Every two weeks like clockwork, Springfield City Council meets to plan, discuss and enact city projects, often to contribute to safety, health or quality of life.
The discussions are high profile, but the department that puts shovels in the ground is low key. Under the direction of Dan Smith, Springfield Public Works handles eight areas: transportation management, traffic engineering, street operations, public grounds, general services, transportation engineering, stormwater engineering and construction inspection.
In 2021, Public Works and Environmental Services earned reaccreditation from the American Public Works Association, with 100% compliance – a level achieved by fewer than 1% of communities across the country.
Eight areas of the department were highlighted by APWA as model practices, to be shared across the country with agencies involved in their own self-assessment processes. These included the city’s emergency operations manual, capital improvements programming and the recycling program.
Joe Johnson, regional director of the AWPA National Board, is quoted in the Public Works annual report as saying, “Especially during this challenging time with the pandemic, this is a phenomenal achievement for the city of Springfield and the community you serve.”
He added that the accreditation solidifies the trust and accountability of the city and shows the department to be well managed and proactive.
Tied in with the reaccreditation process is the vision of the department: “Provide quality public infrastructure to make Springfield a prosperous and attractive place to live.”
While many organizations have rather pro-forma mission and vision statements, pulled together by marketing teams, Smith said his team embraces this one.
“That goes along with City Council’s priority of quality of place,” he said. “We’re wanting to use infrastructure to elevate the city of Springfield and make it a more attractive place.”
The statement is noticeably brief, and Smith said that’s by design.
“If you make something too large and complex, no one will really try to do anything with it. We’ve kept it succinct and focused,” he said.
Public Works had a $53 million annual budget in fiscal 2021, with most funding coming from the city’s quarter-cent capital improvements sales tax (24%), the general fund (15%) and the eighth-cent transportation sales tax (12%). The current funding is up from $50 million in 2020 and $46 million in 2019 and 2018.
Some 22% of funding, or $12 million, went toward street maintenance improvements and operations, with 20%, $11 million, going to transportation and engineering, and about 12% each for stormwater projects, $6.3 million, and traffic projects and operations, $6.7 million. Another part of reaccreditation is making sure policies are up to date, according to Martin Gugel, assistant director for engineering.
“A good public works department should make sure they’re always reviewing those,” he said.
As technology changes, policies need to change, Gugel said. Going through the process every four years ensures that every policy is reviewed.
Right now, Public Works crews can be found throughout the city. Right after the last graduation ceremony at Missouri State University, orange traffic safety cones went up along National Avenue on the east side of campus. Similarly, as the Springfield Public Schools academic year ends, crews have moved in to the section of Grant Avenue behind Parkview High School to start work on the Grant Avenue Parkway project, which will link Bass Pro Shops and the Wonders of Wildlife museum with downtown. When students clear out, Public Works seizes the opening.
Timing is key to getting work done safely and efficiently, according to Smith, but so is collaboration.
The yearly report highlights the department’s flexibility in its approach to upcoming bids. By extending project timelines and allowing for flexible start dates, contractors can adjust their schedules and coordinate with subcontractors to more easily handle multiple projects, the report states. This helps with contractor and subcontractor schedules in a time of labor shortages and material delays.
One of the best examples right now is apparent with a collaboration between Public Works and the Missouri Department of Transportation, according to Gugel. MoDOT is working to add additional lanes to James River Freeway, just as the city is bringing Republic Road up to five lanes west of Campbell Avenue.
There was a potential for traffic control to get tricky in the area.
“We determined the best way to handle that would be if MoDOT took the lead of both projects,” said Gugel.
The city still will administer the Republic Road project, but one contractor will work for both entities, thus streamlining traffic control and logistics.
Smith said the city needed to have flexibility with its timing for the cooperation to work. The city had planned to bid the project last fall, but instead allowed MoDOT to conduct bidding, with a bid opening in mid-May.
The city had to delay its project, and the contractor selected may determine the Republic Road portion will not get completed until the end of the project. Conversely, it may be done first.
“We allowed flexibility of that schedule to put ourselves and the public in a better situation as far as traffic control,” Gugel said.
Kirk Juranas, the assistant director of Public Works for operations, said traffic control issues in that area could have major impacts miles from the site. A public information campaign and detailed signage can help, but coordination is key.
Working with other entities comes naturally in Springfield, according to Smith.
“We do live in a very collaborative area,” he said. “That just makes everything work better. We’re very fortunate as a community to have that kind of spirit.”
Juranas offered the example of the recent World’s Fishing Fair, which brought a few hundred thousand people to Bass Pro Shops for a celebration of the sport.
“It went very smoothly,” Juranas said. “It was a learning process. Occasionally, we had to change on the fly.”
One example was a sewer issue that had to be addressed right in the middle of the event zone.
“That was a hiccup, but we were ready to pivot if we needed to,” Gugel said.
Sometimes Springfield comes under criticism for not being as streamlined for development as, say, the city of Republic, which was able to accommodate a 1.3 million- square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in about a year.
“It’s an economy of scale,” Gugel said. “It’s just in the nature of things. We’re going to be more streamlined than Kansas City or St. Louis, but maybe not as streamlined as Republic, Columbia or Joplin.”
Smith agreed, noting that the city has made progress in the past three years on streamlining the development process.
“The more complex things become, you have to build systems to deal with them,” he said. “We’ve been working as an organization to become as streamlined as we can, and we continue to do that to be as good as we can. We want developers to come and invest, and we want them to succeed.”
Read the profiles of this year's honorees.