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Firm bridges infrastructure gaps

September 1, 2017
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Williams & Works
Williams & Works’ civil engineering arm helps municipalities plan and fund projects years in advance. Courtesy Williams & Works

Absent the federal government cash stockpiles of the 1980s for funding infrastructure upgrades, municipalities today have to find other means to get projects done, working with engineering firms like Williams & Works.

The firm at 549 Ottawa Ave. NW in downtown Grand Rapids has three main areas of focus: surveying, planning and engineering.

Dave Austin, managing principal, senior project manager and engineer, said the three-legged structure keeps the firm from putting all of its “eggs in the engineering basket.”

Its team of 20 surveyors works with the telecommunications industry, private utilities companies and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT).

The firm’s six planners plot urban projects, such as the Plaza Roosevelt development underway on the southwest side of Grand Rapids and The River’s Edge project along the Grand River in the Monroe North neighborhood.

Williams & Works’ 15 engineers sometimes work with private sector companies, but most of their projects are for municipal clients — such as Hastings, Belding, Lowell, Middleville, Kentwood and Grand Rapids. The work of all three arms of the companies overlaps, like when surveyors and engineers both use mobile GIS equipment to examine culverts under an MDOT road in Lansing.

Austin said the engineering team’s main challenge right now is “crumbling infrastructure,” including sanitary sewers, storm sewers, water mains, bridges and roads.

His firm helps municipal clients secure Department of Environmental Quality grants through the Stormwater Asset Management and Wastewater (SAW) program, “to analyze their existing waste and stormwater systems and provide asset plans to upgrade them.”

He noted roads and bridges are harder to pay for than water and wastewater systems.

“The biggest challenge is our roadways, particularly in the small to medium communities we work for,” he said. “They are struggling to stay on top of those due to lack of funding.

“In the water and sewer business, we all pay water and sewer rates, so when we use more, we pay more,” he said. “For our roads, we don’t pay. We don’t get a road bill. So, it comes from a community’s general fund, from our taxes. Or it comes from state contributions, which (are) limited. Or it comes from roads designated as Federal Aid Roads.”

Clients like the city of Lowell are considering all options, Austin said.

“They have to look at raising taxes or creating new taxes or asking their DDAs to participate in rebuilding their crumbling infrastructure,” he said.

Austin said in the world of civil engineering, “sometimes engineering is the easy part.”

“There’s a lot of cost estimation in engineering that has to be done up front. We have to start helping our clients years in advance to get the funds to do their projects,” he said. “I do a lot of grant writing myself. I’m not unique in that — all the consulting firms do that. If our clients have the money, they will do projects.”

In the early part of his career, Austin said the money question was not such a looming challenge.

“I’m old enough to have started my career in the early 1980s when the EPA had a giant, massive nationwide grant program to upgrade wastewater systems,” he said. “They provided communities with 80 to 90 percent grants at the time. That was wonderful. Most of the small communities in Michigan had major wastewater sanitary upgrades at that time, and at the same time, got roads repaved because they had to dig up the roads to do the sewers.

“That’s now 37 years ago. The grant that paid for that … those facilities are wearing out. Communities have not kept up with setting aside funds to pay for rebuilding the infrastructure.”

Although other programs are available, like the USDA World Development program and state funds from the MDEQ, they pale in comparison to the funding heyday of the 1980s.

Austin said the rising increase in funding for hiking and biking trails gets under some people’s skin.

“One of the tough things I face is I like hiking and biking trails, and working on those projects like the nonmotorized trails in Lowell,” he said. “There are grants available for trails, and that’s great. But sometimes, the communities get criticized, ‘Why are you building a bicycle trail when the road next to it is crumbling?’ People don’t understand the funding comes from different places.”

He said despite the many challenges municipal projects present, Williams & Works plans to stay on its current path for the foreseeable future.

“We are not looking to triple in size; we are just looking forward to growing as the opportunities arise.”

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