Member News: Leading through innovation
HNTB takes expertise gained in Maine on the road
There’s a saying at the Portland offices of HNTB Corporation, that “leadership is about leading, not about managing.” That drive for excellence pervades every aspect of the engineering firm’s operations and has made the Portland office a leader in construction management and toll plaza operation not only in Maine, but throughout the country.
HNTB first came to Maine 62 years ago, just as the state was launching its efforts to build the Maine Turnpike. The firm was chosen because of its pioneering experience in bridge and highway planning and design — the firm had been founded in 1914 in Kansas City, Missouri. Maine’s turnpike was only the second user fee highway built in the United States. HNTB, then known as Howard, Needles, Tammen & Bergendoff, was there at the start. The firm helped create a highway that remains today a national model for user convenience, safety and operating efficiency.
Today HNTB remains the Maine Turnpike’s prime consultant and has helped the Maine Turnpike Authority through every major achievement over six decades: the extension of the highway from Portland to Augusta (1955); the transition to electronic toll collection; the Turnpike Widening Project (2004); and the Turnpike’s central role in the just completed Gray Bypass (2006). “Our longevity and good working relationship with the Maine Turnpike Authority has really given us a depth of experience in these areas that few firms have,” said Roland Lavallee, officer-in-charge of HNTB–Portland. The firm also provides a broad range of services for the Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT). They began working for MaineDOT back in the 1960s, providing design services for portions of the interstate highway system. The firm is now MaineDOT’s No. 1 service provider and currently holds five MDOT general consultant agreements (bridge, highway, multimodal, planning and right-of-way) — the most of any firm.
A strong foothold in Maine
As the firm’s design work in Maine grew, so did its commitment to the state. HNTB-Portland officially formed in 1989, when a construction inspection field office opened with two employees. A full design office with seven employees was launched in 1996. HNTB’s work for MaineDOT includes several high profile projects, including Gateway 1 that is bringing together the diverse communities of midcoast Maine to look at long-term land-use and transportation planning. Lavallee observed that the challenge of that project has been working with communities to form a coalition that is ready to tackle the many issues that face the region as population and traffic continue to grow. The trick he said is finding a common vision. “They have to work together in order for this thing to work,” said Lavallee.
The firm’s Maine work also includes several municipal projects of interest. In Old Orchard Beach, the firm provided preliminary and final design work on a critical stretch of Route 98 that travels through town. The highway carries a high volume of local traffic — very high in the summer and fall when tourists come to enjoy the town’s famous beaches. The challenge was to improve the flow of traffic through the town — without destroying the historic neighborhood’s historic character. The stretch of state highway was also a popular pedestrian route for visitors walking to and from the local commercial district. HNTB worked closely with the town of Old Orchard Beach and MaineDOT regarding the enhancement of the historic district. The design HNTB developed incorporated granite curbing, grass esplanades with large replacement trees, and concrete sidewalks to preserve the neighborhood’s “small town” feel.
HNTB also provided design work on the rehabilitation of the historic Skowhegan Swinging Bridge. The pedestrian bridge over the Kennebec River is a centerpiece in the town, connecting Skowhegan Island to Alder Street. The 220-foot cable span, originally built in 1936, is the fourth swinging bridge in that location. The first bridge was built during the late 19th century to access a growing neighborhood on the island.
HNTB worked closely with the local representatives on the project to ensure that the historic character of the popular local tourist attraction and walking route for school was preserved.
Exporting Maine know how Since 1996, the Portland office has grown to 30 employees and boasts low turnover. The loyal staff has contributed to sales increasing from $3 million in 2001 to $5 million last year. This year’s projected sales are $5.7 million. The office’s expertise in large-scale construction management and toll plaza operations has earned those locally based engineers a national reputation. As more states look to highway user fees as a way to finance new construction and much needed maintenance of the country’s interstate system The Portland office has become a “center of excellence” for program management and traffic modeling for toll plazas and interchanges. HNTB-Portland engineers and planners also are in demand for their program management skills.
“Program management involves working with clients, particularly toll agencies, to analyze deficiencies and assist with activities such as financing, reports for bond rating agencies and administering design and construction,” said Lavallee. He said that increasingly HNTB Portland’s engineers have exported their expertise in traffic modeling for projects to other state departments of transportation and tolling authorities in Washington, Florida, Oklahoma and Texas.
“Our practical field experience gives the client an understanding of the issues before design and construction starts,” said Paul Godfrey, leader of the office’s traffic engineering-planning department. Another sign of HNTB-Portland’s rising stock in the industry was Lavallee’s recent promotion to head the Boston and New England area operations for the company. In New Hampshire, HNTB-Portland has been consulting with the NHDOT on the proposed widening of I-93, as well as on the general operations and maintenance of I-95. The firm’s experience working with the MTA and MaineDOT has been a key selling point. “A lot of people are talking about what’s being done up here in Maine, and a lot of people are trying to copy it,” said Lavallee.
That kind of leadership and innovation is very much central to the national firm’s culture. HNTB consistently ranks among the top design firms in Engineering News-Record’s annual rankings in many categories, including bridges, highways, transportation and mass transit and rail. HNTB-Portland also has garnered its own industry recognition: most recently it shared second place honors with the Maine Turnpike Authority at the 2005 American Road & Transportation Builders Association Transportation Development Foundation’s (ARTBA-TDF) Globe Awards for the Turnpike Widening and Modernization Project.
“What makes the Portland office really unique is the tremendous team that has been assembled here,” said Lavallee. “Everyone here knows how to work as a team, but they aren’t afraid to express initiative. That’s how we have been able to grow beyond our bounds. We encourage each other and are not afraid to take that next step.”