Melrose is a city of 28,000 with a median income 20% above the state average. A large portion of its gas mains are made up of cast-iron or other leak-prone materials. As a result, the percent of miles of its streets that have gas mains replaced per year is almost double the average of the other 25 municipalities interviewed for the project (according to the annual Gas System Enhancement Plans). To coordinate such a high level of work and minimize the impact on the City, Melrose has developed a successful coordination program that relies on frequent communication and leveraging data shared by the gas company.
Prior to the construction season, the City ensures that its staff learns all the names and contact numbers of the gas company's key representatives: managers of leak repairs, new services, and all contract work. During the construction season, the Town Engineer typically calls the gas company at least twice a week to confirm what is happening, see if there are any updates, identify any gas company changes in planned work, and communicate any changes from the City.
As part of its infrastructure planning process, Melrose has arranged with National Grid to have access to a map of which streets have gas infrastructure. The map is available in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) format. Although the map does not show the type of pipe material, it is still helpful for City planning purposes. For example, when the City has a planned water main project and the map shows that gas main exists, the City notifies National Grid and strongly requests that the company replace any leak-prone pipe before the project starts. This benefits National Grid because if any leak-prone pipe is encroached on by the project, the gas company is required to remove it. Rather than having to react last-minute when the City encroaches, National Grid can plan ahead and replace the pipe as efficiently as possible. It also benefits the City, because it avoids potential interruptions and delays to their projects.
The City also notifies the gas company when it plans to repave a street. Ahead of repaving, the City looks at the GIS map showing the location of gas mains and requests that National Grid replace any mains or services they consider leak-prone. The City also looks at available data on gas leak history for areas where it may put special emphasis on the gas company fixing leaks or replacing pipe prior to paving. This notification process helps minimize the need for the gas company to cut into newly paved streets.
Finally, when Melrose plans to do its own infrastructure work, the City requests detailed drawings on the location of gas main infrastructure so that it can reduce conflicts with gas mains, services, and other elements of the distribution system.
National Grid and the City also work together to reduce cuts into new streets by sending a notice to residents before paving explaining that if they want new gas service, they should request it now before the street is repaved. The City makes sure that the new-services manager’s phone number is on the notice so potential customers can call the manager directly.
The City has built up this successful practice by generating new ideas to improve collaboration, then proposing them to the gas company to find out how to make them work. This process is summed up by the advice of the City’s Town Engineer, “Don’t be shy. All they can do is say no.”
Worcester is a city of 182,000 with an average income below the state median. The city contains 600 miles of water mains, many of which date back to before 1800. It also has more gas leaks per mile of street than almost any other municipality in the state. Like the City of Cambridge, Worcester highlights the benefits of regular, in-person meetings to share information. The City also capitalizes on the resulting coordination to help fund street repaving projects.
Since the 1990s the City has hosted mandatory monthly meetings where all the local utilities - gas, water, sewer, and electrical - attend to cross-notify each other of all future plans for underground infrastructure repair and replacement. In 2001, Debra Davis of the Worcester DPW added to this collaboration the Cooperative Patching Program.
If two or more utilities have infrastructure upgrade needs for the same area, and that affected road needs repaving, then the City can select that road for the Cooperative Patching Program. If selected, the two or more utilities perform their work during the same construction season (April - November). When they complete their work, they install a temporary patch over the trench as normal. Afterward, instead of installing a wider, permanent patch over the trench after the fill has settled, each utility simply pays the City what the work would have cost (as calculated by the City based on its records of the previous year’s average cost per square foot for that work).
In this way, the City receives money from at least two utilities to subsidize repaving the street just after the underground utilities have been updated.
The program encourages integrated infrastructure repair, thus reducing disruption to nearby residents. The City’s repaving money is literally stretched further and the City gets to manage paving projects to ensure they are completed to their satisfaction. The streets last longer with fewer patched trenches since the underground infrastructure has just been repaired. The utilities perform the same amount of work for the same cost, while not having to send work crews out to patch the same street twice, freeing up its managers and crews to get more work performed elsewhere.
Tom Sheehan, Eversource’s Paving Manager, said, “It saves us time. So we can do other work… We’d love for other towns to do it.” In the last 15 years, the Cooperative Patching Program has helped repave over 23 miles of Worcester’s roads. The utilities have paid 57% of the total cost of repaving those roads so the City has had to pay less than $4 million for all 23 miles, a dramatic cost savings for the city.
Cambridge has a population of over 100,000, a median household income slightly over the state average, and a large commercial tax base. The City is currently performing a city-wide sewer separation project while also dealing with the impact of adding significant new development. At the same time, the gas utility, Eversource, is working to replace it’s aging and leak-prone gas mains.
In an attempt to efficiently deal with the increasing amount of construction and to avoid one or more utilities needing to excavate a recently paved street, the DPW instituted a mandatory Monday morning meeting during the construction season for all utilities, the major universities and large developers. Any organization that does not send a senior representative to attend the meeting does not get a Cambridge building permit that week.
At the meetings, presentations are made about each group’s upcoming developments and work, followed by breakout groups working on specific projects. The meetings provide an opportunity to share plans and discuss the potential to sequence projects that need to occur in the same area. Sequencing helps maximize the chance that curb-to-curb paving will not need to be cut into an excavated at a later date.
Cambridge is able to use these meetings to coordinate schedules during the upcoming construction season, as well as in future years, because of the City's Five Year Street & Sidewalk Reconstruction Plan*. While five years might seem too long to plan given the many changes that could occur, the City is careful to note that “DPW will review the Plan on an annual basis. The uncertainties are significant and thus the annual revisions may also need to be significant.”
The City also produces a map of the streets that are under a street-cut moratorium so that utilities clearly understand which segments are off-limits, except for emergencies.
The Monday meetings started off in the DPW conference room but as the amount of development in Cambridge and the buy-in to the meetings increased, the meetings were moved to the community room in the main library where they were open to the public.
“Just sending [lists or maps] to one another wouldn’t allow for the discussions that are needed,” said Owen O’Riorden, Cambridge DPW Commissioner.
When this project's survey for gas leaks was conducted in Cambridge, no leaks were discovered under newly paved roads. This indicates the success the City is having synchronizing its paving projects with the gas company, allowing time for the gas company to fix leaks and replace leak-prone pipe before paving occurs.
The City of Boston has 22 different organizations doing major infrastructure repair and replacement, and a backlog of $180 million worth of street repair, making long-term planning exceptionally difficult. The approximately 18 million square feet of new development being added in Boston within the next decade complicates planning even more. To deal with these challenges, the City of Boston developed COBUCS, the City of Boston Utility Coordination System.
When any entity, including a gas company, wants to secure a permit to do work in a public way in the City, they must input the project into COBUCS with the exact address or street segments as well as dates and other details. For National Grid, the City’s primary gas company, gas main replacements as well as repair of Grade 2 gas leaks and their repair dates are entered into the system.
COBUCS checks that planned project against the list of streets under a street-cut moratorium as well as planned projects by the City. The system then either approves the work or provides a notification if there is a conflict. Where there are conflicts, the City and company work together to identify whether or how to proceed. COBUCS also cross-notifies all the pertinent organizations that are doing work in the same area to help increase integrated infrastructure repair. The Boston DPW also requires regular meetings with all the utilities and major developers. Through COBUCS and these meetings, all parties have been able to sequence the work to increase integrated infrastructure repair.
Preliminary data shows that sequencing the work through COBUCS seems to help reduce “lost opportunities.” A Boston University 2016 doctoral thesis by Margaret Hendrick found that 35% of recently paved Boston streets still had leak-prone pipes under them in comparison to 86% of Brookline streets, a nearby town that - like the vast majority of municipalities in the State - does not have a similar automatic review and notification system.
The Boston DPW has found COBUCS enormously useful and wants to upgrade it to include large events and make it more visual. They will also start to produce a three-year paving plan so they can work more proactively with the utilities to meet that plan.
National Grid has found COBUCS very helpful too. “If every municipality had COBUCS, it would be great,” says Susan Fleck, National Grid’s VP of Gas Pipeline Safety & Compliance. “It drives automatic coordination.”
National Grid noted that a system like COBUCS is only effective if all of the entities requiring permits actually use it. While there are some off-the-shelf software products available, they often need tailoring and can be expensive for municipalities to support. As a result, National Grid suggested that this could be an opportunity for the State to develop and support a COBUCS-like system that all municipalities could access.
Columbia Gas, a NiSource company, is one of the three largest gas companies in Massachusetts with 61 towns in its territory and over 300,000 gas customers. Its municipalities range from urban centers such as Springfield, Brockton, and Lawrence to smaller suburbs such as Franklin and Ludlow. The company has implemented model coordination structures that emphasize regular, effective communication with municipalities and consistent delivery of its standards across its territories. It has also begun implementing a program to help incentivize and reward municipal coordination on infrastructure projects.
As of 2015, Columbia Gas had already transferred its infrastructure maps to GIS and still had over 800 miles of leak-prone pipes. In order to comply with the new law on gas leaks, the company began to speed up its infrastructure replacements. However, it quickly became apparent that increased construction stressed the resources of local municipalities, so Columbia Gas sought municipal input to improve the process. The major request from municipal staff was to have one point of contact at Columbia Gas to reduce the difficulty of figuring out who to call or how to navigate the system. In response, the company created the position of External Affairs Specialist, with each specialist serving an assigned territory as the primary contact on infrastructure replacement projects for customers, communities, and DPW directors, facilitating coordination to resolve issues and concerns.
To prepare for the construction season, Columbia Gas holds municipal-specific meetings in the beginning of each calendar year. The meetings are used to establish mutually agreeable project start dates, identify specific municipal requests, effectively sequence gas main replacement with paving and/or water/sewer improvement projects, clarify street restoration expectations and strengthen relationships between the DPW and Columbia Gas staff. The External Affairs Specialists facilitate the meeting attended by key subject matter experts in engineering, construction, operations, systems operations and restoration. Columbia Gas has also developed a DPW Meeting Playbook to establish a standard meeting presentation, deliver consistent information, and ensure continuity of information-sharing with municipal DPW partners during times when Columbia Gas staff may transition in or out.
This high-quality communication and coordination has led to opportunities to achieve cost savings. In Lawrence, the City planned to upgrade a water main, which would have required a gas main to be re-routed. Columbia Gas identified that installing a new water main, rather than upgrading the old one, would avoid the need to move the gas main and cost substantially less. Columbia Gas and the City agreed to changes in the restoration standards (i.e. paving) for trenches, which provided the same quality of pavement but avoided duplicative costs for Columbia Gas. Columbia Gas shared part of its savings with the City so it could pay for the cost of installing the new water main. The City got funding for a new water main, avoided long term construction for gas main replacement, and Columbia Gas avoided the significant cost of moving a gas main.
Columbia Gas is now planning to build on this pilot by offering municipalities the opportunity to share in financial savings the gas company achieves when the municipality agrees to certain paving restoration requirements. The changes allow for:
The new program approach is designed to improve project collaboration and coordination with municipal projects. It is also intended to maintain or improve quality of paving, returning value to customers and taxpayers through reduced cost of both paving and gas main facilities replacement. This model provides a powerful incentive to municipalities to coordinate and a great reward for doing so. It also provides Columbia Gas with savings that could be used toward additional replacements of leak-prone pipe.
Sheila Doiron, Director of Communications and Community Relations for Columbia Gas, notes that the company’s approach to coordination is “to maximize the opportunity to achieve both the municipality’s and the Company’s objectives - with the least impact to the cities and towns – to enhance satisfaction while balancing cost savings and flexibility”.