Damage Prevention… the Chicago Way

The city of Chicago is a tremendous place. Founded in 1833, the “Windy City” has always been a town that leans into challenges. When a growing country needed food, Chicago built the stockyards and railyards; when a fire decimated the metropolis, Chicago invented the skyscraper to hasten redevelopment; and as the population grew, Chicago built the “el” to move people across the city efficiently. With each advancement came infrastructure. As it became more crowded underground, so did the risk that utility damage would have severe consequences. Despite the risk, it wasn’t until 1992 that civic leaders and utility stakeholders codified a plan to prevent infrastructure damage.

On April 13, 1992, the Chicago Loop flooded. The event, known as the Great Chicago Flood, was caused by sheet pilings being driven into a “freight tunnel” beneath the Chicago River. The flood resulted in nearly $2 billion in damages and forced people to ask the question, “How could this accident have been prevented?” Just like Chicago’s answer to its previous adversity, the answer was innovation. Chicago established the Office of Underground Coordination (OUC) with a mandate “to promote efficiency of work in the public way, to reduce the risk of damage to existing underground facilities, and to reduce the inconvenience to the public caused by work in the public way.” OUC would become the first and most vital step in Chicago’s damage prevention life cycle.

OUC is part of the Chicago Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) Division of Infrastructure Management (DIM). DIM is responsible for overseeing any project on or under the public right-of-way within the city of Chicago. With the establishment of OUC, DIM implemented an oversight life cycle that includes reviewing and approving project plans, issuing work permits and dig tickets, and enforcing compliance with CDOT regulations. The life cycle begins when a developer requests information about facilities at a site. This process, known as Information Retrieval (IR), provides the developer with atlas pages allowing them to design a project in a manner that minimizes interference with existing facilities. Once the project design is complete, the developer submits their drawing to OUC for Existing Facility Protection (EFP) review. OUC staff scrutinizes the drawing to ensure it complies with applicable regulations and is coordinated with other pending projects. If OUC approves, it distributes the drawing to utility owners (including gas, electric, and water) for review. If a utility owner determines that the proposed excavation and installation encroaches upon existing infrastructure, they ask the developer for revisions. OUC approves the plan only after the design is clear of all existing utilities. In this way, DIM reduces the likelihood of damage before excavation begins.

Once OUC approves the project, the developer’s contractor contacts DIM’s Permit Office and requests a work permit. Only licensed contractors with approved OUC files can request work permits. Permit Office staff reviews comments from OUC review and considers those comments when issuing a work permit to the licensed contractor. To promote transparency and alert community members to impending work, DIM posts all permits online.

After the Permit Office issues the work permit, the contractor can request a dig ticket by calling 811. Chicago is unique in that CDOT operates the city’s One Call center (the rest of Illinois is under the jurisdiction of JULIE, the state One Call center). The upshot of having the One Call center affiliated with CDOT is that staff, technology, and laws are aligned to close control gaps. For example, the 811 system will not allow staff to issue a public right-ofway dig ticket without a valid permit.

The final step in the damage prevention life cycle is enforcement. DIM has two dedicated inspection units: Public Way inspections focus on permitted work and general right-of-way issues, and 811 inspections focus on utility damages (of which they investigate every reported damage) and One Call violations. 811 enforcement and mandatory damage reporting were established by law in 2017 to create the final component of the damage prevention life cycle. Both inspections units have the authority to issue citations. Citations issued by Public Way inspectors are prosecuted by the City of Chicago’s Administrative Hearings division; citations issued by 811 inspectors are reviewed by a panel consisting of City and utility representatives. DIM uses inspection data, including citations, to identify irresponsible contractors and, if necessary, deny them permits in the future.

DIM’s damage prevention life cycle is effective for three reasons.

1.All workflows in the life cycle are under the purview of one agency. This allows for standardized rules and encourages collaboration. If operations were scattered, different work units may be subject to conflicting priorities that would undermine the workflow.

2.DIM relies on technology to control its processes. Beginning with OUC, integrated data systems provide reasonable assurance that only approved projects (those designed to avoid damage) can move to the next stage and, eventually, excavation. In addition, most of DIM’s data systems have a public facing view (ChiStreetWork, permits, dig tickets) which adds an additional layer of oversight.

3.Public Way stakeholders participate in the damage prevention life cycle. Though OUC membership is not required by law, all major utility owners in the Chicago area participate in IR and EFP reviews because it helps protect their assets. Similarly, utility owners and excavators voluntarily send crews to 811 Chicago for training.

The effectiveness of DIM’s damage prevention life cycle can be observed by measuring utility hit data within the context of Chicago’s construction environment. Starting in 2014, Chicago has experienced a boom in high-rise construction, including several towers greater than 70 stories. In addition, major public works projects have begun like reconstruction of “el” lines (Red Purple Modernization project), installation of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lanes, construction of the Obama Presidential Center, and rebuilding of the “Circle Interchange.” To support those projects and continually meet the needs of the public, utility owners are replacing water mains (880 miles so far) and natural gas lines (eventually 2,200 miles will be replaced), installing 5G modules, and repaving roads. Yet, despite the increase in excavation activity and an already crowded subsurface, utility hits have decreased. Since 2017, 811 Chicago experienced a decrease in utility damages, highlighted by a 0.62 damage ratio in 2019.

DIM and its Public Way stakeholders continue to identify ways to bring the City of Chicago closer to “zero damages.” Interactive training, machine learning, and predictive analytics hold promise for preventing, rather than reacting, to utility hits. DIM staff embrace the spirit of Chicago by finding innovative ways to solve today’s most difficult challenges in an effort to achieve the goal of “zero damages.”

Jai Kalayil and Matthew Peterson, Chicago Department of Transportation, Division of Infrastructure Management. They can be reached at jai.kalayil@cityofchicago.org and matthew.peterson1@cityofchicago.org.

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