Four Stages of a Mega Project – An Insider Perspective

Port Mann Bridge constructionYou might become aware of a major transportation project when it’s announced on the news or social media, or by chatting with a friend or neighbour. Or you might learn there is something really big happening from new signs. Then again, your curiosity may be piqued when you see construction markers, big equipment and people dressed in reflective vests at a site.

With these forms of information, what you don’t see is all the work that goes on for us to deliver huge projects like the Port Mann Bridge, South Fraser Perimeter Road or the McKenzie Interchange. While it’s a lot of work – and a lot of details – we’ve boiled it down for you here.  Of course, each project has its unique characteristics and setting, and things might happen differently for each, but this is generally what goes on…

1 PLANNING (the idea)

Studies (the data) – facts to determine the need, like traffic volumes and growth, local development and safety factors

Stakeholder inputs (the wants) – what we hear from the travelling public, industry, municipalities, First Nations and public consultation like the Sunshine Coast Fixed Link Feasibility Study for example.

Conceptual options (the possible solutions)

  • Establishing funding level needed
  • Determining what needs and/or wants can be achieved at each funding threshold
  • Laying out what happens in the short term, medium term, long term
  • Seeking high-level input from engineering disciplines

Outcome of planning phase

  • Prioritization of the investment with other priorities and projects on a local, regional and provincial level.
  • Securing funding commitments to advance into design phase

Avg Daily Volumes - McK IntStudy of traffic flow– annual average daily traffic volumes at the Mckenzie Interchange for 2015.

2 DESIGN (the selected solutions)

  • Assemble project team and bring designers onboard – a typical Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure project may have 10 staff directly assigned throughout the project and more than 50 involved at some point in time. (This varies greatly on the project’s complexity.)

The skills include:

  • Geotechnical engineering to determine:
    • How the earth will perform and react to the road and vice versa
    • What retaining structures, rock cuts (blasting), earth cuts and fills (excavation) are needed
    • How strong the road must be (pavement thicknesses, amount of gravels below the asphalt) based on forecasted use
  • Structural engineering – Bridges, tunnels, sign structures, large retaining walls, culverts
  • Hydraulic engineering – to address river and creek effects on bridge foundations and how nearby water flow will be managed to avoid undermining the road, and to help ensure the infrastructure (eg. road, bridge, underpass) can withstand extreme flood events
  • Traffic engineering – to determine how drivers will navigate the road and the required lane markings, intersections, signal operations and signage.
  • Electrical engineering – to plan and program traffic signals, overhead lighting/luminaires, Intelligent transportation solutions (changeable message signs, speed readers boards, variable speed limits, LED signs, webcams, wildlife detection systems)
  • Highway engineering –determine the road or bridge’s geometry, curve radius, grades, number of lanes, speed of facility, roadside drainage, and roadside hazard protection.

Partial Cloverleaf Design - McK IntDesign selected for the McKenzie Interchange

  • Obtain further stakeholder inputs (to ensure the proposed solution meets the “needs” and some or all of the “wants”)
    • Determine what is in scope and out of scope
    • Investigate user impacts, beyond those of motorists, eg. utilities, municipalities, and other third party infrastructure like railroads or municipal roads

3 CONSTRUCTION (the delivery of the solution)

  • Determine the delivery method
    • About 99% of our projects take the design, bid, build approach where we contract with an engineering consulting firm to design all or a part of the project. Once the design is finalized, we then go to tender, providing the design drawings and project details, including unique specifications are beyond those in our Manual of Standard Specifications for Highway Construction. The lowest bidder usually becomes the “contractor” and builds the project.
    • For some large projects like the Port Mann Bridge and George Massey Tunnel Replacements, the ministry provides information about what we want built and puts out Requests for Proposals for companies who to do both the design and the construction. In some cases, like the Sea-to-Sky Highway, one contractor delivers all aspects of the work – they design, build and operate the bridge or highway.
  • Determine work supervision needs
    • Ministry construction staff to oversee construction
    • Consultant staff to oversee works
    • Engineer of Record coordination – original designer must review the works to sign off on the final product as meeting their expectations and design intent.
    • Property acquisition — assess property needs during or immediately following design, and negotiation to obtain land required to deliver the project prior to construction.
  • Communicate with stakeholders
    • Inform drivers, owners and users of the infrastructure how things will progress during construction, to minimize impacts
  • Start construction (aka shovels in the ground)
    • For all projects we regularly review updated schedules and financial reports to see how we’re doing on completion dates and budget allocations.
    • Some typical construction phases on a grading contract (one part of a major project):
      • Survey layout
      • Tree clearing and stump removals
      • Utility relocations
      • Earth excavations and embankment construction
      • Blasting
      • Engineered gravel placements
      • Underground electrical installs (pole bases, conduits, junction boxes)
      • Concrete sidewalks and/or curbing
      • Paving
      • Overhead electrical installation of signal lights, luminaires
      • Concrete barrier placement
      • Line painting
      • Sign installation

(Some tasks may happen at the same time. For example, blasting may take place at one part of the site, and in another area, where that’s already been done, gravel placement and electrical installations might be well underway.)

Hoffman's Bluff Phase 2 June 2016June 2016 work at Hoffman’s Bluff showing area blasted, as part of four-laning the Trans-Canada Highway.


  • Wrap up final construction, address deficiencies, and close out contracts
  • Obtain final signoff from design engineers of record of finished product
  • Obtain acceptance of the product from district operations staff who will oversee the use and maintenance of the new road/bridge etc.
  • Grand opening – ribbon cuttings or other events where the road/bridge is officially opened
  • Clerical closeout – project filing, and release of staff back to their departments.

Our major projects involve a whole lot more than this – particularly the construction phase when it comes to putting in bridges, overpasses and underpasses. But those are other stories to be told, with a lot more details of what’s involved in building highway systems that enable you to get around safely and efficiently.

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  1. Or you can take the approach taken to Kamloops to Alberta four laning. No plan, no design, no timescales. The reality is a shortfall on delivering the promise of inadequate funding ($650m over 10 years) and piecemeal work at a rate that will take many decades to achieve the aim of the ‘project’.

    • Hi Nick,

      Thank you again for your comments and continued concern. Under B.C. on the Move, the ministry’s new 10-year transportation plan, the Province is committed to continuing to work with the federal government to fund priority projects on the Trans-Canada Highway, with a goal of increasing the total investment to over $1 billion over the next 10 years. With respect to your comments about the timeline for this work, projects of this magnitude require significant engineering and construction resources and must be carried out over the long term. We hope that this helps.

      • It would be nice if there was even a faint chance that many of the worst accident blackspots on BC’s most lethal highway (ICBC’s description) would be upgraded in the next decade or two. Unfortunately, given current rates of progress, I would be a fool to expect this to happen.