Caltrans Utility Engineering Team Goes Underground
A team whose work is â€œoutta sight!â€ These engineers specialize in utility relocation but sometimes their work goes unnoticed only because itâ€™s primarily underground.
It is not an overstatement to say every project District 7 generates passes through this office; all construction and permit work on Caltrans right of way is cleared through this office. The irony lies in that while their eyes see every plan, no one sees their work; it’s mostly underground.
Utility Engineering, a unit within the Design Division, must sign off on every project – large and small. And for a small staff of 10 engineers and technicians, this could mean each person has scores of underground utilities maps on their desks that remain active for a minimum of nine months to several years.
Ugo Anakwenze, senior transportation engineer, Design A, is not concerned with the amount of work his underground utilities team has; his confidence in them and their respect for him and each other is mutual.
“Our job is to identify and resolve all utility conflicts that might be encountered at the earliest possible point in the life of a construction project,” said Anakwenze. “Even as early as the Project Approval and Environmental Document phase (PA/ED), the underground and overhead utility lines, poles, pipes, conduit, and wires are identified and confirmed.”
The first step is to confirm that the utility maps are accurate and updated, as some may be 50 years old and untouched for many decades. This takes staff out to the field, meeting on location with utility districts, municipalities and companies. Surveyors are also involved to “pothole” a location, which is to positively identify a utility location and its depth.
“Avoiding utilities all together in the design phase is the best conflict resolution. Next best is to design a project around them, and relocation as the last resort,” said Jerrel Kam, Office Chief, Design A. “If a project can be designed to avoid a utility, it’s better for all parties involved and more cost effective.”
Relocating utilities involves moving huge equipment like telephone poles, oil pipelines, sewer lines and transmission towers. Water lines are the nearest to the surface at five feet below ground and sewer lines are the deepest and thickest at nearly twenty feet below ground.
Anakwenze’s staff collaborates with telephone, cable and oil companies and municipal districts providing electric, water, sewer and gas service. They are responsible for coordinating the relocation plans for all utility equipment within Caltrans right of way when deemed necessary for construction projects. While reviewing maps and plans, the Utility Relocation team looks for sharp bends, grade separations and railway crossings that may pose a potential utility conflict. They also look for creative design solutions where utility lines are attached alongside a bridge or overcrossing and even within a structure for a more aesthetic freeway system.
“If utility facilities must be relocated, two key units in District 7 are involved: the Design Division and Right of Way Utilities. We partner together to identify utility- related conflicts and resolve them,” said Anakwanze. “Design handles the technical and compliance issues; and Right of Way is responsible for contractual and fiduciary transactions and agreements related to equipment value and costs.”
It could easily take nine months to a year from the time a utility conflict is identified to the time it’s relocated: even longer if steel and large pipes must be ordered and shipped from oversees. The process begins when Caltrans notifies the utility company of a project scheduled in that area. Design plans and utility maps are exchanged immediately, with deadlines (approximately 45 days) to research and identify equipment that is to be relocated, design drafts, and permits that will be needed. Companies and municipalities are asked to submit relocation plans and perform its own work, as standards vary between each utility provider. Caltrans reviews everything to ensure the new location won’t interfere with the construction project and that the new locations are adequately and properly out of the way.
“The sooner plans are made to relocate facilities, order parts and schedule labor, the better for Caltrans to stay on schedule and within budget,” according to Anakwanze. “Our Right of Way team acts as the go-between to execute a relocation agreement and work orders with the utility company.”
“It can get complicated when several types of utilities and vendors are docked upon one power pole,” says Sonya Carter, Senior Right of Way Agent. “One utility company can provide numerous services to customers, for example, land-line telephone, cellular, fiber optic, and cable TV.”
“Relocation can have a number of benefits because it offers an opportunity for upgrades to the utility equipment and facilities,” says Carter. “This is good for the companies and their customers. Caltrans and motorists benefit, too, because as older underground equipment is moved and upgraded, less work on the roadside translates to a safe roadway and fewer lane closures.”
Both teams work with consultants and contractors who are often awarded contracts to complete the work, as many smaller utility companies and cities do not have the internal design engineering staff to accomplish work of this magnitude. They both stay involved throughout the life of the construction project as sometimes, an unidentified utility line may appear during construction excavation (called “late discovery”) that will require additional mitigation.
Caltrans strong involvement and commitment in utility relocation is a credit to the department. The Design and Right of Way teams collaborate well --- in different capacities --- but with the same goal. Besides their tremendous skills and familiarity with roadway design, they also have the “people skills” necessary to work with many counterparts at other agencies and utility municipalities in the nearly 98 cities that make up District 7.