Best Practices in Managing Urban, Underground Transit Systems

Instanbul The worldwide tunneling construction industry is witnessing a historic boom as tunnels become viable solutions to traffic congestion, dwindling right of way, aging infrastructure, rapidly expanding urban centers and population growth.

Indeed, people are returning to urban areas at an ever-increasing rate. According to the United Nations, 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2030. In developed countries, including the United States, the population in cities increases to more than 80 percent. By that time, the United Nations predicts there will be more than 60 megacities – each with a population of more than 10 million people – worldwide.

Urban growth is exerting increased demand for more efficient transportation and reliable power, water supply, wastewater conveyance and communication systems. This trend necessitates the use of underground space. Cities are opting to add infrastructure underground because of:

  • The many benefits it offers.
  • Advances in tunnel and underground construction.
  • Sophisticated planning methods.
  • Advanced architectural design of underground transit structures.

Need for Program Management Grows

Underground transit system projects have their share of challenges, such as:

  • Limited rights of way, including adjoining buildings, existing utilities, pedestrian routes, and businesses, pose significant risks.
  • Numerous technical challenges and subsurface risks require expert risk management.
  • Most underground transit programs today cost several billion dollars, present complex environmental challenges, require coordination of multiple stakeholders and are in great need of funding strategies, financing and cash flow management.
  • Shortage of skilled labor and qualified local contractors.
  • Despite a project’s scope and size, construction is expected to be completed on time and within budget.

As a result of these challenges, the need for program management services for underground transit projects is growing exponentially.

For example, HNTB is providing program management services for the $4 billion Amtrak Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel. The firm also is providing program management services to New Jersey Transit in support of its assessment and restoration of assets following Hurricane Sandy. Similarly, HNTB provided Chicago Transit Authority comprehensive program management services for its $2.9 billion urban transit expansion and improvement projects. The firm also was part of the overall program management team for the multibillion dollar seismic upgrade program for the Bay Area Rapid Transit.

These complex transit projects require major program management skills and project oversight to produce suitable designs, meet highly accelerated schedules, manage limited funds, mitigate various technical and financial risks, and support the project’s implementation.

Ensuring Environmental Justice

One of the biggest responsibilities of a program manager is ensuring environmental justice. Environmental justice strives to treat all stakeholders, including residents, businesses and existing transportation systems, fairly and equitably without regard to geographic location, economic or socioeconomic status.

For example, a new transit project traversing under both affluent and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods must take the same precautions, in terms of preserving traffic flow or minimizing impact to businesses, in both neighborhoods. The special measures or environmental considerations applied to one community must be applied to all communities. Understanding and addressing this issue early in the project’s development is critical to success.

Promoting environmental justice falls under the role of program management. While program managers are responsible for balancing cost, schedule and quality throughout the life of a project, they also must ensure project engineers and architects adhere to the criteria of environmental justice during design, construction and final project operation.

By following a comprehensive approach that includes the best practices, program managers can support owners in delivering their programs safely and successfully.

HNTB, lead designer and engineer of record for the Crenshaw/LAX Transit Project in Los Angeles, is part of the design-build team, addressing the technical challenges of an underground transit system in a congested urban area.

HNTB, lead designer and engineer of record for the Crenshaw/LAX Transit Project in Los Angeles, is part of the design-build team, addressing the technical challenges of an underground transit system in a congested urban area.

1. Make community collaboration essential

Successful program managers listen to public concerns and strive to minimize negative effects of underground transit facilities during design and construction.

Using local community outreach to communicate potential design elements or construction processes and effectively respond to community comments and objections helps turn potential project opponents into supporters. Issues, such as street excavation, impact on traffic, utilities, trucking of excavated materials and impact on local businesses and residents, should be addressed early in the project development.

2. Uncover greater certainty within the uncertain

A start-to-finish approach that maintains continuity and control is a tenant of best-practice program management. An experienced program manager resolves competing stakeholder demands and priorities by balancing expectations and reality while maintaining focus on project goals and objectives.

A program manager assembles a team possessing high technical expertise and underground construction resources. The team is designed to manage technical challenges in an efficient way, evaluate alternatives, establish effective delivery methods and contracting modes, develop construction packaging, conduct constructibility analyses, perform resource assessment, collaborate with the construction community and the public, provide program controls, accountability, and dispute and risk management.

3. Consult the construction community

When contractors are given the opportunity to provide input and they know what the program manager expects, they generally will perceive less risk and submit more competitive bids.

Many transit agencies, such as LA Metro and New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, conduct extensive contractor outreach up to a year in advance of major underground transit projects. The program manager facilitates the industry outreach program. They meet with local contracting associations and major contractors to share the program information, bidding schedules and solicit constructability ideas. They discuss qualification requirements and prior experiences with tunnel and underground work in the project area, including challenges and lessons learned.

Informing all qualified contractors about a program before putting projects out for bid can reveal invaluable ideas for addressing risks, reducing costs and encouraging competition.

4. Get four bids, maybe more

The program manager studies the local underground construction market and separates the project into manageable, biddable components while meeting the skillsets required for each contract.

A large program broken into smaller chunks tends to create competition by generating interest among a larger number of contractors. This approach invites innovation and reduces overall cost. However, program managers should also be cognizant of and address the interfacing and coordination required among the various contraction packages.

5. Analyze resources strategically

The program manager assesses the impact of any future resource constraints, such as qualified labor and equipment. This is especially true for tunnels and underground projects, where an especially experienced workforce is required. Based on that intelligence, the program manager then develops strategies to get around or in front of shortages.

For example, when serving as a program manager for a railroad program, HNTB foresaw the 2007-2008 shortage of structural steel and recommended pre-purchasing a supply. That kind of forward thinking is invaluable to large, urban underground transit projects that often take years to complete. However, it is important to assess the risk associated with pre-purchasing, especially for specialty elements, such as a TBM or precast segments, as they are part of the contractor’s means and methods.

6. Proactively collaborate with stakeholders

Effective collaboration with stakeholders and the general public is essential to successful underground projects in urban areas. Stakeholders include the various agencies affected by the project: owner’s in-house departments (e.g., operation and maintenance), public and private utility owners, adjoining property owners, permitting agencies and city departments. Early communication and collaboration, along with sensitivity to each party’s points of views and goals, can avoid many of the pitfalls and delays that occur when collaboration is absent.

On the public side, successful program managers listen to concerns and use those concerns to improve the project’s design while minimizing its negative effects. Communicating potential design elements or construction processes due to the uniqueness of underground projects and effectively responding to objections and comments helps turn potential project opponents into supporters.

7. Ensure accountability

Program managers demonstrate transparency and fairness when enforcing controls and resolving disputes – especially those related to differing ground conditions. Controls include:

  • Change-order responsibility. Implementing changes at the lowest possible level minimizes delays and cost increases. Delays in underground construction often are more costly than the cost of the change itself. A good project manager foresees this impact and aggressively resolves disputes as early as possible.
  • Implementation of the Geotechnical Baseline Report. The GBR is a mechanism for sharing risks between the owner and the contractor, such as differing ground and unforeseen conditions. It is essential to place the risk identified in the GBR on the entity best suited to manage it. Fairness and transparency are essential for successful implementation of GBR provisions.
  • Dispute resolution. Program managers should establish a clear framework for issue escalation and a commitment to resolving disputes within a defined period (e.g., 60-75 days.) This is especially important to tunnels and underground projects, where the cost of delay could be significant and could impact the project’s critical path.
  • Program targets. Program managers should clarify financial, schedule and quality targets for each project phase and then monitor, adjust and regularly communicate those targets to all affected. Monitoring early deviations is critical to maintain the overall schedule and to sidestep delays. In addition, identifying and addressing long-lead items, such as the TBM or power sources, should be addressed early and accounted for in the program schedule.
  • Configuration management. Balancing the scope, cost and schedule of the program is essential to maintain the overall program budget and provide the most essential elements of the program. For example, if an additional station entrance is required to meet the community’s needs, the cost and schedule must be adjusted accordingly or something else in the scope must be modified to maintain balance. An effective program manager keeps all three elements in sync.

8. Develop a risk register

Working with the owner and the various stakeholders, the program manager creates the risk register, assigning each risk to the entity best suited to manage it.

A risk register is an exhaustive account of potential risks, their probabilities of occurrence and their consequences, along with strategies for mitigating, reducing or managing risks.

The program manager monitors and modifies the register continually throughout planning, design and construction, so that it becomes a living useable document. The contractor also should adopt the risk register and advance it further.

Among the various risk categories, for urban underground transit projects, the following categories should be covered:

  • Geotechnical risks. Geological and groundwater conditions affect tunnel construction means and methods. Revealing and mitigating geotechnical risks requires comprehensive investigation, groundwater control measures, estimating potential ground loss during excavation and associated potential settlement, and predicting how the ground will behave during construction. The investigation also should assess the impact of tunnel construction on nearby buildings, facilities and utilities.
  • Stakeholder risks. Effects of underground construction on traffic, pedestrians, adjacent businesses and facilities should be considered. Interfacing and coordinating with utility owners, public and private agencies, and other stakeholders are essential for a successful project.
  • Environmental issues, including noise and vibration. Program managers work with the community and participating agencies to establish guidelines for minimizing noise and vibrations caused by excavation, equipment movement, muck removal and other construction activity and to maintain good air quality and acceptable working hours. Program managers also should monitor and enforce compliance.
  • Transit integration. It is critical to ensure tunnels can accommodate all systems necessary (i.e., power, signals, communication, train control, track, track bed, etc.) for trains to operate safely and at the service level required. If the underground transit system is part of an existing system, new components must be integrated with the existing system and the operation of the existing line must be maintained with minimal disruption.
  • Fire and life safety. Design considerations for underground transit systems should address prevention, detection and protection from fire incidents and potential intentional malicious acts, such as arson or terrorist acts. This should include ventilation, smoke management, emergency egress, access of first responders and the role of operators in managing an incident. In addition, the potential impact of fire and blast on the underground structure and the facility’s infrastructure must be addressed, including potentially hardening the facility.

Challenging Future Ahead

Future underground transit projects will become more challenging as population and building trends converge on already fully developed cities. Projects with exceptional program and risk management that seek environmental justice for all stakeholders will become even more critical. The success of these projects depends on the ability, insight and acumen of the right program manager.

Nasri Munfah chairs HNTB’s tunneling practice. He has managed all phases of multibillion-dollar, multidisciplinary, domestic and international tunneling and transportation projects. Contact him at (212) 294-7568 or

Sharif Abou-Sabh is senior project director for HNTB. He led program management for the Chicago Transit Authority’s $2.9 billion urban transit projects. Contact him at (312) 446-8096 or

Sanja Zlatanic is chief tunnel engineer for HNTB. She led the design of major multibillion dollar tunneling and underground projects from conceptual phase through final design and construction. Contact her at (212) 294 7567 or

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