When the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey entered into a nearly $2 billion public-private effort to rebuild the Goethals Bridge — which carries about 1.5 million vehicles a month across the Arthur Kill between Staten Island and Elizabeth — the global design, engineering, construction and management firm AECOM was brought in for project and construction management.
AECOM is New Jersey’s largest engineering company with more than 1,000 employees in the state, according to the 2019 NJBIZ Book of Lists. The replacement of the Goethals Bridge was named as New York’s 2018 Best Project in the Highway and Bridges category by the trade publication Engineering News-Record.
Running a successful business is never easy — and any company that manages to keep its doors open deserves a round of applause. But climbing to the top ranks and staying there is even tougher.
Regardless of a company’s size, customer service is a top priority. In engineering that can include providing expertise across multiple disciplines, and being able to stick with a project for the long haul. The Goethals Bridge assignment, for example, launched in 2004; and AECOM, which has offices in Clifton and elsewhere in New Jersey, was “involved in the project from beginning [through its legacy firm URS Corp.] to its completion this year,” said Stefan Armington, environmental and right of way manager at the company.
Small firm, big jobs
In June 2016 Jaclyn Flor was in her late 30s — and had worked as a group manager in the municipal services division of the environmental, engineering and construction manage-ment firm T&M Associates in Middletown since 2001 — when she went out on her own and launched ENGenuity Infrastructure, a Red Bank-based engineering firm. But she didn’t hire anyone until December of that year, after lining up some assignments.
Today she’s got six full-time employees — and plans to hire another in May, when the individual graduates from college — and three part-timers. “We do our own jobs, mainly design for public-sector works in the $1.5 million to $5 million range,” she said. “And we also partner with larger firms on bigger projects.” When Red Bank RiverCenter — a nonprofit that manages the artsy borough’s Special Improvement District — decided to upgrade a key access point for commercial, business and visitor traffic to Red Bank, it hired ENGenuity to help set out the redesign and manage the construction of the $1.53 million initiative, known as the English Plaza-White Street Streetscape Project.
In addition to improving a public parking lot between West Front Street and White Street, the plan was to enhance pedestrian and bicycle access, and to establish ADA-compliant pedestrian facilities and crossings along an approximately 340-foot section of White Street, from Broad Street to just beyond an Investors Bank branch. Work on the project started earlier this year, and wrapped in early October.
But long before any ground was broken, Flor wanted to ensure the improvements would align with the community. So early on she had “a robust listening phase,” involving “one-on-one interviews with 24 local stakeholders” including representatives from businesses, the historic commission, individuals and others.
“The community is very pleased with the improvements,” according to Flor. “Even as our firm grows — we’ve recently done NJDOT-funded road jobs in places like Hoboken and Chatham, and plan to expand into statewide and federal projects — we believe it’s important to maintain strong ties with local communities. Our approach to planning and design is to find a diverse solution,” with a balance “that serves all aspects of society, which are the people, including residents, visitors, and users; industry and business, including the movement of goods; and the environment. I founded ENGenuity on these principles, and our employees are passionate about the impactful projects we design.”
Flor is also aware that she occupies a unique position as a woman owning an engineering firm: just 20.6 percent of STEM-related companies, like engineering firms, are owned by women, according to a 2018 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. She credits her grandfather with sparking her interest in engineering at a young age.
As NJBIZ reported, after her dad was struck by a car while jogging in Pittsburgh — “the roads were not pedestrian-friendly way back in 1982” — then-five-year-old Flor’s mom and the family moved in with her grandfather, a retired Gulf Oil engineer. She spent hours with him, building robots and remote-control cars in his garage, and engineering became a calling. “After all that had happened, that was the only thing I knew I would be,” Flor said. “I would have never wanted to be anything else. I just wanted to emulate him.”
The original Goethals structure was a “single-span truss bridge,” he noted, referring to a load-bearing superstructure composed of connected triangular-shaped units. “It was 68 feet wide with two lanes for two-way traffic flow. The new bridge is double-span, 210-feet wide, with added lanes for pedestrian and bike path across one of the spans. The new bridges are also cable suspended.”
Any engineering project will have its own set of quirks, and the Goethals job had a big one: “Due to the bridge’s proximity to Newark Airport, height considerations had to be taken into account,” said Armington. “Therefore, there are only two [support] towers instead of four, to accommodate height restrictions in the new bridge design.”
During the planning phase of the program, AECOM-URS Corp. provided environmental, traffic, planning and land acquisition services through the environmental impact statement, preliminary design and state and federal regulatory permitting processes. AECOM also provided program management support including developing and maintaining a master schedule that integrated all program activities and implementation, coordination and technical support, document control and records management, and program budget and cost management.
AECOM differentiates itself from competitors “through our distinct capabilities as a design, build, finance and operate company,” explained Michael Chee, the firm’s director, external communications. “We are one of the few multi-disciplinary infrastructure firms that can bring to bear global construction experience and holistic and specialized engineering and design expertise under one roof.”
That kind of capability is particularly important now, as the engineering field undergoes some seismic shifts. “The biggest and fastest-moving change in engineering today is being driven by advances in technology,” he said, adding that it’s “fueled by advanced design concepts, artificial intelligence and digital tools, and the availability of new materials and construction techniques.”
On top of that, engineers today “are taking into account the effects of climate and environment change and large scale events such as sea level rise and how these considerations must be factored into the way infrastructure and large scale projects are designed to perform and built to face the future.”
To meet the increased demands, companies like AECOM look for engineers, at every level, that not only have “appropriate” engineering knowledge and expertise, but can also understand the way “current and future technologies can enhance or add value to a project’s overall success and function over time,” said Chee.
Big companies like AECOM may get a lot of attention, but Chee insisted that there’s a role for smaller engineering firms, too. “There is ample room for small firms, and they play a necessary role in large projects,” he said. “In the Goethals Bridge project, for example, we engaged a smaller firm with expertise in specialty and niche areas of the project such as working in compliance with The Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program,” referring to a U.S. Department of Transportation program that applies to projects that receive federal highway funding, and contracts issued by USDOT recipients, including state transportation agencies.
In addition, large-scale projects “often require specialty engineering or operations expertise that AECOM may not have in-house,” Chee added. “So, we would want to partner with the right firms,” to fill the need.