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Chapter 4.3

Streamline and Improve the Design Precertification Process


Summary

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) maintains a database of private sector engineering, architectural and surveying consultants, a practice begun to eliminate firms having to submit full proposals each time they try to win contracts from TxDOT. Other states have a less cumbersome process that is less of an administrative burden on the consultants. TxDOT should work with the consulting community to change the selection process to minimize costly administrative effort.


Background

In 1998, working with districts, the Federal Highway Administration and the consulting community, TxDOT’s Design Division revised the agency’s consultant selection procedures for contracting special professional services. These services encompass engineering, architectural and surveying activities and expertise.[1] The purpose of these revisions was to streamline the consultant selection process, which was taking as long as 16 months to complete.[2]

Prior to the revisions, all consultants seeking to participate in agency projects had to submit full proposals. Based on these proposals, a selection committee then chose a short list of consultants to give presentations to the committee.[3] Since most proposals are almost 40 pages long, and some contracts resulted in dozens of proposals, reviewing submissions required a lot of TxDOT professional time and resources.[4] Most other state DOTs avoid this excessive burden by only requesting full proposals from qualified, “short listed” consultants from among those who supply letters or expressions of interest.[5]

Since these revisions, consultants are only required to provide basic qualification information in their initial Letter of Interest (LOI).[6] LOIs are approximately three pages long and include the consultant’s understanding of the project as well as identification of the project manager and project team members.[7] TxDOT uses the list of proposed team members to provide the selection committee with a report from the precertification database that shows certifications and prior experience. The selection committee then narrows the field to a “short list” of from three to five consultants.[8] These consultants are required either to submit a full proposal or participate in an interview process; most selection committees prefer to interview perspective consultants.[9]

The revised procedures save time and expense for both consultants and reviewers. Consultants interviewed for a recent Transportation Research Board study reported that they would rather have fewer consultants short-listed in a prequalification process so that they do not waste resources on efforts in which their chance for success are marginal because they compete against a large pool of consultants.[10] A full proposal can cost an engineering firm thousands of dollars in labor and direct expenses to prepare.


Precertification

The most substantial result of TxDOT’s revisions was the development of the consultant precertification process. Consultants who want to work with TxDOT must now submit their qualifications for review and entry into a precertification database. Any consultant that is expected to work on 5 percent or more of a project, by dollar value, must be in this database prior to submitting a proposal on any project.[11] Precertification eliminates the need for soliciting full proposals from every consultant interested in each project, and reduces the submission of redundant information to TxDOT. However, consultants report that the system that was put in place is somewhat different from what was originally envisioned.[12]

Acceptance into the precertification database is mandatory for any consultant that wants to be selected for special professional services at TxDOT. The only exception is for subconsultants that are responsible for less than 5 percent of the project, by value. Each firm and each individual professional must be included in the database; applications are reviewed by in-house experts prior to entry into the system. The review requires approximately 5 percent of the time of almost 40 in-house division experts, and takes 30 to 60 days.[13] While the database only includes information about firms’ and individuals’ qualifications and experience, future plans call for adding performance reviews from TxDOT projects to be used as supporting material for future selection procedures.

By mid-1999, changes in the consultant selection process reduced the time to complete the selection process to as little as six months, with an estimated average of eight to nine months.[14] Most of this improvement can be attributed to eliminating the full proposal requirements for all consultants. The time required for selection still varies dramatically from district to district. Consultants are reporting inconsistencies in the ways districts are implementing the precertification database.[15]

There is a growing movement away from this precertified approach because of its heavy administrative burden. For example, in a recent Transportation Research Board survey of states, the Michigan Department of Transportation (DOT) noted that they “have created a paperwork monster and are trying to change the process.”[16] Michigan and other DOTs are going to a project-specific qualification process in which they solicit LOIs from firms for each project rather than collecting general qualification information.


Shortcomings of Precertification

While the objective of the precertification system is to maintain a database of firm and professional qualifications that can be used to short-list firms, it has some drawbacks.

Maintaining the system, generating the reports for all interested firms and team members, and reviewing the lengthy documents with each team member’s qualifications and experience is time-consuming and costly for TxDOT. The consulting community has concerns that the database is perhaps not used consistently from one district to the next.

The precertification database mirrors databases already maintained by most consulting firms, which could result in duplicative effort for the firms.[17]

The parameters of the current database are constrained and, for a variety of reasons, some critical experiences may be left off of precertification reports. For example, very current experiences may not be posted in the database in time for a selection process or technical limitations may not allow for all projects to be posted.

While each firm and individual is certified, there is no assurance that the information will be accurate. In fact, one district reported that, based on their review of precertification reports, the database shows some engineers report experience that they don’t really have.[18]

In a recent survey of consultants, the predominant complaint was that precertification systems require excessive paperwork and have no consistent requirements from state to state.[19]

Otherwise qualified firms will not be able to propose on projects if they have not been precertified, a process that takes 60 to 90 days to complete.[20] This limits open competition, particularly for very special projects that may require expertise that is best provided by a specialized firm that would not normally be precertified in Texas.


Request for Qualifications

An alternative to the process TxDOT is using today would require consultants to submit a written summary of their qualifications with each LOI. This Request for Qualifications (RFQ) process accomplishes all of the benefits TxDOT has seen in enhancing the selection process, while eliminating the burden of maintaining the precertification database.

In their Guide for Contracting, Selecting, and Managing Consultants in Preconstruction Engineering, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) recommended an approach to consultant selection that involves the solicitation of LOIs and/or qualifications[21] rather than full proposals in the first step of the selection process. States will use this information to select a short list of qualified firms that will then provide additional information on qualifications. According to a 1998 survey of states, as many as two-thirds of all state DOTs use a RFQ or LOI process for selecting consultants.[22] Regardless of whether they use precertification databases or RFQs, these states enjoy the benefits of reviewing substantially less information when selecting consultants. North Carolina, for example, limits submissions to only 15 pages.[23]

When TxDOT considered revising their selection process, the RFQ approach was not chosen because it was presumed to be too time-consuming for consultants to maintain their own information.[24] However, the consulting-engineer community is willing to reconsider this option. They report that maintaining qualifications in the TxDOT database has become more burdensome than they expected when they helped craft this new approach. The primary concern of consultants if the precertification database is eliminated is that TxDOT develop and enforce strict size limitations in their RFQs so the letters of qualification do not grow to the size of full proposals.

Most professional design engineering services firms have systems in place that can very easily prepare project-specific qualifications packages that are more current and more structured for the particular project than the precertification listings produced by the TxDOT system.[25] These systems provide a basic marketing resource that every firm needs in order to maintain information on the firm’s and staff’s experience used to generate proposals. These databases are of varying levels of sophistication but all are designed to maintain the same information that is being submitted to the TxDOT precertification database.

Another option for reducing the administrative burden on consulting firms is to work with other state DOTs to establish a reciprocal-consulting engineers’ database to which consultants can provide their information one time to be used by all DOTs. The current president of AASHTO recently commented that his state DOT in Utah is working with the Arizona DOT on an initiative for interoperability.[26] The purpose of this initiative is to find ways to reduce administrative redundancies, such as prequalification databases, across state DOTs. This would include licensing reciprocity and possibly a database for consultants that will contain precertification information, “doing business as” status and other relevant information.


Recommendations

A. TxDOT should work with the consulting engineering design community to continue to improve the consultant selection process.

While the concept behind the precertification database was good, there is room for improvement. In the two years since the implementation of the database, other states have made further innovations. Options for TxDOT include modifying the database or replacing it with a Request for Qualifications system. Whatever changes are made, it is crucial that the private sector be involved in designing the changes.

B. TxDOT should work with other states to find ways to reduce administrative burdens on itself and consulting firms.

TxDOT should contact other states currently involved in developing reciprocal databases to learn what they are doing and see if it is applicable to Texas. AASHTO would be a natural vehicle for this type of communication, and Texas would be the obvious state to take the lead in this region of the country.


Fiscal Impact

The fiscal effects of this recommendation cannot be estimated. Developing a more efficient consultant selection process could save administrative costs for TxDOT and further shorten the time needed to get projects started. It also could lessen the administrative burden on private-sector engineering firms.


Endnotes

[1] Interview with Robert Wilson, director, Design Division, Texas Department of Transportation, Austin, Texas, June 7, 2000.

[2] Interview with Robert Wilson, director, Design Division, Texas Department of Transportation, and Doug Woodall, engineer of field coordination, Consultant Contracts Office of the Design Division, Texas Department of Transportation, Austin, Texas, February 7, 2000.

[3] Interview with Robert Wilson, director, Design Division, Texas Department of Transportation, and Robert Kovar, deputy director, Design Division, Texas Department of Transportation, Austin, Texas, January 26, 2000.

[4] Interview with Steve Stagner, executive director, Consulting Engineers Council of Texas, Austin, Texas, July 18, 2000.

[5] Transportation Research Board, Consultants for DOT Preconstruction Engineering Work, NCHRP Synthesis 277, 1999, p. 25.

[6] Interview with Robert Wilson, director, Design Division, Texas Department of Transportation, and Robert Kovar, deputy director, Design Division, Texas Department of Transportation, Austin, Texas, January 26, 2000.

[7] Interview with Robert Wilson, director, Design Division, Texas Department of Transportation, and Doug Woodall, engineer of field coordination, Consultant Contracts Office of the Design Division, Texas Department of Transportation, Austin, Texas, February 7, 2000.

[8] Interview with Robert Wilson, director, Design Division, Texas Department of Transportation, Austin, Texas, July 20, 2000.

[9] Interview with Robert Wilson, director, Design Division, Texas Department of Transportation, and Doug Woodall, engineer of field coordination, Consultant Contracts Office of the Design Division, Texas Department of Transportation, Austin, Texas, February 7, 2000.

[10] Transportation Research Board, Consultants for DOT Preconstruction Engineering Work, NCHRP Synthesis 277, 1999, p. 19.

[11] Interview with Robert Wilson, director, Design Division, Texas Department of Transportation, and Doug Woodall, engineer of field coordination, Consultant Contracts Office of the Design Division, Texas Department of Transportation, Austin, Texas, February 7, 2000.

[12] Interview with Steve Stagner, executive director, Consulting Engineers Council of Texas, Austin, Texas, July 18, 2000.

[13] Letter from Charles W. Heald, P.E., executive director, Texas Department of Transportation, to Clint Winters, Research and Policy Development, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, August 14, 2000.

[14] Interview with Robert Wilson, director, Design Division, Texas Department of Transportation, and Robert Kovar, deputy director, Design Division, Texas Department of Transportation, Austin, Texas, January 26, 2000.

[15] Interview with Steve Stagner, executive director, Consulting Engineers Council of Texas, Austin, Texas, July 18, 2000.

[16] Transportation Research Board, Consultants for DOT Preconstruction Engineering Work, NCHRP Synthesis 277, 1999, p. 19.

[17] Telephone interview with Steve Stagner, director, Consulting Engineers Council of Texas, Austin, Texas, July 18, 2000.

[18] Interview with Tony Arredondo, deputy district engineer, San Antonio District Consultant Contracting Office, Texas Department of Transportation, San Antonio, Texas, February 7, 2000.

[19] Transportation Research Board, Consultants for DOT Preconstruction Engineering Work, NCHRP Synthesis 277, 1999, p. 21.

[20] Interview with Robert Wilson, director, Design Division, Texas Department of Transportation, and Robert Kovar, deputy director, Design Division, Texas Department of Transportation, Austin, Texas, January 26, 2000.

[21] American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Taskforce on Preconstruction Engineering Management, Guide for Contracting, Selecting, and Managing Consultants in Preconstruction Engineering, 1996, p. 8.

[22] Transportation Research Board, Consultants for DOT Preconstruction Engineering Work, NCHRP Synthesis 277, 1999, p. 19.

[23] Transportation Research Board, Consultants for DOT Preconstruction Engineering Work, NCHRP Synthesis 277, 1999, p. 22.

[24] Interview with Robert Wilson, director, Design Division, Texas Department of Transportation, and Doug Woodall, engineer of field coordination, Consultant Contracts Office of the Design Division, February 7, 2000.

[25] Interview with Steve Stagner, executive director, Consulting Engineers Council of Texas, Austin, Texas, July 18, 2000.

[26] Telephone interview with the Utah Department of Transportation, Office of the Executive Director, February 2000.