Squaring the Circle in North Carolina's Capital Region

As plans took shape to finish Raleigh's outer loop highway, the state's turnpike authority's Complete 540 inclusion strategy was guided by a time-honored principle: Being a good neighbor.

By Dennis Jernigan, PE, Deputy Chief Engineer for Highway Operations and Rodger Rochelle, PE, Chief Engineer | North Carolina Turnpike Authority

Glance at a road map of Greater Raleigh and you will see a vast, semicircular highway – called the Outer Loop – surrounding the capital region. This highway project, which broke ground in 1992, has been gradually expanding its circle ever since. As members of the North Carolina Turnpike Authority, we are part of a huge team of public and private entities that is committed to completing the circle – and doing it in ways that expand opportunity and strengthen our communities.

Phase one construction of this $2.2 billion, two-phase project began in November 2019 and comprises 18 miles of the loop. We are employing a design-build process, which means we are working on an accelerated timeline with a strong interest in innovation and collaboration. Among our top priorities is to be highly inclusive at every stage of the project. Here are four of our key strategies:

        1. Engaging the public holistically, consistently and personally
          From the very start, our approach has been guided by a simple principle: the people who benefit from and are impacted by this highway are our neighbors, and we treat them as such. We began by conducting meetings in towns along the route, presenting plans, answering questions and giving people printouts of the planned route in the vicinity of their specific addresses. We spoke with people at large neighborhood meetings, on their front lawns and on the phone. When we were able to modify our plans to meet a certain need, we did; and if that was not possible, we at least explained why and that was always appreciated. This dialogue has been continuing during the pandemic, through a great virtual platform that lets hundreds of our neighbors join to see project updates and pose questions. Also, we have kept in touch with the realtor community so they can align their efforts with the project as it evolves.
        2. Partnering with the industry to achieve inclusive DBE goals
          It is very important to be a good partner to the industry: it strengthens our working relationship and impacts bid prices at both the contracting and sub-contracting levels. We aspired to have a very inclusive contracting process, but we had to ensure that Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) goals could be achieved by the contractors in the region. We listened to industry leaders, and used their input to formulate meaningful DBE inclusion goals, which translated into contract amounts in the $75 million range. Also, we felt it was very important to connect prime contractors with DBE firms proactively and early. So, we held a pre-bid informational event for prime contractors and designers and, for the first time, also hosted a DBE forum in the same location that day, which sparked connections that have led to mutually beneficial partnerships. This worked very well, because all goals were met in terms of committed work, and we have had a very good experience with DBEs across the board.
        3. Dividing the project into three sections to expand opportunities for all
          We determined that we could meet two objectives – speed and inclusion – by breaking the phase 1 work into three sections. These sections were supported by different contracts, which were staggered to reflect the sections’ state of readiness. The first two sections (R-2721A and R-2721B) are smaller than the third (R-2828), but all are obviously substantial. Importantly, this approach allowed for a more diverse pursuit of each project because each section had its own discrete DBE goals. This also allowed companies to evaluate their workload capacity and make educated decisions as to whether to pursue work in each section as they knew the outcome of one bid before the next bid was due.
        4. Packaging right-of-way acquisition services creatively to emphasize DBE leadership opportunities                            Typically, with right-of-way acquisition, different firms handle different parts of the process, such as appraisals, negotiations, asbestos inspection and abatement and other steps. But we saw an opportunity to approach it differently – to create a one-stop-shop that brought numerous related activities together. So, for two of the three contracts, we packaged and advertised the right-of-way work – and we really wanted DBEs not just to participate but to have an opportunity to lead in these contracts. And that is exactly what happened. One DBE presented a winning plan that emphasized teamwork and focus, with agents handling no more than two dozen parcels in a “divide and conquer” effort. Not only did the DBE get the prime contract, which made it a 100% DBE contract, but they were also a subcontractor on the other right-of-way contract. Their achievement contributed to NCTA’s success, too: it meant an additional $6 million of work going to DBE firms, beyond the $75 million noted above.

After winning the two contracts and beginning to work with us, the leader of the DBE firm told us that the contract awards truly made the difference for his firm and its employees during a rough year. Hearing such comments is extremely rewarding, and we are proud to be advancing such opportunities for firms like his in our region. But it is important to note that the pursuit of inclusion – welcoming people into the process, listening and learning – is a win for everyone, delivering extraordinary value to this project, to the NCTA and to communities across our great state.

We are proud to work with all our neighbors to deliver the kind of transportation system that everyone deserves, and to build greater opportunity in the process.


"We are grateful to the North Carolina Turnpike Authority for giving Vistabution the opportunity to participate in the largest project in NCDOT history. We also appreciate the Turnpike Authority’s forward thinking and innovative approach to the design-build contracting process. Because of the bundling of right-of-way acquisition with utility work, environmental remediation, and demolition, our firm was able to serve as a prime consultant on the project team. If this had not been the case, we probably would have been a part of the project team, as a subcontractor, like most DBE firms on design-build project teams.”

- Vistabution

Dennis Jernigan

Dennis Jernigan, PE, is Deputy Chief Engineer for Highway Operations for the North Carolina Turnpike Authority. He oversees construction for Complete 540. Prior to his role, Mr. Jernigan served as NCDOT Division 5 Construction Engineer. Mr. Jernigan has almost 30 years of experience with NCDOT, including Roadway Construction Engineer for the Central Construction Unit, Division 4 Resident Engineer, and Assistant Resident Engineer in Divisions 6 and 8. Mr. Jernigan holds a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from North Carolina State University, and is a licensed Professional Engineer and a Certified Public Manager.

Rodger Rochelle

Rodger Rochelle, PE, is Chief Engineer for the North Carolina Turnpike Authority. Prior to this role, Mr. Rochelle served as the Director of North Carolina Department of Transportation Technical Services. Mr. Rochelle has 29 years of experience with NCDOT including Director of Transportation Program Management, various roles within the Structure Design Unit, administrator of NCDOT Research and Development Program, and the Director of the Alternative Delivery Unit. Mr. Rochelle holds a bachelor's degree in civil engineering and a master's degree in engineering, both from Duke University, and is a licensed Professional Engineer and a Certified Public Manager.