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Conaway Conference 2024 – Working for a Successful Project & Successful Future

A near-capacity crowd of more than 750 ODOT officials, staff, and OCA members met for Conaway Conference 2024 in late February at the Hyatt Regency in Downtown Columbus. The conference, for the 23rd year, continued the tradition of serving as a forum to share transportation construction industry innovations and best practices as well as provide an opportunity to analyze the past year and prepare for the current construction season. Conaway Conference 2024 also continued its theme of touting project partnering as an avenue to best results.

The conference, held February 27 & 28, is not only named after Don Conaway but continues to promote the late-ODOT Deputy Director of Construction’s advocacy of partnering among the state’s DOT and contractors. During Tuesday’s General Session, leaders from both ODOT and OCA in their opening comments talked about how partnering more than ever should be a guide for project members. In his welcome to Conaway Conference 2024, ODOT Deputy Director, Division of Construction Management, Josh Bowman touched on this year’s conference theme: “Facing the Future – Together: The Power of Partnerships in Construction & Contracting.” The conference co-organizer said that in a time where record transportation and infrastructure investment is testing the industry’s workforce, kindness and understanding among project members can go a long way.

“It costs none of us anything to simply be nice to each other. Being nice to each other eventually leads to gaining a higher level of respect. And once you have that higher level of respect, that leads to accountability. And then when you’ve got accountability, then all of a sudden you can trust each other, and that trust eventually leads to everyone putting that project-first mentality into play. When you put the project first, everyone walks away with a sense of satisfaction and pride, all while delivering a quality product to Ohio. But it all starts with simply being nice and a little touch of humbleness.” – ODOT Deputy Director, Division of Construction Management, Josh Bowman

 

ODOT Josh Bowman

In his welcoming statement, OCA Director, Public Agency Advocacy, Chris Engle, who joins Bowman as conference co-organizer, teased this year’s “strong lineup of breakout sessions.” He wished attendees luck in deciding which of the more than 15 topics to choose to participate in. He also thanked Bowman and ODOT’s leadership for continuing to work with OCA and the industry to ensure contractors are paid quickly. “Cashflow is very important to contractors,” Engle said. “Especially now with the high interest rates. Thanks to ODOT and Josh’s leadership for recognizing that.”

miller bros. const.

 

ODOT Director Jack Marchbanks, in his ODOT Opening Remarks, provided Conaway attendees with greetings and gratitude from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted. Leading ODOT since 2019, Director Marchbanks provided a look at Ohio’s strong transportation program, which in 2023 let more than $2.76 billion in state and local projects – a $750-million increase over 2022. He said to look for more in 2024, as this year’s program is expected to be 10% higher thanks to additional funding through the federal Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Brent Spence Bridge Corridor project in Cincinnati.

Fitting into his financial overview of the transportation budget, Director Marchbanks put his two cents in when it comes to building the industry’s workforce. “Go out and make sure you do something that is more inclusive, go out and do something to expand your outreach and inclusivity. Bringing people into our industry that have not been in this industry is not just the right thing to do, it’s smart business …” Marchbanks said the innovation going on in Ohio makes the transportation industry all the more attractive to be involved in, as he mentioned the state’s leading role in the nation’s electric vehicle (EV) charging stations network and the recent opening of the drone safety operations facility at the Uncrewed Aircraft Safety Center near Springfield.

“We walk the talk when it comes to positioning Ohio’s system in the future. Partnering in our industry has never been more important and critical to provide the safe and easy movement of people and goods from place to place than it is now.” – ODOT Director Jack Marchbanks

ODOT Jack Marchbanks

Chris Runyan, who has served as OCA President for 17 years, reminded the audience during his OCA Opening Remarks of the human element of Ohio’s transportation system. Runyan, who oversees and manages OCA’s operations, which include legislative advocacy, regulatory coordination and member services’ offerings, and interactions for its more than 500 Active and Associate members, said just as heavy/highway construction projects benefit society in seemingly unlimited ways, project partnering extends beyond the job sites as well. “By cultivating relationships that transcend traditional boundaries,” he said, “we not only fortify our capacity to overcome challenges but also elevate this industry where not only highways and bridges are built, but also careers, families, and life’s memories. These are the building blocks for satisfying and fulfilling lives that all of us share.”

Although the General Session’s next speaker was new to the Conaway Conference, the FHWA Remarks portion of the lineup wasn’t, as the Federal Highway Administration Ohio Division has been a longtime partner on projects with ODOT and OCA members. Dave Snyder, who began 2024 as the new FHWA Ohio Division Administrator, provided a “Where We Are” look at the IIJA program that is embarking on its third construction season of funding in 2024. He also spoke of the challenges FHWA is having in regard to IIJA’s increased funding levels and the current workforce issues. However, he said the nation’s DOTs and transportation construction industry are meeting the challenges. “You guys are getting it done … So, thanks again for your continual excellent, excellent work that you do.” Snyder also spoke about FHWA’s discretionary grants, progressive design/build program, and the Build America, Buy America Act (BABA).

“Partnerships in construction extend beyond black and white in the spec book. They encompass collaborations at all levels of the private and public sectors, between owners and contractors. That includes the planners, designers, suppliers and subcontractors creating a tapestry of interconnected expertise. By pooling our strengths, we can and must navigate the complexities of modern projects with greater resilience and ingenuity. Failure in this regard is not an option for any of us.” – OCA President Chris Runyan

Chris Runyan

Snyder, who previously worked with the FHWA Ohio Division as Director of Engineering & Operations, is a Penn State University graduate. In his career with FHWA, he has served as Illinois’ Deputy Division and Division Administrator, as well as in the California, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and North Carolina divisions. Snyder fills the FHWA Ohio Division Administrator’s role following the retirement last October of Laurie Leffler, who served in the role for 14 years.

ODOT’s Lauren Purdy spoke about how her office, the Division of Opportunity, Diversity & Inclusion (ODI), is doing its part in preparing the workforce needed to complete the state’s and nation’s record transportation programs. Examples of this workforce development include preparation for May’s annual career days for high school students at the Warren County Fairgrounds as well as a pre-apprenticeship program that can provide skilled trades training to assist in the Brent Spence Bridge Corridor projects. Purdy also provided the Conaway crowd a look at the range of things the ODI Office is working on, such as Proposal Note 13; introduction of B2G software that will assist in administering Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) and Small Business Enterprise (SBE) certification.

The next portion of Conaway Conference 2024’s General Session was the announcement of the Don Conaway Partnering Awards, now in its 12th year. Five projects from the 2023 construction season, including an Honorable Mention award, were highlighted for the project teams’ building of mutual trust, shared goals, open communication, and project-first mentality. Also announced for the third year were the Individual Partnering Awards, which highlight both an OCA member and an ODOT employee whose career success has centered on their partnering mentality. Emceeing the Don Conaway Partnering Awards were ODOT Press Secretary Matt Bruning and ODOT Digital Media Coordinator Renee DeFord. See page 28 for information on each of the award-winning projects and individuals.

“A lot of what we are also focusing on within the (ODI) Division is workforce development through our On The Job Training Program … We are very much focused and engaged on diversifying the pool of our construction workforce and making sure that in the future we have the folks that we need to get the jobs done.” – ODOT Deputy Director, Division of Opportunity, Diversity & Inclusion, Lauren Purdy

ODOT Lauren Purdy

Public Speaker Frank King realizes that going with the moniker “The Mental Health Comedian” has a better connection with his audiences than if he was aka “Speaker of Dimorphous Expression as it Relates to Suicide.” King, who wrote for The Tonight Show for more than 20 years, has taken his knack for comedy in a different direction to help people begin the conversation about mental health. With the construction industry’s increasing awareness of mental health issues, King’s keynote message at Conaway Conference 2024 was timely and relevant. Record numbers for the transportation construction industry in the form of funding and projects – exacerbated by a lack of substantial workforce levels – have industry members experiencing higher stress levels and uncertainty at work, let alone issues off the job site impacting their home life.

“You may be wondering: ‘A comedian talking about depressions and thoughts of suicide. How does that work?’” King asked the crowd. His answer: “Nobody dies laughing.” In his keynote topic, “Mental Health in Construction,” King used comedy and personal experiences to “break the ice” for the audience to engage in a discussion for those struggling with mental and emotional stability. The North Carolina native talked about how mental health struggles have impacted his family, from his grandmother and great aunt having died by suicide, to how he himself can remember the taste of a gun barrel when he attempted suicide in April 2010. King quickly broke the room’s silence when he told the audience, “Spoiler alert. I did not pull the trigger.”

While perhaps a difficult topic to think about and talk about, suicide is something many people have been touched by – from knowing someone who has attempted or committed, to contemplating doing it themselves. “Hardly anybody talks about it unless you bring it up, and then dear god almost everybody has a story,” King said. According to King, 8 million Americans contemplate suicide each year, and women are apt to attempt suicide three times more than men. However, men die in nine out of 10 suicide attempts. Suicide is on the rise, as someone in the world dies by suicide every 40 seconds, while in the U.S. someone kills themselves every 9 minutes. King estimates there will be 47,000 suicide deaths in the U.S. this year. With 80% of all suicide deaths occurring to people between the ages of 18-65, King said it is essential that companies have suicide prevention, intervention, and crisis response programs available to employees. That goes especially for the construction industry, which has suicides occurring four times more than the national average. King noted that the construction industry is dangerous enough with 1,000 work fatalities a year, however, 5,000 construction industry personnel die each year by suicide. “You are five times more likely to jump off a building than fall off a building,” he said. “In the mental health business, silence kills,” King told the audience. “… Start the conversation.” In congratulating Conaway Conference 2024 organizers for starting the conversation about mental health,” he concluded: “It doesn’t matter what you say to someone who may be thinking of suicide, it’s important that you say something.”

King’s keynote concluded the General Session, which was followed by lunch and an afternoon of breakout sessions that provided an array of topics – which Engle had alluded to earlier that might be difficult to choose which to attend. With nearly four hours of concurrent breakout sessions to select from, OCA Director of Member Events David Rule said many topics drew standing-room-only audiences. “We didn’t do the district sessions this year, but we had some other sessions that were very well attended,” as he mentioned some of the more popular being “Brent Spence Update,” “Intel – 161,” “Recent Disputes & Claims & VECPs,” “ODOT Spec Changes,” “Ethics” and more. With a mix of ODOT-led, OCA member-led, and ODOT-OCA co-led sessions, Rule said the individual sessions “continue to be popular collaborative events.”

Conaway Conference 2024’s schedule for Wednesday matched the opening day’s packed itinerary, as a “robust lineup” of eight speakers spoke on an array of topics. ODOT’s Chief Financial Officer Sara Downs and Chief Engineer & Assistant Director for Transportation Policy Dave Slatzer tag-teamed to provide an “ODOT Outlook 2024-2025” and “What’s Ahead” look.

ODOT Outlook 2024-2025

In her role as CFO, Downs, a 19-year ODOT veteran works with a 50-person staff that oversees a $3.5 billion annual budget. Talking about the “exciting times in Fiscal Year 2024,” Downs talked about record levels in funding – thanks in part to the Brent Spence Corridor Project. She said that while FY 2025 will be less than FY 2024’s $5.78 billion level, next fiscal year’s estimated $4.17 billion budget will include an increase in federal revenue and could be higher with the addition of federal grant opportunities.

What’s Ahead

Slatzer followed Downs’ budget discussion by talking about the various funding and discretionary programs that can impact the ODOT Construction Program. He talked about Ohio’s large series of programs, which in 2025 is looking at $2.5 billion and 808 projects and 2026 is forecasted to be a $3 billion program bolstering 993 programs. “Unfortunately,” Slatzer said, “inflation has had a pretty significant impact on our buying power.” Since the pandemic, ODOT has lost $590 million of buying power because of inflation, which has impacted multi-year projects the most. Slatzer hinted that because of high inflation, ODOT, in an effort to “get more juice out of the lemon,” may look at letting more smaller projects that won’t be affected as much by rising prices. The 27-year ODOT veteran also discussed the balance of work zone mobility and safety on projects; pavement quality; a future Sustainability Summit that ODOT will host with Ohio University; and partnering.

Turnpike Outlook

The Ohio Turnpike & Infrastructure Commission (OTIC) has undergone recent organizational changes to make its role as project owner easier to partner with for contractors. In OTIC Construction Engineer Anne Powell’s “Turnpike Outlook,” she talked about the 241-mile-long toll road’s 2024 construction season and other changes. Powell, who has served as OTIC Construction Engineer for two years, is a 40-year industry veteran who became ODOT’s first woman to serve as a District Construction Engineer when she was promoted to the position in District 4 (Akron). Powell said OTIC has evolved from a construction management “cradle-to-grave” philosophy, where one person “wears many hats,” to one resembling ODOT’s construction/ planning approach. Also, OTIC is updating construction specifications, bid plans, and implementing AASHTOWare Project software in a further nod to ODOT. “What has become the most-significant change this restructuring has brought is a consistency throughout the Turnpike with design and construction management,” she said. “It’s a win-win for both the Turnpike and the people that do business with us.” In 2024, OTIC will oversee 11 bridge projects, seven resurfacing projects, and seven projects being carried over from 2023.

Grant Programs

The conference’s second-day program reached the midway point with ODOT’s Office of Planning & Research Administrator Scott Phinney and Deputy Director of Planning Jim Gates discussing federal grant programs. Phinney provided a basic description of how federal transportation funding programs “provide a lot of the rules we have to play by” about receiving formula funds and discretionary grants. The 31-year ODOT veteran said 70% of federal funding is through formula disbursement and 30% is distributed through “applying for and winning it.” In the current federal transportation bill, Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act (IIJA), there are more than double the number of discretionary grants compared to the previous FAST Act (2016-2020). Phinney discussed the field of 54 discretionary grants in the IIJA, the 14 most pertinent to ODOT, and the “rules of engagement” it takes in winning the funding.

Gates discussed how ODOT’s Office of Planning works with the districts to determine their needs, studies how the USDOT is prioritizing the grant programs and when funding is available, and then finds the happy medium of where need and funding match. The 23-year ODOT veteran spoke about how ODOT’s grant applications are developed. “There is no down season for grant writing,” Gates said. “It’s continuous, as soon as one closes there’s another one that opens, sometimes they overlap.”

Following a short break, the final three presentations covered a gamut of updates, best practices, and new developments.

Construction Economic Update

Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) Chief Economist Ken Simonson, in his “Construction Economic Update,” detailed topics ranging from construction employment, construction materials and labor costs, and changes in construction spending, to an update on AGC’s Outlook Survey. Construction employment in Ohio’s metropolitan areas over the past four years varied from Cleveland “keeping pace” with the rest of the state at a 2% increase, to “strong” in Cincinnati (3+%) and “extremely strong” in Columbus (7%). When it comes to consumer inflation, construction materials, and labor costs, everyone in the room has felt the squeeze. However, transportation construction spending only increased 8% from December ’22 to December ’23, which was more than consumer inflation but far less than the 61% increase seen in manufacturing construction. When it comes to spending, while some studies show a 26% increase in highway/street construction spending – which many point toward IIJA’s record funding – more than one-third of Ohio contractors participating in the AGC Outlook Survey said the federal funding bill has had “no impact,” while 19% have worked on IIJA projects.

Construction Price Escalation & Best Practices

American Road & Transportation Association General Counsel Rich Juliano, in his “Construction Price Escalation Clauses & Best Practices,” gave a quick overview of IIJA funding and Ohio’s apportionment of the program – which in FY 2024 is expected to reach $1.9 billion once formula funds, supplemental bridge funds, and EV charging program funds are added. Juliano told the audience it could follow the release of IIJA funding through ARTBA’s Dashboard at www.artba.org. He also spoke on the ongoing challenges for the industry when it comes to material demands and costs – which includes everything from the 15.7% price increase in asphalt to the 2% hike in architectural and engineering services from January 2023-January 2024. Other federal regulatory and policy issues ARTBA is monitoring on behalf of the nation’s transportation builders are Buy America, Davis-Bacon, DBE Program, Waters of the United States, NEPA, Greenhouse Gas Mandate, Safety and Health Issues – such as work zone safety and mental health – and more.

New Developments at DriveOhio

DriveOhio Executive Director Preeti Choudhary closed Conaway Conference 2024 by touching upon how DriveOhio continues to partner with the industry. DriveOhio is an ODOT initiative that serves as the hub for the state’s smart mobility technology. Choudhary said DriveOhio takes a “crawl-walk-run” approach generally with most things. “What we try to do is explore deploying these technologies, try to uncover the challenges that we see and work with our industry partners really closely to make sure the challenges are being addressed. So, when these technologies come to Ohio’s roads we are best positioned to accommodate them safely and effectively …” Topics discussed were the utilization of drones for Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) applications to measure construction project progress – from stockpile measures of materials, surveying and mapping, to work zone traffic monitoring; Advanced Air Mobility (AAM), which uses vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (think George Jetson aircraft) for cargo and passenger transports; connected and automated vehicle infrastructure; and an update on Ohio’s national-leading progress in providing the network of National EV Infrastructure (NEVI) charging stations.

The final session aptly put the Conaway Conference 2024’s theme of “Facing the Future – Together: The Power of Partnerships in Construction & Contracting” in focus, as the two-day event once again reminded attendees how working together can bring about successful results and a successful future.

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