Large Crowds Gather to Learn How Partnering Overcomes
‘Challenges Today Build a Stronger Tomorrow’
Hardened and heartened by recent years’ obstacles and success, more than 800 OCA members and ODOT personnel were drawn to Downtown Columbus for Conaway Conference 2023 ready to take on this year’s event theme of “Challenges Today Build a Stronger Tomorrow.”
In his remarks the opening morning of the February 28-March 1 event at the Hyatt Regency, ODOT Chief Engineer & Assistant Director for Transportation Policy concisely defined this year’s theme by saying: “We had some challenges the last couple of years … We have new challenges.”
This year’s event marked the 22nd Conaway Conference, which is named for the late Don Conaway, who served as ODOT’s Deputy Director of Construction in the early 1990s and was a longtime advocate of partnering among contractors and ODOT. Ironically, in a nod to today’s challenges, Conaway believed the difficult issues he saw Ohio’s highway system encounter more than 30 years ago could be improved through partnering and how it would help build a better future. He was a proponent of holding information-sharing meetings before the construction season and instituted the conference as an annual event. In 2002, the ODOT-OCA Winter Construction Seminars he championed were renamed to honor him.
Today, this forum provides an opportunity for ODOT and OCA representatives to share construction industry innovations and best practices, analyze the previous construction season and prepare for the coming construction season.
“… As we move beyond the pandemic, we have new challenges,” Slatzer said, as he listed “unprecedented inflation,” “labor shortages,” and more. “But despite all that, if we think back on what we’ve accomplished over the past couple years between ODOT and our industry partners – and even in 2021 at the height of the pandemic – we delivered a $2.2 billion program and we followed that up in 2022 with a $2.1 billion program … We know that delivering those programs is essential for keeping our goods and services flowing throughout the state, and even our economy moving. So congratulations to all of you for the effort.”
Slatzer, a 26-year ODOT veteran who was speaking on behalf of ODOT Director Jack Marchbanks, provided one of several presentations at Tuesday morning’s General Session to kick off Conaway Conference 2023. The event began in a packed Regency Ballroom of more than 500 OCA members and 300 ODOT personnel with welcomes by conference co-organizers ODOT Deputy Director, Division of Construction Management, Josh Bowman and OCA Director of Public Agencies Advocacy Chris Engle.
OCA President Chris Runyan followed Bowman’s and Engle’s comments by talking about how the U.S. has overcome negative perceptions and challenges facing its transportation infrastructure system – and it will again. Runyan, who worked at ODOT prior to being named OCA President in 2007, said the conference’s theme, “Challenges Today Build a Stronger Tomorrow,” prompted him to look at how past challenges – such as 17% unemployment in the construction industry and the U.S.’s global ranking for highway conditions being tied for 16th with Malaysia – were overcome.
“I think we have all grown from those challenges,” said Runyan, who added that the transportation construction industry always seems to be up for clearing obstacles. “The history book has not been written about today, but you are the ones providing the words on the pages. You are the practitioners with the ability to make tomorrow stronger.
“Partnering is about making tomorrow stronger together. It’s about overcoming the challenges that we are presented with today and addressing them, so tomorrow’s efforts are best spent in doing what we collectively are tasked to accomplishing.” Runyan went on to say he hoped partnering would grow beyond only what needs to be done to meet the requirements and grow to what makes the program a success.
Following Runyan’s and Slatzer’s comments, Bowman reapproached the speaker’s podium to discuss the recent challenges ODOT and the heavy/ highway construction industry have overcome in 2022, from supply issues, to the highest inflation seen in 40 years, to the highest fuel prices on record. “With all the challenges that we faced together, we were still able to have a completely robust program,” he said.
Bowman reviewed ODOT’s work in 2022, which entailed $2.1 billion in improvement projects, and previewed 2023’s work – which through the first two months included the awarding of 103 projects – with the plans to award 644 projects totaling nearly $2 billion.
And in a sign of partnering between the contractor and project owner, Bowman discussed last year’s value engineering (VE) proposals – which saved the state $4.3 million – and the number of project dispute resolutions settled at the project level. “I would like to thank everyone in the room and not in the room for a job well done … There is no doubt that none of this would have been possible without a collaborative effort, approach and execution of a projectfirst partnering environment across the entire program.
“As an industry, we are on the cusp of some of the most exciting times in Ohio when it comes to heavy/highway construction,” Bowman added. “… There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that together we will be successful in delivering to the people of the state of Ohio exactly what they expect, which are quality projects that ensure the safe and easy movement of people and goods from place to place.”
Since the signing of the nation’s largest infrastructure bill, Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act (IIJA), in history in November 2021, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has had a busy 18 months. FHWA Ohio Division Administrator Laurie Leffler provided a look at those busy times.
Leffler said the first round of discretionary grants have been awarded in 14 programs created through the IIJA, including the Bridge Investment Program that provided nearly $1.4 billion toward the Brent Spence Bridge Corridor Project in Cincinnati and over the Ohio River. She also discussed with the OCA-ODOT contingent about domestic procurement revisions in IIJA’s Buy America Act; the FHWA Ohio Division’s new faces, and faces in new places, regarding personnel and job responsibilities; and the administration’s renewed focus on highway and work zone safety.
“We found a couple of items that are noteworthy to highlight,” Leffler said of FHWA’s work zone inspections, which included improper signage, lack of temporary pedestrian accommodations and traffic-control devices and barrier attenuators that are damaged or in poor condition. “We’ll continue to do additional work zone inspections and reviews over the course of 2023,” she said. “So, we may see you up close and personal on one of your projects.”
Lauren Purdy, in her ODOT Opportunity, Diversity & Inclusion Update, centered her comments on an area important to all the heavy/highway construction contractors in the room – workforce development. “As we all know we have a lot of work to be done, and one of the things that I know everyone is talking about is workforce,” said the ODOT deputy director, Division of ODI. “So, we are really focusing on workforce development and of course our workforce diversity, making sure that we are meeting our diversity requirements … and are affording the opportunity to get into the industry and have good paying jobs.”
In her office’s tracking of diversity utilization on projects of more than $20 million, Purdy said it is seeing a lack of women participation. With statistics showing only 4.6% female utilization on these jobs, she said, “… We’re continuously evaluating ways to partner with the industry and unions to improve workforce diversity.” She reminded attendees that while minority utilization was more than 14% there is work to be done, and as the industry’s workforce is strained “we need to keep our eye on this issue as well as make sure that we are focusing on the workforce diversity aspect.”
Purdy also mentioned workforce initiatives the ODI Division has set up, such as this year’s Summer Transportation Recruitment Internship for Diversity Employment (STRIDE), which will have eight college students working with ODOT; On The Job Training (OJT) offerings that contracting companies can take advantage of with program offerings ranging from drone training to heavy-equipment training; DriveOhio’s Smart Mobility Ambassador Program, which engages students about smart mobility career opportunities; and May’s expected 2,500 students who will be participating in Construction Career Days at the Butler County Fairgrounds.
Taking center stage next was the announcement of the 11th annual Don Conaway Partnering Awards and second-annual Individual Partnering Awards. Announced by ODOT Press Secretary Matt Bruning and ODOT “Who Knew Guru” David Rose, the nominated and winning Don Conaway Partnering Awards were announced in the Projects Under $5 million, Projects Between $5 million-$20 million, Projects More Than $20 million and Local Public Agency (LPA) Projects categories. The Individual Partnering Awards celebrated the efforts of an OCA member and ODOT employee. See page 28 for information about the partnering award winners.
Concluding the Conaway Conference 2023 opening day’s General Session was a heartfelt story of redemption by former Ohio State University football great Maurice Clarett.
Downtown Columbus, where he gave the keynote address, was a poignant reminder of Clarett’s life, as the speaker’s podium is less than five miles from Ohio Stadium where he led the Buckeyes to the 2002 BCS national football title as a freshman, and approximately a half-mile from where he was arrested for aggravated robbery in 2006. “Your life can change in an instant, but you don’t know when that instance is,” Clarett said in his keynote address, “My Life, My Story, My Redemption.”
A native of Youngstown, Clarett had several run-ins with the police before entering high school. He said his No.13 jersey as a Buckeye was symbolic of the 13 staples he received in his head after being injured in a burglary – which resulted in him being under house arrest during his eighth-grade summer. His early saving grace was that he was an athletic specimen, which helped him attend and play for Warren G. Harding High School. As a high school senior in 2002, Clarett was the nation’s fifthranked prep running back and earned the USA Today Offensive Player of the Year honor
After being the first running back to start as a freshman at Ohio State in nearly 60 years and leading the Buckeyes to their first national title in 34 years in the same season, Clarett was suspended and dismissed from the program for accepting illegal benefits as a student-athlete. “That’s when life started,” he said following his dismissal from the Buckeyes. Over the next four years, Clarett appealed to enter the NFL draft early – which he was drafted and cut by the Denver Broncos before his first NFL game – and was arrested and jailed.
While he called his arrest at age 23 “the lowest part of my life,” Clarett said he “felt at peace for the first time in five to six years while sitting in jail” serving his sentence in the Toledo Correctional Institute. Upon early release from prison, Clarett began sharing his life’s story across the U.S. to high school and college athletes and returned to football form to play for the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League for a season.
Since prison and football, Clarett has helped people to address behavioral health, mental and self-improvement issues. He is the founder of The Red Zone, which helps youth in Youngstown; launched a podcast, “Business & Biceps,” and joined “The Champs Program,” which are geared toward professionals wanting to improve themselves; as well as co-wrote the book, “One and Done: How My Life Started When My Football Career Ended.”
When the Conaway Conference 2023 Planning Committee was choosing a keynote speaker, OCA Director of Member Events David Rule said it was looking for a connection to The Ohio State University, and when Clarett’s name came up he was unanimously selected. “He’s raw, transparent, and I think that’s why our people liked him,” Rule said of Clarett, who makes less than 10 speaking appearances a year.
The keynote address concluded Tuesday’s General Session. Following lunch, participants had the afternoon to attend any of 16 sessions, with topics ranging from ODOT District and Spec updates, “The Challenges of the 2022 Construction Industry,” “Utilities & Railroads – The Other Side of the Story,” to Ethics and more.
Here are the members of the Conaway Conference 2023 Planning Committee, which consists of representatives from ODOT and OCA:
Josh Bowman, Deputy Director of Construction Management; Gary Angles, Division of Construction Management; Claudette Durham, Division of Construction Management; Chris Hughes, District 1 Deputy Director; Eric Kahlig, Division of Construction Management; Phil Senn, District 2 District Construction Engineer; and Rob White, District 1 Capital Programs Administrator
Chris Engle, Director of Public Agency Advocacy; David Rule, Director of Member Events; Brian Francis, Beaver Excavating Co.; Mike Killilea, The Righter Co. Inc.; Pete Kinzer, Shelly & Sands Inc.; Chris Kunz, John R. Jurgensen Co.; and Craig Wing, Kokosing Construction Co. Inc.
Wednesday’s final half-day of Conaway Conference 2023, like many of the previous day’s sessions, featured interesting topics and standing room only crowds.
The second day’s list of guest speakers began with ODOT Chief Financial Officer Sara Downs’ “Outlook 2023-2024,” and ODOT Chief Engineer & Assistant Director of Transportation Policy Dave Slatzer’s “What’s Ahead” programs.
The next ODOT duo to speak were Office of Statewide Planning Administrator Scott Phinney and Deputy Director, Division of Planning, Tim McDonald, who spoke on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill (i.e., IIJA) and the Transportation Review Advisory Council (TRAC).
Phinney discussed the five-year federal infrastructure law signed in November 2021; the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law/IIJA’s 14 categories of discretionary funding transportation; and information on how to access more information at www.transportation.ohio.gov/BIL. In discussing the numerous BIL/IIJA grants listed on “the one-stop-shop” ODOT site, Phinney said, “You can see that there are a lot of different programs on here that ODOT can receive funding from. What does this mean? There is a lot of money out there, and we (ODOT) have to be very aggressive in going after these funds. Every grant that we win means more projects to be done here in Ohio.”
McDonald talked about the nearly $400 million in annual discretionary funding ODOT provides local governments, such as $107 million for metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs); $103 million to the state’s county engineers; $70 million for safety programs; and $35 million for urban paving in municipalities across the state. He also discussed TRAC projects, which he described as “ODOT’s largest program in regards to expanding the (transportation) system.” TRAC provides between $200 million to $300 million annually for these projects, which are determined by a governorappointed nine-person panel that includes the Ohio House Speaker and Senate President. In closing, McDonald reminded the audience, “Without these increased revenues, inflation would have devastated our program. We would be maintaining and building so much less.”
DriveOhio is another program benefiting from IIJA funding. According to DriveOhio Executive Director Preeti Choudhary, the federal infrastructure funding program has authorized $7.5 billion in alternative-fuel charging systems across the nation. “Ohio’s portion of that is well over $100 million over the next five years,” she said. DriveOhio is housed within ODOT and serves as a collaboration among government, research and private industry to facilitate both smart mobility innovation and infrastructure. “I think the main purpose of this (IIJA program) is delve out a nationwide network of chargers that really supports this pivot to alternative fuels,” she said. Choudhary detailed the multi-phase, four-year deployment timeline of the electronic vehicle (EV) charging network by talking about site requirements, spacing needs and what goes into deciding where the 30 locations near Ohio interchanges will be located.
Conaway Conference 2023 concluded with presentations on “The Large Private Projects in Ohio,” “Supply Chain Issues & Material Costs” and a panel discussion on “Meeting the Workforce Challenge.”
Just as opportunities are robust in the way of public infrastructure improvements, the same is true for Ohio with regards to private investment. “We are in a time where large companies are looking at this region and are choosing to locate here,” said New Albany Engineer Ryan Ohly. “It’s happening right now and it will continue to happen over the next several years. So that means there is a lot of opportunity for this industry, the construction industry, in both the private and public sectors.” While Ohly was specifically talking about central Ohio’s New Albany and Licking County areas, private investment is going on in many parts of the state.
Ohly and PRIME Engineering’s Brian Hupp detailed how infrastructure in New Albany/ Licking County is being transformed with the addition of private companies from Amazon, pharmaceutical and recycling companies, to Intel – a $20– billion semiconductor manufacturing plant that is the largest privatesector investment in Ohio history. Hupp talked about the accelerated timelines and construction methods underway in updating and constructing infrastructure such as water, sanitary, fiber optic roadways and more.
Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) Chief Economist Ken Simonson, in his “Supply Chain Issues & Material Costs” presentation, admits to being a glass-half-full-type person. So, when he voiced whether the U.S. economy is in or headed toward a recession, he said, “I plead guilty of being an incurable optimist, but I think there is good reason for it at this time.”
While Simonson believes the nation’s economy at worst may see a momentary slowdown and not a recession, he talked about both the positives and negatives for the nation’s construction industry. Among the industry’s positives is the increased funding it is seeing the nation spending for infrastructure improvements through the IIJA, the Inflation Reduction Act and – especially helpful for Ohio – the Chips Act that provides $280 billion nationally to boost domestic research/ manufacturing for semiconductors. However, Simonson also noted obstacles facing the industry despite the record funding levels. Those obstacles include IIJA provisions – such as Buy America – and continual labor and material shortages. In noting that “labor availability has resumed being the No.1 challenge for many contractors,” Simonson said Ohio is one of 18 states to lose population from July 2021 to July 2022, and how early retirement and lack of individuals entering the construction industry will continue to be challenging for contractors.
Simonson’s mentioning of the construction industry’s trouble in attracting skilled labor provided a perfect introduction to the Conaway Conference 2023’s final presentation, “Meeting the Workforce Challenges.”
A show of hands proved that most ODOT personnel and heavy/highway contractors in the audience are hiring or looking for workers. A panel discussion led by OCA Director of Chapter & Workforce Development Melanie Kitchen, and included ODOT Chief Human Resource Offier Brian Brown, Shelly & Sands Inc.’s Pete Kinzer, Ohio Operating Engineers Apprenticeship & Training Program’s Manuel Gutierrez and Shelby Black and Hilliard City Schools’ Mark Tremayne, illustrated the range of ways the transportation construction industry is taking in recruiting personnel. Kitchen opened the session by describing OCA’s workforce efforts geared to high school, technical school and college students as well as programs designed for parents and faculty members to educate them about the well-paying, fulfilling careers in construction. The fast-paced panel discussion attracted several questions and comments of support from the audience for the efforts shown by participants.
Ohio’s transportation construction industry has been hardened and made better through the obstacles they have overcome. After Conaway Conference 2023 those attendees are now heartened in knowing the “Challenges of Today Build a Stronger Tomorrow.”