Inside Engineering: Untold stories and fascinating people from the world of civil engineering. This is episode four, recorded in September 2019. Traffic Engineering and Operations with Jim Burnett and Barry Brant. Inside Engineering is brought to you by RK&K. Learn more at rkk.com. Welcome back to another episode of Inside Engineering. We've got a couple of great guests with us today.
Two fantastic guys that I'm really excited to have in the studio. To my left here we've got Jim Burnett. He's a Director of Traffic/Planning Operations — we're going to talk about what that means in a second — and we've got Barry Brandt, another one of our Directors. He is Director of Traffic Engineering. Now gentlemen, I don't know what the difference between those two job titles are, but first, welcome to the studio. Thanks for being on the podcast. Thanks Tim. Sure thing. So can you each kind of explain what you do here at RK&K? You have offices that sit right next to each other and you oversee a very large group traffic group, but tell us what you do and maybe what some of the differences are in your job and some of the similarities and how you all get stuff done? Absolutely.
Sure. Well, there's two of us. So I guess Barry and I both have similar roles; we're both traffic engineers. We also both grew up here at RK&K. So you've got two career directors here with you, starting out right out of college. I guess the difference between what we do really comes down to the stage of a project. So most of the work that I do is on the the upfront side so I'm involved with the planning, initial...
When somebody comes in and says, 'Hey we've got a problem.' We go out we try to figure out what that problem is. Usually involves data collection, traffic forecasting, alot of analysis to figure out not just what the existing conditions are but how do we make things better. And usually our products end up being a bit more report-based, whereas Barry, who I'm sure will tell you in a second, his role is a little bit more on the design side, so he'll pick up once we figure out what potential solutions could be and turn it into an actual traffic product.
Yeah that much pretty much consists of doing plans. We do a lot of plan work, alot of CADD work you get traffic control device design, ITS design, and even if some other parts of our department do maintenance of traffic design. So that's kind of where my part kind of fits in. And pretty much the ending half including... and as the company is growing now we're getting into more into the operations side. So it's not just, 'Hey you know, here it is go build it' after your done building it, here's how you can operate it and we'll help you operate it. So we feel that's a market that where the industry is going and we're excited to be starting to get to be a part of that.
Do you have any projects that you're you're working on now or that you've worked on recently that maybe exemplify that entire lifecycle, something you could talk about? The the I-270 project actually does that. It's a project here in Maryland. It's the first of its kind it doing a Progressive Design Build project. The first time in the country that a Progressive Design Build has been implemented by a transportation project and we did the initial planning for it to figure out what we would actually incorporate into the project, wrote a proposal and we were selected.
Then we went ahead and did the final design for it. Most of the projects have been constructed. Some are still under construction, some have yet to start, so we're still implementing it. And at the same time we are developing operations plans so that chart and Office of Traffic know how to operate the ramp metering and ATM. systems. So that pretty much encompassed that altogether. Sure. So for anyone listening could you guys walk us through maybe what what traditionally Design Build is and what that what Progressive Design Build is and sort of how those two differ? You wanna do Design Build and I'll get the Progressive? Sure. And I think we should actually start off with Design Bid Build because that's really I guess when we kind of grew up in engineering the way most of the projects were were let.
So in the the older school style of doing work there was initially you come in we do the design. So we as the engineers were just kind of sit in our rooms figure out what the plans need to look like and then we would give them back to the client usually a DOT municipality and then they would put them out for bid and construction companies would come in and bid on them. Typically a low bidder or sometimes there's a technical element to it but whoever won would then go out and build the project then I guess probably about 10 years ago or so more.
Maybe a little more. Maybe a little more than that at this point. I'm getting old. There was a shift in the industry and it was over to the Design Build project delivery mechanism. In that case rather than doing the steps that I just mentioned you would team up, the engineer teams up with a construction company and would bid on a project together before it was fully designed. So you'd come in and start working on the design. Before it was even complete the construction company was going out and starting to do some of the construction work.
And it's a very iterative process. So as problems came up they would reach over to the Engineer engineer would try to solve them. Oftentimes it was trying to figure out how to do things more efficiently, cheaper, better, faster. So it's just a different way of delivering a project. And what was... Why did that occur? Why did it go from Design Bid Build to Design Build? Was that a client driven thing? Was that an industry driven thing? The industry industry was looking for ways to deliver projects quicker, cheaper, in a more innovative fashion.
So it's kind of an organic efficiency that grew out of it? Right. But we feel that one of the main schedule and timeframe is one of the obvious benefits instead of having a whole first design process has to be 100 percent done before you can start construction, there is an overlap now that you can have and you can shorten the duration of the entire project. Enlarge the industry has kind of bought into that and it in implemented it in many places. So then. OK. So then how does that differ from Progressive? The progressive design that is different in that it it seeks to have even more acceleration in the fact that the price of the project...
on a Design Build you agree at the very beginning what the price is going to be from a construction design standpoint and then you go do that here on progressive design build you progressed through about a 65 percent design complete, then you submit the price at that point, where you take and agree to it. Once that's agreed upon then you finish the design, some of the construction can be started if you know some of the basic steps but it gives a little bit more flexibility in what the end product is. So instead of bidding on it at Step 0 and you define exactly what the project is, you get to work through with it and you get to collaborate with the client and they say, 'Hey we found this or we found that and yeah we were original thought this might work with this might work better.' It gives you the flexibility of being able to incorporate that into the price it into the design, whereas on Design Build it would be a change order and it would have to be part of the contract change and.
Scope changes. Yes. Yeah. OK. So progressive kind of cuts down on those scope changes because you've gotten through 65 percent of a project. Theoretically. Right yeah. But yes it has and in that in that sense of it yes it has. So what of the Design Build stuff that you guys are working on now how much of it is Progressive? Just that one. Just that one. Just the one yeah. I don't know that SHA or any other agency have adopted that on another transportation project. So just that one. Are you expecting it to be adopted? I don't know about that.
I think it's new it's an experiment. Think it's working pretty well so far but it's the first. So we'll just have to wait and see. It hasn't yet. Let's say that two and a half years another one hasn't come out the same way. But that doesn't mean it won't. I mean you guys do a lot of different stuff and this this might be a bit of an obvious question but. The things that you do. How do they bring value to the client? I mean a client is hired us. OK. That's maybe the obvious part is they've hired us to do something.
But but what is it... how are you helping the client and making sure to make sure that the project is successful? So let me take a slightly different approach to this answer than you might think. That's good. I like that. When I got into civil engineering as a profession. One of the real motivating factors that got me here was I wanted to be able to make a difference to not just a couple of people but a lot of people. How do you change the world? And so civil engineers are a great opportunity to do that because we're changing the infrastructure that everybody uses.
So indirectly it's through the clients. The clients are the ones that are managing the systems because most of our clients are municipal DOTs and they're responsible to make sure they have safe, efficient transportation systems. So the value that we bring is we're able to come in assess problems, help our clients figure out what the the best most cost effective way is to make operational safety types of improvements, and then actually deliver them cheaply and well.
So ultimately though while the client benefits from that to me the biggest benefit we're providing again is to the general public. And Jim that's a good holistic scale, now drilling down maybe a little further. So while we can say that, there are dozens of other engineering companies that can say the same thing. So what we really try to focus on is is delivering developing relationships so we can deliver clients what they really want sometimes or what they really need.
Right. Sometimes I'll tell you they want this but then if you know them well enough, if you work with them well enough, if you have enough experience in the industry, you can kind of listen to what they say and say, 'Hey what about this. What about... You know, we could do this but we could do this maybe the more cheaply or this effort really will require this amount of work as well, do you want us to do that?' I think through our experience and growth over the years we've been able to get that trusted advisor type of relationship with a number of clients and we can share that with them and even even kind of let that go over to some newer clients and provide that service that you know we like to think differentiates us a little bit more from some of our competitors.
So when you're doing a project and you're delivering it to the client and trying to ensure that it's delivered on time, and satisfactorily, and they're happy with it how are you measuring the success of that project both from the actual project itself standpoint and from a people standpoint — the people that worked on that project? How do you how do you measure the success of those two things? I would say you always put the client first. You always make sure that you're meeting their needs.
In the end if you meet their needs you're going to feel good about yourself in the end. And that means some pretty basic things: you know that make sure our schedules are being met, make sure budgets are being met. And we're finding — I'm finding — as time goes on, it's drilling down a little further into into some of the projects we find and we're finding that many clients they have less people now than they used to when like when I first started. So the collaboration and interaction with them is really a lot stronger than what it used to be and there's the opportunity to be able to to have some influence in some some make a difference with them and make sure that as you go along step by step you're meeting all the all the needs.
All the while keeping your eye on the ending part of the process to make sure it actually meets what they need when it gets to that point. And that's a great answer for the client side. And Tim you also asked about the people type of staff that are working on the projects. So Barry, I like how you made the comment 'you've learned over time.' So I think when it comes to making you know how do you assess how your well your people are doing, we've learned a lot of lessons over time.
Some good, some bad, but it's been a learning process. And so I think we pay very close attention now to everybody in our group. We're making sure not only that they're doing their work well, they've got the right resources, but they're having fun doing it. When you think about it we spend an awful lot of time here at work working on our projects. And while it's great to be able to provide exciting projects for them to work on it's there's a lot of there's a lot more than that. So are they working on a team that they like working with? Are they, again, I said well supported but are we making sure that they are provided everything that they need to in terms of their work environment? Do they have all the right tools at their disposal? You know I said a encouraging environment that they're in.
Make sure people don't get isolated. Just kind of off by the side working on one thing, make sure they don't get pigeonholed doing the same thing over and over again trying to provide that kind of diversity of work along the way. So it's a challenge, but it's a lot of fun when it works. And Jim I think the company is doing a good job with embellishing that and embracing that establishing the kind of fun for each department to go and have some you know some after work outside of work type team building and bonding that goes along right with that. We've been doing that for a number years it's great that the company is doing that, as well. It shows a real focus on people.
Absolutely. Yeah. That's one of the things that's really stood out to me during my time here is the focus on people. And it's a legitimate focus. It's not just lip service. They're really a caring for people and making sure that they can be successful. And I'll say to you think back on your career once you've got a number of years under your belt like both Barry and I do, it's interesting to me that most of the memories actually come from interacting with the other people. It's less so about the projects you worked on. Again we've worked on a lot of big ones, some great ones, but the memories that stick with you are you know the fun times, the funny times you spend with your co-workers. So that's so important.
Indeed. Well since we're on the topic of of sort of measuring the success of you know the people under you at one point you were under someone at in your positions. What's something that you wish you had known earlier on in your career?
I guess one thing I wish I would have known and really still somewhat struggle with is being able to knowing how to manage your own stress and that to not keep that internal that there's folks out there that will help you, to give you advice and to reach out to. That way you don't just drive yourself crazy. That, you know what, while I probably was told that I think maybe my ears were blocked at the time or who knows what. I guess it took a number of messages to have that penetrate through.
So anyone who is, you know, concerned, frustrated, worried, I would say go ahead and make sure you reach out to folks. There's no point in internalizing it. There's always folks to help. I think for me I think it's just the lesson of learning to listen. I think early on I was a little more focused on myself, getting projects done. Both Barry and I were very lucky that we had a supervisor before, now retired, Barb Hoage, who was great at it and I didn't even realize she was doing it at the time but she was always listening to what I had going on.
Not just my concerns but even the good things going on and just related to me so well because of it and so over my career I've tried to get better at doing it. Still not perfect but definitely make a concerted effort to just continue to listen. And it's not just internally the staff but to your clients as well. I think Barry made a good point before, about listen to your client's needs and the better you know your clients and what they're looking for the better projects you're going to get out. Indeed. Alright, let's change gears.
You guys work on a lot of cool stuff like I've always said and a lot of it... there's some of it has to do with forthcoming technologies and sort of the next evolution of things that affect your areas of work. And we call that CASE here. So could the two of you take some time and talk about what CASE is and why you think it's important and why you're so daggone excited about it? So I guess to start off with, CASE is an acronym.
It actually started off being just the CA, the Connected and Automated or Autonomous vehicles. But in the last year or two we've added in Shared an Electric because they all really mesh together so: Connected Autonomous Shared Electric vehicles. Why are we excited about it? Well hopefully everybody is. I am. I mean it really is the future of our industry of transportation. There's many different components to it but at the core of it it's just the advent of technology that's allowing cars to become more and more I guess independent or autonomous.
Different levels of autonomy. You can start all the way with a level zero or one, which virtually nothing in there. But once you get all the way up to level five that is, in theory, a fully autonomous vehicle that can completely drive on its own without any input from a driver or a human. I think what we're seeing out there on the road today is the slow adoption of that technology or some might say it's faster than slow but things like dynamic lane control assist.
And that would be level one? Nope. I would have put that in a level two. Ok, so like dynamic cruise control or lane keep assist? Same sort of thing. Right. Once you start moving up higher and higher and the levels eventually a you can let's say for the trucking industry there's they're getting closer with platoon vehicles, so in those a truck might pull in behind another truck that has a driver, kind of lock in automatically and then that truck is controlled by the vehicle ahead of it.
So a lot more technology has to go in to that. But still you're not at a level five. So that's the example of autonomous vehicle, as well as connected vehicles too. Here we're talking about vehicle to vehicle connection but there's also a vehicle a roadside connection. So a vehicle might drive down the road, pick up signals that might send messages that could be displayed to a driver or it could provide advance warning of an impending stopped vehicle, problems around a curve where you just can't see it.
So a lot of potential safety advantages that come into play, as well. The shared, that's where we're talking about all technology that's already starting to come out. So your Ubers and your Lyfts; that's where you technically don't need to own a vehicle anymore and you're sharing the vehicles with others. Ultimately there's a vision of having complete fleets of vehicles where you might subscribe and rather than own a vehicle, all you have to do is call up a vehicle that you'd be part of their program and bring you perhaps with another passenger in there with you to where you want to go and soon as it drops you off it moves on and picks up the next passenger along the way.
That whole I guess structure gets even more interesting when you add in the electric component to it where you can have all of your vehicles driving around let's say during the day doing what they need to do picking up dropping off and returning home to a fleet management location where it can get recharged overnight. And Jim I think it's really responding to society and and industry advances. This is not a new idea. I remember when I first came out of college the program was called something different called IVHS and there was ideas for that. But the technology had not reached to the point where it could be out marketable to the public. Now from the connected autonomous — particularly the autonomous side — vehicle manufacturers had perfected this technology, well not perfected, but they've got it to the point where they can offer a number of these elements that you just mentioned and are working toward the fully autonomous.
They're available and it actually will be able to be marketable to their to their customers and customers can afford it and want to have it. So that's a difference that we've seen. It's not new, it's just now potentially viable. Also society, I mean, you see with the electric. Having an alternatives to fossil fuels is extremely important. Many many people as it should be and the electric vehicles help to address that some. And also just as far as demographics, as well as medium, what people want.
A lot of people don't necessarily want to drive a long way to go to work or to go where they need to go, nor are even interested in owning a car. So the shared vehicle is able to provide a different model, a more economic model, to folks who just don't want to have that expense and have to really own a vehicle. So we see this as a way to is just responding to the world around us that it's happening and as civil engineers that's what we do, right? We make society more civil, if you will, right? And that's what we're looking to do and we're excited that there's many different aspects that this will yield in our industry and we're looking forward to being able to participate that as we move ahead.
And so Barry you mentioned before I know there's potential impacts and that's what really makes it so exciting to me is you know what does that future really hold for us? And there's a lot of really interesting advantages but there's also I think some caution that needs to be held. So I guess from the advantages we talk a little bit about safety. When you think about just the urban landscape right now, it's dominated by parking. So if you can eventually get to the point where you have level five vehicles driving around, no need to have a park anymore, so that real estate might become available, be transformed into something else.
At the same time: curb space. Now everyone's getting dropped off and picked up along the curb, becomes a lot more valuable than it already is even today. So we have to think as urban planners about what is what's a street network need to look like to accommodate that. In terms of the disadvantages though, keep that same thought in mind of all of these autonomous vehicles driving around if one drops you off and then let's say it doesn't have a passenger to pick up for a while, where does it go? Well circulating. Does it then become a new term here: a zero occupant vehicle? Does that actually add to the congestion that's out there? So I guess if if left unthought out and unplanned we could potentially be setting ourselves up for even more problems than we're trying to solve.
So I think as engineers and planners we need to give careful thought to that future, making sure that we're setting it up and maybe having the right policies in place to avoid any of the unforeseen challenges. There's many institutional barriers to overcome as well like, car insurance. What happens with insurance and liability when there's an issue? Is it.. there's really no longer a driver. Is it auto manufacturers or the software provider? Where does that fall? Then the actual funding and actually who operates this system.
There's a myriad of questions that have yet to be completely hammered out that over time will. But many different aspects that are still hurdles. And I guess in closing on that Barry, so your original question was, 'what makes it exciting?' I think it... I mean it's super exciting to be here at the forefront of all of this and as this change is taking place and being a part of it. To see everything that's happened just over the last few years with some of the auto manufacturers and how they're developing the technology, has been — you're right — come to the forefront.
I mean, all I have in my cars is the adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist, but adaptive cruise control... I feel like it's the greatest thing ever. It changes the way you drive. Like, driving somewhere becomes more enjoyable now. I can you know I can keep a safe distance from the car in front of me — it certainly has its drawbacks, it's definitely not perfect — but I can't wait until a car drives me around. I know a lot of people feel differently but I'm all for it. Let the record show.
Alright. So guys we could sit here and talk about a lot of things and geek out for a while. But let's let's get to that your picks of the week. I assume you guys have come with your picks and you're ready to share with our listeners something that you think we might all be interested in. Are you ready for that? Or have I caught you off guard? Who wants.. who wants to go first? Jim's looking at Barry. Barry's look at Jim. I'm happy to go first. Jim, you're up first.
So my pick of the week has absolutely nothing to do with transportation. I love it. Or traffic. Good. But I'm going to give a little shout out to my volunteer organization. I've been a part of for a number of years. Maryland swimming. Maryland swimming. OK. So it's a it's just a fantastic group. Anybody that's got kids that are swimmers or are thinking about swimming. I mean the sport itself is fantastic. I've got a competitive swimmer myself and that's how I got involved but I'm now a swim official. And we're always looking for more swim officials again. A great way to give back.
None of the swim meets that happen out there would happen without all the volunteers that we have. Literally nobody gets paid for putting on these meets. They're long, all weekend type affairs. You're not really selling it right now. If you if you go to one and you're not part of Maryland Wwimming you're stuck up in the stands, but if you become an official you get to be right on the side of the pool and you're in the action. So there's the sell. Do you get a zebra striped shirt as being an official? We try to be completely inconspicuous as we can. We wear a white shirt. White shirt. No stripes. Do you get a whistle? If you're the starter you get a whistle.
Only the starter. Alright. Something to consider. Alright. So Maryland Swimming. Maryland Swimming. Excellent. Thank you. Thank you Barry. Al right — thank you Jim. Alright Barry, what's your pick? I'm going to bring it back to work a little bit and kind of go back to a theme we had is: enjoy the people around you as much as you can. You'll find that you know Jim and I've been together, what 20 some years and been here over 25 now together and we've seen a lot of people and in actually you know there's a lot of joy that you have and thinking of the folks that you've worked with and that have worked around you, with you through times and you know, but you think you know, but then when you have an event with them you go to after work, you do something, or you have that our Traffic Fest where we play you kind of silly games and what have you.
You get to see different sides of people, and you know it's really enjoyable to get to do that. You get to know them better you feel you feel more of a kinship with them, and it actually does help you get things done as over over time. So not to mention just you know broadening your personal horizons. So I really recommend that. It's been effective for us as a department, as individuals, as a team. So I recommend that strongly. Leadership tips I love it. That's great. Well thank you both. Go ahead. Yes I would say it's him before we go.
So you told us before we were allowed to give some advice. Oh yeah please, absolutely. I didn't want to go without giving any... Career advice? This is yes career advice for anyof our new and up and coming employees. So we're actually out of a happy hour a couple nights ago and I was talking to one of the younger engineers and gave the exact same advice there and he made the comment, 'Boy everybody should hear that.' So here I go. Alright, I like it. So I got this advice actually probably the first month I was working at RK&K way back in the early 90s. Turns out in my opinion probably the best advice I ever got and this from the old time guys and I apologize who it was I don't remember, but it is comes back to your 401k, so anybody that's starting out working I give 100 percent of advice to you to put in as much as you possibly can from day 1 because the advantage you get is all in the back in every year that you don't invest you're losing out on the back end of that compounding interest curve. I know I'm sounding engineering and geeky here but it is so important and you know if you're able to put in whatever 15 percent right up front you don't miss it at your first paycheck.
And that's what they told me. And so I did from day one and I'm just forever thankful that I got that advice. So I just wanted to pass that on. That is very good advice. And I mean at the bare minimum people should be putting in whatever their company is matching. I mean that's like you know — I'm not not qualified to give financial advice, let the record show. But in my opinion. Yeah I mean you shouldn't be doing anything less than what your company is matching. Get that match, it's free money.
If you can maximize that thing, man you'll be happy later on. Trust me I remember back in my day. I mean I was saving to try to get an engagement ring at the time and I was eating hotdogs and spaghetti. Ramen noodles. Lot of ramen. Love the ramen. But boy I mean it was worth the sacrifice back then just to have that extra up front that pays off on the back end. Very nice. That's great advice. Barry did you have any? I gave some earlier on but I will add one more.
Just take care yourself. The company has shown a strong, strong support toward wellness in a number of ways and monetarily program wise and I when I was younger I don't know I really paid attention to that as much I probably abused myself more than I probably should have. With long work hours is what you do meant. Right. Yes. Thank you for a clarification. Yes. And you know I am glad that the company looks at that now and you know that's that's where perhaps in the industry was such that that was you know a positive thing when it first started.
I think now it's a year you really should have a strong work life balance and folks should do that make sure that they really stress all aspects of life. It's really helpful. It really does help you with it and I do better with that than I used to. And it's been effective and I appreciate the support of the company in doing that. Awesome. That's great advice. Thank you guys. Thank you all for joining us for another episode of Inside Engineering. Thank you to Barry; thank you to Jim for stopping into the episode today into the studio for this episode. We appreciate you taking some time out.
Inside Engineering comes out every Tuesday. You can check us out on your favorite podcasting platform — we're trying to be in as many places as possible. You can also head over to our website at rkk.com/podcast where you can stream on demand all of our episodes and we've also got a short anonymous survey there where we'd love to get some feedback on the show. So let us know what you think. Thanks again for joining us and we'll see you next week for another episode of Inside Engineering.
Value to the Client
Jim says, “One of the real motivating factors that got me here was I wanted to be able to make a difference to not just a couple of people but a lot of people.“
Barry says, “So what we really try to focus on is developing relationships so we can deliver clients what they really want sometimes or what they really need.”
From a project perspective, Barry talks about making sure the client is satisfied. He says, “You always put the client first. You always make sure that you’re meeting their needs.
From a people perspective, Jim talks about how creating a supportive and nurturing work environment is critical to the individual and team’s success.
Pick of the week
Jim’s pick of the week is Maryland Swimming, where he volunteers as a swim official (and gets a front row seat to all the action).
Barry goes deep with his pick and encourages us all to enjoy those around us — they both agree that their fondest work memories of time spent with others.