Your City at Work: How Infrastructure Projects Get Built

From streets to stormwater systems, public infrastructure is a critical component of a safe and healthy community.

From streets to stormwater systems, public infrastructure is a critical component of a safe and healthy community. Our city’s Public Works and Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Departments, comprised of teams of engineers, project managers, maintenance workers, inspectors, and environmental experts, work every day to protect Burien’s built environment and natural systems.

Cities are required to provide adequate public facilities to serve existing and new development under Washington’s Growth Management Act. A capital project is defined as a one-time project that costs more than $25,000 and has a service life of at least ten years. This includes major renovations of existing facilities.

“Our biggest responsibility is maintaining safe streets, managing stormwater to prevent flooding and other damage, and protecting Burien’s natural environment,” said Maiya Andrews, Public Works Director.

Many street improvement projects also include elements that improve accessibility.

“Street improvements usually provide better sidewalks, bike lanes, and places for people walk,” said Robin Tischmak, Deputy Public Works Director. “Project improvements can encourage people to walk more or can include beautification, making it nicer for people use.”

Without good roads, people can’t get where they need to go, including emergency vehicles, public transit, workers, and customers for our local businesses. The City maintains 137 miles of streets, roughly the same distance between Burien and the Canadian border.

“Keeping up with maintenance of streets is more cost-effective than letting them deteriorate, which then requires more expensive repairs,” said Andrews. “We try to spend our maintenance resources efficiently. There are times we may prioritize a street that has minor repair needs over a street with more significant repair needs because then we can maintain a broader area with the limited funds we have.”

Infrastructure projects help to solve community problems and are a critical component of public safety. Speeding or pedestrian safety problems are often concerns raised by the community.

“Sometimes the solution to a problem is not always obvious,” said Tischmak. “We first need to think about what causes speeding and what remedies there are. Placing speed bumps on a road may actually cause more problems. Sometimes the solution is more speeding enforcement.”

When traffic safety concerns are raised, our engineers may conduct a traffic study in order to accurately diagnose the problem and recommend the best solution.

Capital projects occur in parks as well. They could be as large as a new park or could involve the replacement of older park elements, like playgrounds or bathrooms. A major component of parks projects is protecting the environmental assets of the city including shorelines, forests, natural stormwater systems, and wildlife habitat. 

Carolyn Hope, Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Director explains, “Parks projects involve planning with the community to determine the priorities for resident’s interests and these priorities are carried into the park design.” 

Making a difference

The City’s engineers feel a sense of satisfaction when they are able to help.

“I like the idea that I can walk out into the community, meet with people, answer their questions, and solve problems,” said Brian Victor, Civil Engineer II, who has been with the City for more than 13 years. “They can approach me, and I can provide service.”

“Every day you are working on a different type of project,” said David Traub, Civil Engineer, Journey. “It’s a lot of different puzzles to solve when coordinating a project.”

Infrastructure plays a significant role in maintaining a healthy environment for both people and wildlife. The City has invested millions of dollars over the past ten years into upgrading stormwater systems so they can filter more pollutants from water before it reaches Puget Sound, building green infrastructure such as rain gardens and bioswales, and educating communities on how to take community-level action to protect our local waterways. The removal of the seawall and other improvements to Seahurst Park represented significant “green infrastructure” investments that protect Burien’s natural systems.

Engineering Inspector Brian Tornow checks sediment levels in a catch basin.

A more recent example is the Hermes Basin Project, which replaced pumps in a stormwater drainage system on SW 130th Street between 2nd Ave SW and 1st Ave S.

“It’s not as visible. But it’s very meaningful. We moved a whole stormwater drainage system from private property on to public right-of-way,” said Traub, who was the Hermes Basin project manager. “As a result, we were able to go a whole winter with no flooding in that area.”

We all have a role to play

While much of Burien’s infrastructure is on public property, private property owners also maintain a significant amount of infrastructure.

Eighty-five percent of Burien’s housing was built before 1980 and 45 percent before 1960. That means the water, sewer, and stormwater systems underneath these properties are also aging.

We all have a role to play. New development must follow current safety and environmental regulations, and property owners need to maintain their own systems. Green infrastructure projects on private property can help strengthen our citywide system of protections for our local waterways.

Through public planning processes, community has a voice in how projects are identified and prioritized (see below). You can weigh in through public comment at Burien City Council meetings or project-specific public meetings, email comments to publicworks@burienwa.gov or parksinfo@burienwa.gov, or by reporting emerging issues through the online reporting system at burienwa.gov/report.

The City of Burien maintains streets, sidewalks, certain rights-of-way, stormwater systems (the pipes and drains that move rainfall off roads and private property into a series of underground pipes that lead to outfalls or stormwater drainage ponds), traffic and pedestrian safety features (crosswalks, stop signs, speed bumps), and parks and recreation buildings. Other types of infrastructure such as water and sewer systems are maintained by water and sewer districts, power systems are maintained by Seattle City Light and Puget Sound Energy, and highways, bridges over highways, and rights-of-way next to the highways are maintained by Washington State Department of Transportation.

How does a project get built?

Infrastructure is built and repaired through a planning, design and construction process that requires community involvement and City Council input and approval.

Identifying and planning projects: Mid and long-range plans identify and prioritize timing of projects. The six-year Transportation Improvement Plan, updated annually, represents the current list of needed projects that may begin work in the next six years. This plan also determines the Capital Improvement Program, which is the annual budget for capital projects and helps the City compete for federal and state transportation grants. The Stormwater Drainage Master Plan outlines long-term planning, state and federal regulatory requirements, maintenance needs, and capital improvements related to stormwater over the next five to ten years. The Transportation Master Plan and Parks Recreation and Open Spaces (PROS) Plan are long-range plans that set the vision for Burien’s transportation and parks systems, respectively, communicating the level of service standards and capital improvement plan for each area. Plans are influenced by community feedback and approved by the City Council.

Scheduling projects: Need and community feedback influences when a project begins. If an emergency requires more immediate attention, projects may get re-prioritized to the top of the list. If a grant is received, projects may be re-scheduled to take advantage of the funding opportunity. Or, if a new development on private property is scheduled to begin, and they are planning infrastructure improvements, the City may re-prioritize an adjacent project in order to be the most efficient with public dollars as well as minimize neighborhood impact from construction.

Preliminary design: Once a project has been selected to begin, it goes through a preliminary design phase. Engineers and other experts develop 30 percent of the design, focusing on details that help determine the cost of the project. Depending on the source of funding for the project, budgets are also developed, grants applied for, or budget approval is sought from the City Council.

Final design, environmental review, and permitting: Final design is completed at the same time as permitting and environmental review are underway. Some projects require consultation with local tribes.

Property acquisition: Sometimes the City must purchase easements (legal right to use a property). For a road project, this could mean negotiating with several property owners within just one block. This phase occurs after environmental review. For parks projects, the acquisition typically occurs before planning and design occurs.

Bid: While all infrastructure projects have oversight from our engineers and other expert staff, we rely on the expertise of construction firms to build the project. To select a contractor, the City follows an open and fair bid process, following federal, state, and local laws. The City evaluates bids on whether they are “responsive” and “responsible”. Responsive means they have submitted all the proper documents. Responsible means they have the right personnel, equipment, and finances to perform the requirements of the contract. The contractor puts together the final elements of the contract.

Construction: Once a contract is in place, construction can begin. The contractor follows the bid documents, including the engineering plans, specifications, and permit documents to construct the project. Neighbors of the project site are notified of potential impacts before construction begins. Construction can take a few months or several years, depending on the size of the project. Staff give regular reports to the City Council on progress and communicate updates on a project web page.

Funding sources: Infrastructure projects are funded through the City’s budget (Capital Improvement Program, Surface Water Management Program, and Parks Capital Improvement Program), state and federal grants, private development sources, real estate excise tax (REET), property tax, local improvement districts, traffic impact fees, and loans.

Emily Inlow-Hood
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