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Building Pathways: What Sets Road Work Construction Apart

Originally published on

Road work construction is fundamental to modern society, linking people to essential services and livelihoods while posing safety risks and traffic challenges. Building roads is unlike almost any other construction type: It demands long-term strategic planning, cross-jurisdictional cooperation and a deep understanding of the environment, the economy, history and technology.

This article explores road construction, including how it happens, common challenges and what makes it different from vertical construction projects. 

The Basics of Road Construction

Road construction generally refers to building new roads or reconstructing old ones. New construction can create connections between communities and economic centers, already existing roads and highways or it can quite literally pave the way for future economic development. Reconstruction projects can fix aged and potentially dangerous roads, improve drainage or increase a road’s capacity by widening it or updating its traffic engineering. 

Road construction can be a deceptively complex process. Utilities like electricity, gas, water or internet often run alongside or underneath roads. Most projects require extensive coordination with utility companies, constant communication with utility users, and thorough referencing of public records to avoid damaging utilities. 

Projects also require the engineering and construction of many different elements, such as:

  • Pavement
  • Lights
  • Medians
  • Painting
  • Drainage
  • Traffic, including traffic lights and communication systems
  • Landscaping
  • Pedestrian access

Roads and road construction involve a particularly high number of stakeholders. Most roads are commissioned and managed by a city or a county, while the federal government manages the interstate system. However, many roads move through numerous jurisdictions. 

For example, Florida’s U.S. 90 is maintained by the Florida Department of Transportation, has concurrencies with many county roads throughout its length and connects to numerous federal interstates or interstate auxiliary roads. There are even more stakeholders when accounting for community groups and utility companies. 

Throughout road construction, general contractors (GC) are constantly navigating the needs of these stakeholders, accounting for regulations that might differ between jurisdictions, and often submitting for payment from numerous sources. 

The Phases of Road Construction

Constructing roads often takes many years because of how many stakeholders are involved, the intense regulations and the many variables that arise when building in linear miles as opposed to square feet. Each phase of the process has characteristics that set road building apart from other types of construction.


Most road construction is commissioned at the local leveloften by a city or county that has identified the need for a new road, perhaps to further economic development or alleviate traffic on existing roads, or for reconstruction, perhaps because the existing road is in disrepair, dangerous, or unable to accommodate traffic. The municipality will often contract with an engineering firm that will serve as the designer of record and as the owner’s representative throughout the project.

Much of the planning process involves extensive consideration and analysis of the project’s potential impact on communities, the economy, and the environment. Some different types of analysis might include: 

Impact areaAnalysis
EnvironmentalAssess how the road might impact areas it passes through, in regards to water, erosion, wildlife, and plantlife. Projects that receive federal funding, move through federal land, or are under the jurisdiction of a federal agency are usually required to submit an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
GeotechnicalAssess the soil and ground, specifically for materials, wetlands, rocks, clay or anything that might make the build difficult or pose a threat to the life of the road. This helps decide the building methods, equipment, and materials that will be used in each segment of the project.
DrainageAssess the need for drainage, as well as the flow of water and likelihood of extreme weather events. 
Economic and socialMunicipalities often work to determine what a road will bring to the areas it runs along and connects, as well as what it might cost them. Economically, this might consider the development the road could help or hinder, and, socially, this might consider the groups that benefit from the road, the neighborhoods it might connect or divide, and the buildings or homes that would need to relocate for it to be built.
TrafficDetermine how many people will theoretically travel through an area and how the road might be used. This information can be used to justify the building of a road, as well as determine its size and materials.
SafetyConsider the potential dangers of a road, including topography, visibility, weather, and wildlife. This informs decisions about signage, guardrails, road size, and speed limits.
UtilitiesReference master plans and as-builts to locate all existing utilities, and coordinate with utility companies to determine how to work around or upgrade them. This might include moving or burying power lines, replacing water pipes, relocating gas lines from under the road to alongside it, or updating telecommunication systems. 

Engineers will use all this information to design the plans for the road. Many places have requirements for the format of road plans, such as in Louisiana, which standardizes them and makes them easier to read. Some municipalities will provide detailed lists on materials approved for the construction of roads, such as in New Jersey. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) provides guidelines on how to select and test materials before using them.


Roads are often public bid projects, meaning a government agency puts out a call to contractors for a specific project that has already been designed and approved. Contractors provide bids with their methods, timelines, and cost estimates. 

Once awarded a project, GCs spend a lot of time working on the installation of the utilities along or underneath the road. Most states require GCs to submit an 811, which tells utility providers the route of a dig, what streets will be closed and when. In return, the utility providers give GCs information about utilities that are already in the area. GCs will also work to notify people who will be impacted by the project, which might include information about road closures or outages of electricity or water. 

As with other construction projects, GCs often spend this time procuring materials. Many of the materials will have been chosen by designers during planning. Asphalt and concrete are the most commonly used materials for pavement. Each material has reasons it might be best for a project:


Quick: Asphalt can be used as soon as it’s dry, which usually happens quickly. When working with asphalt, road closures are usually shorter and it is easier to have partial road closures, where crews work on one lane and others stay open.

Easy to repair: Asphalt allows isolated issues to be repaired without replacing whole chunks of a road.


Quick: Asphalt can be used as soon as it’s dry, which usually happens quickly. When working with asphalt, road closures are usually shorter and it is easier to have partial road closures, where crews work on one lane and others stay open.

Easy to repair: Asphalt allows isolated issues to be repaired without replacing whole chunks of a road.


Roads are linear, so the construction phase often moves through dramatical varying conditions. In a place like Texas, it’s common for one mile of a project to require excavating dirt, the next to require pulling clay, and the one after that to require a bridge to get past a river. GCs regularly use geotechnical analysis and weather forecasts to differentiate their preparation and building methods for different segments within a project.

What goes into building a road depends on its size, the surrounding environment, and local regulations. Many of the construction processes, such as excavation, paving, and finishing, are repeated in regular increments, possibly every 100 feet. So while each area poses new challenges, it can be easy to anticipate the process of what needs to be completed in each section. The process of building a road usually includes the following:

For as much work goes into planning, road construction is full of discovering things in the ground that were missed or unknown. This is true for new roads being built in places where no one has dug before or for old roads, where records of utilities might be out-of-date or incorrect. The contractor is responsible for addressing these problems, which might range from an underground boulder, a brittle sewage pipe, or a sunken gas line. 


Road construction projects are often delivered in stages or phases, so parts of the road can be used while other are worked on. GCs will regularly update important documents, such as as-builts, to reflect any and all changes made throughout construction. Unlike commercial building construction where these documents might all be submitted during closeout, GCs need to make these documents accurate and available at all times for utility companies and municipalities, who need to know, at a moment’s notice, where old utilities were, where they are now, and how they are hooked up.

Until the project is done, the GC is usually responsible for all risk incurred on the road. If, for example, a guardrail is broken on a completed section of road while the GC is working on another, the GC is still responsible for fixing it. Following the final handover, the municipality or DOT will usually assume responsibility for maintenance of the road and any legal risk associated with it. In some cases, such as a toll road, a company might be charged with maintaining the road. 

Common Roles and Responsibilities in Road Construction

Engineering Firm

A municipality or DOT will often contract an engineering firm to design the road and serve as their representative throughout the project. During planning, the firm works closely with the government agency to design a road that is practical, safe and will last for as long as possible. Firms also assist or lead much of the analysis to prepare for the build. Throughout construction, the firm is charged with ensuring the road is being built correctly and approving the work of the GC.

Engineering firms usually have team members with various specializations, including drainage engineering, structural engineering, traffic engineering and roadway engineering.

General Contractor

Because road construction is so regulated and specialized, many municipalities have strict requirements for a GC to be considered for a project. The U.S. DOT has a guide of how small businesses can meet their requirements and land federal projects. Other places require contractors to be prequalified before bidding, such as in Tennessee


The “owner” in road construction is usually a government entity, often a city, a county, a state’s department of transportation, or the federal department of transportation. Oftentimes, roads will move across numerous jurisdictions and the GC will have to coordinate with many agencies.

Best Practices for Road Construction

There are a few things that usually make road construction a more efficient and effective process.

Self-perform and cross-train.

GCs that specialize in road construction often try to have the ability to self-perform most tasks within a job, as opposed to contracting them out. Some GCs cross-train their crew members, so they are able to work in numerous disciplines. This helps them remain nimble in the face of ever changing variables and to minimize the amount of logistics usually associated with coordinating a large number of subcontractors.

Use advanced modeling.

Many contractors used advanced modeling technology such as Trimble Business Center, to create 3D models of what a new or reconstructed road is going to look like. Models are often done in increments of about 50 feet to ensure the model accounts for the changing conditions along a road. Models help identify how to plan for the many variables involved with road construction, such as drainage, utilities, and geotech.

Invest in digital record-keeping.

While it hasn’t always been the case, many GCs and municipalities in road construction have adopted digital programs such as Procore for recording and storing important documentation, particularly master plans and as-builts. This helps to keep records up-to-date and makes them easier to share with all the necessary stakeholders. 

Road to the Future

In many ways, road construction has built much of modern society. However, road construction also changes with society. In recent years, many municipalities and GCs have worked to better understand and consider the impact of road construction on all communities and on the environment. Because of digital records and improving technology, road construction will continue to improve the ways we connect people, places and vital services.

Originally published on and co-written by:

Stephen Abadie is an Infrastructure Team Leader at RNGD. He brings ten years of experience working as a construction project manager and field engineer. Stephen received his Bachelor of Engineering with a focus on Construction Management from Louisiana State University. He is based in New Orleans, Louisiana. View profile on Procore.

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