TWM Contributor: Nick Galla, PE Transportation Project Manager

A CONVERSATIONAL PERSPECTIVE ON THE SCOPE OF PUBLIC WORKS

Working in public works for a city involves navigating a unique combination of challenges and triumphs, highlighting the intricate and crucial task of maintaining and enhancing municipal infrastructure. This role requires balancing budget constraints, regulatory compliance, and technological advancements while striving to meet the community’s needs and expectations. Despite these obstacles, the successes achieved in public works significantly impact the quality of life for residents, economic development, and the overall sustainability and resilience of the city.

Nick knows firsthand that a strong public works department is vital in keeping a community functioning. The ease of use of public infrastructure—local roads, bridges, walk/bike trails, clean drinking water, parks, sidewalks, bus stops, etc.—is often overlooked or taken for granted. Having served as both the Assistant City Engineer and Public Works Director for the City of Saint Charles, Missouri for over eight years, Nick has a true appreciation for Public Works Departments and how they tackle infrastructure projects big and small to help make significant contributions to the communities they serve.

He says, “It’s easy to forget about all the ways we use public infrastructure until something is broken.” For instance, it’s difficult to travel on broken, deteriorated roads; to practice good hygiene without clean, potable water; or to live in a home without adequate sewers and plumbing. Public Works Departments operate 24/7 to solve these types of problems when they occur, and these teams are the front line of defense to prevent these problems from occurring in the first place.

Public Works Departments are clearly the unsung heroes of city living. However, the path to effective public service is fraught with numerous challenges. Understanding these pitfalls can shed light on the complexity of their work and the resilience required to keep our cities functioning.

RECOGNIZING THE CHALLENGES

Budget Constraints | When asked about the biggest challenge facing public works departments today, Nick said, “The current challenge most public works departments face is how to solve critical problems within tight budget constraints.” He went on to explain that funding is often extremely limited and must be carefully allocated across various essential services. This financial juggling act can lead to delays in maintenance and upgrades, potentially compromising the quality of infrastructure and public services. With a limited budget, Public Works Departments must prioritize projects, often leading to difficult decisions about what gets immediate attention and what can wait. Balancing urgent repairs with long-term projects requires strategic planning and can sometimes result in public dissatisfaction when visible issues like potholes remain unaddressed.

Aging Infrastructure | Cities are often faced with the daunting task of maintaining and upgrading aging infrastructure. Deciding whether to repair or replace aging infrastructure is a constant challenge. Unforeseen issues, such as water main breaks or potholes, require immediate attention and resources. Repairs can be less expensive in the short term but may not offer a long-term solution, whereas replacements are costly but essential for sustainable urban development.

Community Expectations | Managing the community’s expectations is an ongoing challenge. Public Works Departments must communicate effectively with residents to explain project timelines, potential disruptions, and the long-term benefits of their work. Being transparent with the public can help gain support. There are many ways to communicate with the public including open house meetings, social media posts, and dedicated websites to major projects. On larger infrastructure improvements, public works departments may even meet with residents’ one-on-one to explain the benefits of the project and to mitigate any impacts to their property.

Despite the many challenges mentioned here, among others, Public Works Departments achieve remarkable successes that significantly enhance the lives of those within their communities. Their efforts lead to improved quality of life, economic growth, and greater community engagement.

APPRECIATING THE TRIUMPHS

Improved Quality of Life | Successful projects, such as improved roadways, parks, and public facilities, directly enhance the quality of life for residents. Ensuring clean water, effective waste management, and safe public spaces contribute to overall community well-being. Nick said he particularly enjoyed helping residents solve infrastructure problems related to flooding, erosion, broken pavement, missing sidewalks, sewer backup, and broken water service lines. Once completed, the improvements make a real difference in people’s lives.

 New Innovations | Implementing new innovations and technology helps Public Works Departments overcome budget and staffing challenges. Nick shared that in his time working for the City of St. Charles, the Public Works Department embraced geographic information systems (GIS) for more than simply asset management. It was utilized to establish key performance indicators for the department, analyze trends for infrastructure replacement, and track department budget and work orders for crews. GIS provided effective communication measures for the public including scheduling public transportation, informing the community of upcoming construction project locations, and scheduling for the future. Additionally, it was used for snow and ice removal operations with a real-time map showing the location of snowplows and which streets had been serviced. Utilizing modern technology for smart city initiatives and efficient infrastructure management can significantly improve service delivery.

Resilience Building | Nick said, “An aspect of public works often overlooked is responding to emergencies and natural disasters.” Enhancing infrastructure resilience to natural disasters, such as floods and earthquakes, protects the community and reduces long-term costs. When police and fire departments need help, they call the Public Works Department. During damaging storms or flood events, public works staff will barricade roads, establish detours, set up message boards, clear debris, repair broken water mains, fix flashing traffic signals and more. They work countless hours to keep infrastructure functioning and restored back to normal as quickly as possible.

Public works encompass a broad range of services and infrastructure projects that are essential to the daily functioning and quality of life in our communities. From ensuring clean water and safe roads to managing waste and parks, public works professionals are the backbone of urban and rural infrastructure. Reflecting on his time working for the City of Saint Charles, Nick said, “I think what I enjoyed most was the opportunity to communicate regularly with residents and listen to their concerns about existing infrastructure challenges and their needs for various improvements.” He said he’s thankful he gained significant experience obtaining outside funding for substantial projects, managing many large cities network projects, working in teams, long-range planning, conducting public meetings, and so much more.

APPLYING KEY TAKEAWAYS

Nick shared that his role as a project manager at TWM has been significantly influenced by his understanding of the maintenance, operations, and planning of public infrastructure. When designing new infrastructure, he has the unique perspective of considering elements that are easier to maintain while balancing project and life cycle costs. “For instance,” he said, “A roadway reconstruction project may evaluate various enhancement options to preserve and extend the life of the pavement.” Important details like this impact his approach to transportation projects.

Nick said communication has also been key to successful project execution. With firsthand experience addressing common issues affecting residents, he understands the methods to minimize property impacts and better convey the project’s needs to the public. Nick enjoys helping municipalities find unique solutions to their public infrastructure challenges and his genuine appreciation for his public works experience is reflected in his work.

Read more about TWM’s engineering services in transportation, land development, and water/wastewater.