Clark Dietz Engineers Inc.

Sometimes, abandoned infrastructure projects litter the outskirts of major cities. Roads go from two- or four-lane highways to limited access interstates for a few miles, and then back to roads with traffic lights. Frequently, the reason the interstate didn’t keep going – or was never built in the first place – is public opposition.

But Clark Dietz Engineers is championing context sensitive solutions (CSS), in which all the major stakeholders to a highway or civil engineering project are brought into the planning process early. By engaging them and evaluating their ideas – and sometimes having to explain why an idea won’t work after evaluating its engineering feasibility– infrastructure and highway projects can be brought to fruition instead of abandonment from public opposition.

“The idea is if the public and stakeholders are involved at the beginning and you’re able to air out their ideas, there’s going to be a lot more support for the project,” Chairman Ken Nelson points out. “You talk about the needs of the project in a statement of purpose and need. You bring the stakeholders – which includes the public, business owners, developers, many times farmers, industry and the chamber of commerce – you bring these people together and you have working sessions with them.”

Clark Dietz is using the technique at the direction of the Illinois DOT (IDOT) on two highway projects in central Illinois and one in the Chicago area. On one project –the Eastside Highway in Bloomington-Normal, Ill. – the project had lost traction in previous years due to public opposition. But this time, Clark Dietz used CSS and developed support for the project.

“We were starting with something that had negative connotations,” Nelson points out. “We had close to 20 public meetings with these different small groups – very hands-on. We were able to gain support by working very closely with the stakeholders through developing alternatives that were acceptable and supported by the majority. Some of the feedback we got from people in opposition was, ‘We might not agree with the final recommendation, but we feel good that we were heard.’”

Meeting Facilitation

With CSS, the project manager becomes a meeting facilitator. “I’ve personally held public meetings for large projects with hundreds of people, and they can get out of hand,” Nelson concedes. “When all of sudden you have people saying, ‘You’re ripping down my house – it’s not fair,’ you lose control of the meeting. When you’re working with groups that are a dozen or 20 people, they tend to be respectful to each other. It’s a better format, although it takes a lot more work. We sent a half dozen of our best people to facilitation training to learn how to facilitate a group.”

CSS can mean holding numerous public meetings, which can increase engineering costs. The real cost is in the construction and 20 years of operating and maintenance costs. “When you look at the typical project and you look at lifecycle cost, engineering is 1 to 2 percent of the whole lifecycle cost,” Nelson points out.

Aligning Values

Clark Dietz Engineers focuses on seven core values it has practiced since formulating them in 1999. They are professionalism, integrity, collaboration, client relationships, employee support, broad-based employee ownership and remaining profitable. The company started surveying its employees to determine how closely it was practicing these values. It then was decided to survey clients about the same thing, and finally to ask employees how well clients aligned with Clark Dietz’s values.

These evaluations then were compared with Clark Dietz’s profitability on those clients’ projects. Projects for those clients whose values aligned well with Clark Dietz’s also were the most profitable ones for Clark Dietz.

“What we found was a very strong correlation between profitability and alignment of our values,” Nelson reveals.

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