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Recap: Delivering the Benefits of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

US Transportation Secretary Buttigieg Launches the USDOT Project Delivery Center of Excellence

US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg launched the new USDOT Project Delivery Center of Excellence hosted at the Volpe Center and delivered keynote remarks at the first in an eight-part virtual thought leadership series: Delivering the Benefits of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL). Professor Bent Flyvbjerg, First BT Professor and Inaugural Chair of Major Programme Management, Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and Villum Kann Rasmussen Professor and Chair of Major Program Management, IT University of Copenhagen, the author of How Big Things Get Done and Megaprojects and Risk, joined the Secretary in the July 26 conversation about the importance of transportation infrastructure project delivery. U.S. DOT Volpe Center Director Anne Aylward moderated the interactive event. 

This post provides a recap of the conversation. You can watch the full event video here.

“A Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity to Rebuild Our Nation’s Infrastructure”

Since President Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2021, USDOT and the Biden-Harris Administration has hit the ground running to take advantage of this once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure—and is already delivering major progress. To date, nearly 35,000 projects have been awarded funding from the BIL—across over 4,500 communities in all 50 states, D.C., and territories.

Secretary Buttigieg noted that many of the event’s almost 800 attendees across the transportation enterprise were a part of the story of the passage of the monumental BIL, and now it’s time to be part of the story of “how we make good on its potential.”

Now, these projects need to be built on time, on task, and on budget. The Secretary acknowledged that a large part of that work lies with non-federal entities—our state, Tribal, regional, territorial, local, and industry partners—those who must deliver. Secretary Buttigieg underscored USDOT’s commitment to partnering with project sponsors to speed up project delivery and maximize and accelerate the benefits of BIL. The Project Delivery Center of Excellence is one of the critical tools USDOT is using to achieve such success. The Center of Excellence aims to bridge the gap between practitioners in the field—those sponsors of projects funded by BIL—and leading thought leaders and academic researchers, to share perspectives, exchange expertise, and identify best practices that can be put to use. “We are optimistic about what can be done, but we also know that it won't happen on its own,” said the Secretary. “The Volpe Center is such a great place to host this thought leadership [as] thought leaders for our Department and an extraordinary global hub for transportation expertise.”

Secretary Buttigieg encouraged all to take advantage of the growing resources on the Project Delivery Center of Excellence’s website and remarked that now is “the best chance probably in our lifetimes in the United States to transform our transportation systems for the better, to make communities safer, to make transportation cleaner, to advance equity, and to connect people to the resources, opportunities, and jobs that are going to shape their lives.”

Starting Projects the Right Way: “Slow Thinking” Prior to Acting Fast and Delivering

Secretary Buttigieg and Anne Aylward welcomed Professor Bent Flyvbjerg, whose extensive research in project management and project delivery aligns with the focus areas of the Project Delivery Center of Excellence and the series—advancing more efficient processes, collaboration, sharing of best practices, and rooting out the causes of delays and overruns. The Secretary and Professor Flyvbjerg then engaged in an insightful conversation.

Starting projects the right way, long before construction begins, was the opening focus of the exchange. The Secretary asked Professor Flyvbjerg to share his insights on “slow thinking” prior to acting fast and delivering.

“It sounds like a paradox. But if you want to go fast, you've got to go slow first,” Professor Flyvbjerg stated. He encouraged attendees not to run with their first idea, but instead, start with the questions: Why are we doing this project, and how do we get to the desired outcome? He recommended spending a substantial amount of time answering both those questions and seeking feedback and input from project stakeholders. Once that has been ironed out and the project is in the delivery process, “you can actually move ahead fast, because you always know what you're doing, and it’s well thought out and well programmed.”

Project Successes and the Uniqueness Bias

The Secretary noted the importance of learning from both project failures as well as successes—and of identifying commonalities in successful projects. 

Professor Flyvbjerg highlighted a few key elements in successful projects, particularly noting:

  • Starting slow with an extended upfront period of planning, simulation, and experimentation
  • Learning from other projects and avoiding the dangers of uniqueness bias and working in isolation.

Secretary Buttigieg and the Professor engaged on how cognitive biases—particularly the uniqueness bias—is relevant in transportation project delivery. “Everything we work on is both unique and part of the class,” said Secretary Buttigieg. He referenced megaprojects such as the Hudson Tunnel Project in New York City and California High-Speed Rail Authority Project connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles—as first-of-kind, innovative projects that share fundamental principles, objectives, phases, regulations, stakeholders, and impact in the broader transportation domain.

“You're unique, like everybody else,” Professor Flyvbjerg stated, further explaining that successful projects and leaders know that their project, no matter how specific it is, falls into a project type and leveraging the experiences and best practices from other projects in that type is critical for successful project delivery. For example, many projects share similar techniques for design and construction.

“You're increasing the risk that your project is going to fail enormously if you don't benefit from all the learning that is out there,” noted Professor Flyvbjerg.

Understanding and Managing Project Risks

Good project delivery—and the Center of Excellence—must focus on understanding project risks and managing them. We know that failure to address risk contributes to cost overruns and unnecessarily prolonged project schedules. Secretary Buttigieg and Professor Flyvbjerg shared their perspectives on how project sponsors and delivery teams can manage risks to achieve better outcomes on both small and large projects.

In particular, Professor Flyvbjerg mentioned the importance of considering the whole probability distribution for risk (not the average), factoring in contingencies to protect against mild risks, and eliminating any extreme outlier events or risks—often referred to as "black swans.”

Community and Stakeholder Engagement Are Key to Successful Project Delivery

“There is a dependency between proper, good, inclusive engagement and good, strong time of delivery,” said Secretary Buttigieg. He noted that public and community engagement that describes project benefits and impacts and provides meaningful opportunities minimizes controversy, opposition, and delay and shapes better projects.

Successful project leaders take community and stakeholder engagement as seriously as project design, cost-benefit analysis, and environmental impact analysis, responded Professor Flyvbjerg. The social impact analysis and stakeholder engagement is just as critical.

Public engagement is one of the key components in the Project Delivery Toolbox, a newly launched and ever-growing resource library made available to stakeholders by the Center of Excellence.

View the recording of the event.

Learn more and register for the rest of the eight-part series of events, happening through November 2023.

Learn more about the U.S. DOT Project Delivery Center of Excellence.

Sponsored by the USDOT Project Delivery Center of Excellence 

Hosted by the U.S. DOT Volpe Center, the Delivering the Benefits of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law event series is sponsored by the new USDOT Project Delivery Center of Excellence

The U.S. DOT Volpe Center is committed to principles of accessibility and inclusion. If you require reasonable accommodations, please contact collateral duty Disability Program Specialist Stephanie Chase and carbon copy EEO Manager Eliot Sutler on your request.  

Sponsored by the USDOT Project Delivery Center of Excellence