adding projects into our Five-Year Transportation Projects. We are adding inflationary factors onto those projects that are in the out years. We’ve been fairly successful with that, but there's many, many things that can affect what the final outcome is. Many of the somewhat intangibles are the constructability and risk items that are put on a contractor when we put a bid out. So, it's pretty easy to come up with an average unit cost for, you know, a ton of whatever material we need.


Jeff Cranson: What does that mean when you talk about the risk items?


Brad Wieferich: So, we can easily come up with an average cost of what a ton is but, when you start looking at things like mobility and traffic restrictions, you’ll probably notice we do a lot more night phasing than we used to. We won't let a contractor close a road for as long of a period of time. With our mobility focus and ensuring that we can keep traffic moving to the extent possible there’s some trade-offs, because that makes the contractor less efficient, so therefore, that can drive up cost.

Some of our schedules can do that as well, where we do a lot of outreach and try to come up with context sensitive solutions in a local entity to not only decide what’s going to be in the job, but also how the job is built. If there’s festivals, if certain deadlines that need to be met. The tighter that we make those timeframes, again, it decreases efficiency for the contractor, and at the end of the day we see that as cost.


Jeff Cranson: So really, you don’t plan these projects in order to get the maximum inconvenience for all of us?


Brad Wieferich: [Laughing] No, absolutely not. We drive the roads ourselves and have family picnics, or church, or kid’s sporting games. I know I'm going to get plenty of questions myself, so we actually do have a fairly robust mobility policy that kind of drives lot of our decisions to ensure that we’re making smart decisions on the mobility end to make sure traffic keeps moving, but we also know that there’s economics that go with that, so there’s this kind of a balance there that we have to strike.


Jeff Cranson: Well yeah, that's what user delay costs are all about.


Brad Wieferich: Absolutely, and again, the user delay costs are a calculation that we come up with that takes into a lot of, you know, economics, and just generally people’s time. MDOT doesn't see a return on that into the coffers that are eventually going to build new roads, or rehab existing roads, but we do know that there is a value to the public in making sure that mobility is optimized.


Jeff Cranson: Oh absolutely, I mean when MDOT did its first bridge slide at M-50 and I-96 near Lowell,  I know the calculation then was that this could cost 25% to 30% more than doing a traditional bridge, but being able to have it closed for such a short amount of time, and limiting traffic for that amount of time saved lots of money for the people that use those routes for on-time delivery, or just for their commute.


Brad Wieferich: Absolutely, and that was really a testament to the innovation that we have here at MDOT. I remember when we first started hearing about things like that - and we scour nationally and look for great ideas - and one came to us and we said ‘we have the one of the best places, we could try this out over there on I 96,’ and I think it was M-50…


Jeff Cranson: Right, yup.


Brad Wieferich: Yeah, and to be able to reconstruct an entire bridge without interrupting traffic for more than maybe a day or two, that was amazing.


Jeff Cranson: Yeah, it really was. I think I'll see if I can find our time lapse from that and post it with the show notes. So, when you talk about, you know, talking to your peers in other states, and what goes on with the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials and various committees, and the transportation research groups that you guys - obviously, especially with our neighboring states - share all kinds of information. Yet, one of the questions we get most often on our social media platforms, and just in public, is do we use the best materials, or do Michigan road builders use the best materials? How do you answer that?


Brad Wieferich: You know, absolutely we do. Everything comes down to economics, and what we have to work with, but at the end of the day we are fully engaged nationally with our peer states in the Great Lakes who have similar climates to us, as well as others. When you talk about AASHTO, the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials, they have a very robust arm with research. Much of the research that’s done is on materials.

We’re always looking to crack the code on what that next material is that's going to be the most efficient, and really, obviously, last. Nobody's found that yet. We keep all working together. We're continually tweaking, and modifying not only the materials themselves, but the construction practices, and how the roadbed’s built to make sure that we’re providing the best material that we can, but as of now we'll continue to work with our neighboring states, and our other partners across the nation to only improve our material that we're putting out on the road.


Jeff Cranson: Yeah, I think I was surprised early on to learn as we got into this issue of materials - and whether it’s research on asphalt, or research on concrete - how there are PhDs at universities across the country who spend a lot of time researching and studying these things.


Brad Wieferich: Oh, absolutely, I worked for one when I was at Michigan State concrete research. That's what one of my jobs on campus was.


Jeff Cranson: So, the other frequent question, as you well know, is why is that same road that was worked on a few years ago under construction again, why don’t you just build them right the first time?


Brad Wieferich: This is a question that I think I’ve answered ever since I got to MDOT, especially when I started working in Mount Pleasant. MDOT uses a very good asset management approach when we're determining pavement fixes.


Jeff Cranson: That's a boring term that actually packs a lot of importance, so can you explain exactly what asset management is?


Brad Wieferich: Sure, asset management is ensuring that we have an understanding of our inventory, we have an understanding of condition, we have an understanding of how the different fixes can be applied at different times within the life of a pavement section in order to maximize it. And when I talk about fixes, we have multiple programs when we’re looking at what we're going to do next on a road.

Assuming we're able to reconstruct a road, it's brand-new, it may have 20 to 30 years of estimated life if we just set it out there and did nothing but plow snow and maybe some other minor maintenance. Through our asset management approach, we know we want to do the right job at the right time to extend that life as long as it can.

We typically start with a capital preventive maintenance-type fix. Those are the crack-seals, those are the chip-seals, micro-surface, kind of fairly small inexpensive fixes, but when you do that work on a roadway that’s still in pretty good shape, you’re kicking the life expectancy out even further. So, again, if I can take a project or a segment of roadway that’s still in decent shape – yes, it might have some cracks, it might have a couple of blemishes here and there - if I hit that at that time, my cost of fix is far, far lower than it would be if I let it deteriorate further.

We can only do those types of fixes for so long. You'll see us out there doing a crack-seal, and then a chip-seal, and then maybe a few years down the road we're beyond that and now we need to get into a rehabilitation fix. Rehabilitation, that's where you're going to see the bigger paving. You know, two courses of asphalt, maybe milling out, and then some spot pavement repairs where things are really bad, again extending the life, and extending the life as far as you can with the cheapest fix.

The goal is to prolong the need for a complete reconstruction. By the time we get through a complete reconstruction, your costs are very high, your time to get the work done and get it out there is far further. So, again, we get the question ‘boy, you were just out there five years ago, why you out there again?’ The reason is we're trying to keep the thing in good shape, so we eliminate the need for a far more expensive and far more impactful project to businesses or motorists.


Jeff Cranson: So, really that that sense of innovation, that culture of innovation, and being a pioneer, and really a recognized national leader in asset management has been all about necessity. That's because MDOT has had to be.


Brad Wieferich: Oh, absolutely we have to be. We have a finite budget, just like you would in your house, and we need to make sure that our investments are being made most appropriately. One of the analogies I always like to throw out is, you know, your house.

You’re home, and you’ve got a leak in your roof. You know, I put my new roof on 20 years ago, and it’s getting there, I might need to replace it, but I only got a small leak. Why wouldn't you run up there and, you know, while it’s still in fairly good shape, go patch it? You know, go to the hardware store and get yourself some tar, run up there and patch it? That will allow you to extend the life of that, and therefore kick out the need for more expensive fixes.


Jeff Cranson: Yeah, that's a good analogy. Well, thanks Brad for taking the time to do this. A lot of these questions, the big ones especially, about building them right the first time, and why the same roads are under construction again are the things we hear most frequently, so I appreciate your insight on that, and taking the time to do this. So, I'll let you get back to your day job.


Brad Wieferich: Thanks, Jeff, I appreciate it.


Jeff Cranson: Okay, buh-bye.


Narrator: For more on this episode of Talking Michigan Transportation, head on over to our Talking Michigan Transportation Soundcloud page.