Arkansans know Garver as the elite engineering firm based just downriver from the base of the Interstate 430 bridge in North Little Rock. But the 100-year-old firm is known far beyond the state’s borders. It employs almost 800 throughout 34 offices located in 13 states. And besides engineering alone, it provides planning, architectural and environmental services with a focus on aviation, construction, facilities design, federal, survey, transportation and water projects.
Examples of its more notable in-state work include the new Broadway bridge spanning the Arkansas River at Little Rock and the esteemed Bobby Hopper Tunnel on I-49 in Washington County. And Garver currently is ranked 125th on the industry-prestigious Engineering News-Record Top 500 design firms list.
Jerry Holder is Garver’s senior vice president and director of transportation, overseeing all the firm’s transportation projects. He has 33 years of experience in transportation design and program management representing more than $7 billion in construction projects.
Holder believes that large infrastructure projects can be both short-term economic catalysts and long-term economic development investments. He joined AMP to discuss aging infrastructure, his most challenging project, the second line to “Build it and they will come,” and more.
AMP: Where does Arkansas stand in terms of aging infrastructure?
Holder: The Arkansas Department of Transportation (ArDOT) has more roads than most state departments of transportation. That is because in most states, many of the roads that ArDOT maintains would be the responsibility of the county or city. So ArDOT has to be really efficient with its dollars. The last two ArDOT programs, the Interstate Rehabilitation Program (IRP) and the Connecting Arkansas Program (CAP), have really helped the state’s roadway system.
With the passage of Issue 1, ArDOT will have the needed funds to continue to improve our roadway system to make it one of the best in the nation for safety and the movement of goods and services.
AMP: What’s the most challenging project you’ve encountered?
Holder: The most challenging project was I-49 from south of the tunnel up to Fayetteville. I was a young engineer and really lucky that Garver was selected to design that segment of I-49 (I-540 originally). During the design, I walked the alignment through the woods with nothing but a wooden stake in the ground every 100 feet to follow.
We would come to a cliff and look to the other side, hold on to a tree and lean out and say, “We’re going to put a bridge across here, and when you drive over it, you will see one of the prettiest views in the state.” And we were right. One of the bridges is the tallest in the state at 210 feet from top to bottom. The tunnel was fascinating. You don’t get to work on many of those in Arkansas. The tunnel expert was from Boston, and he wanted to know where the closest municipal fire station was for our communications connections.
I told him there wasn’t one, and he didn’t understand. After showing him a map of the area and how it was in the “middle of nowhere,” he was finally able to comprehend what I meant.
AMP: How can large infrastructure and transportation projects represent high-impact economic catalysts?
Holder: Infrastructure is truly a catalyst to economic development and the creation of jobs. We want to create more jobs in Arkansas. No disrespect to restaurants, but if you open up a new one in town, that doesn’t mean the economic pie gets bigger. It means it gets sliced into more pieces. We need new companies that manufacture products or develop software or create wealth to move to Arkansas and make the economic pie bigger, so all of us benefit.
That won’t happen unless the infrastructure is in place and it works well. The steel industry in northeast Arkansas wouldn’t have located there if it weren’t for the infrastructure being available. You have heard the saying, “Build it, and they will come.” The second half of that is, “If you don’t build it, they won’t come. And if they are already here, they might leave.”
AMP: Garver is providing management for the 10-year Connecting Arkansas program (CAP) from the Arkansas Department of Transportation, which will improve 200 miles of highways and interstates, a huge and complex project. What are some of the specific challenges it poses?
Holder: ArDOT wanted to be very transparent and accountable to the citizens of Arkansas. It wanted us to track the progress of all of the elements of the process. This included design, environmental clearances, utility relocations, right-of-way purchases, construction and even the revenue side of the equation. We developed a program to do just that. Each CAP project was bid with incentives to the contractors for early completion.
ArDOT emphasized to us that getting a project done early is important. Every day a contractor gets finished early and you don’t have a construction zone represents the potential to avoid an accident and potentially save a life.
AMP: How has technology evolved in recent years to help companies like Garver manage such large scale projects?
Holder: With incentives involved on such large projects, it is imperative to be able to understand and track a contractor’s schedule in order to be fair to all parties when changes occur. Garver has a project controls group that allows us to analyze complicated construction schedules.
We have also teamed with software developers to create applications that allow us to analyze schedules in hours instead of days. We are also seeing a lot of contractors and inspection firms utilizing the power of drones to monitor construction progress and create a “history” of a project. In some cases, drones are being used to survey before and after to calculate quantities.
AMP: How has the pandemic impacted your work?
Holder: Our IT department was in the process of transitioning us to Microsoft Teams technology before the pandemic hit. They told us our desk phones would be going away, and we would do our phone calls on our computers and tablets. I was skeptical. But then the pandemic hit and accelerated everything, and the next thing I knew, I was talking to my staff and clients on video calls on my laptop.
We are fortunate that the transportation/infrastructure industry is considered an essential service. America has to keep goods and services moving. That meant our clients kept our projects moving forward. We were able to work from home and collaborate through our technology and haven’t missed a deadline.
It is difficult to train our young engineers with virtual meetings, so we hope to safely migrate back to the office to make sure they get the training they need to develop their skills going forward.