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Impact of ASCE Utility Standard on Highway Agencies
by C. Paul Scott
National Utilities Liaison
TBE Group

SUE provides accurate mapping of underground utilities to reduce the risk of utility conflicts during construction.

Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released a new publication entitled Standard Guidelines for the Collection and Depiction of Existing Subsurface Utility Data. This document was reviewed and approved nationally through the ASCE consensus process. The document is important to all state and local transportation departments because the justice system holds such standards in high regard, and courts and lawyers use them to assist both in defining a professional standard of care and in placing blame.

In general, the ASCE standard contains the following provisions:

  • The project owner will be responsible for taking appropriate actions to consider and deal with utility risks. This may involve employing the services of an engineer to provide expert advice and to use available technologies to provide better information.
  • The engineer will advise the project owner of utility risks and recommend an appropriate quality level of utility data for a given project area at the appropriate time within the project planning and design process.
  • The project owner will specify to the engineer the desired quality level of utility data.
  • The engineer will furnish the desired utility quality level to the owner in accordance with the standard of care, and will be responsible for negligent errors and/or omissions in the utility data for the certified utility quality level.

The ASCE standard presents a system of classifying the quality level of existing subsurface utility data. Such a classification will allow project owners, engineers and constructors to develop strategies to reduce risks or allocate risks in a defined manner.

"Quality levels are really degrees of risk and are determined by the amount of information required, whatever the construction project - transportation, site development, aviation, port authorities, military, municipalities, etc.," says Vice President John Harter, National Utilities Engineering and Operations Manager for TBE Group. "In developing project plans, project owners who include quality levels as part of their risk management strategies have the opportunity to decide the level of information they need. While disclaimers regarding utility information accuracy are usually included in project plans, quality levels give project owners the opportunity to certify on their project plans that a certain level of accuracy has been attained."

There are four recognized quality levels of subsurface utility information. The highest level (Quality Level A) is generally not needed at every point along a utility's path, only where conflicts with design features are most likely to occur. Hence, lesser levels of information may be appropriate at points where fewer conflicts or no conflicts are expected.

The four quality levels are as follows:

  • Quality Level D comes solely from existing utility records.
  • Quality Level C involves surveying visible above-ground utility facilities, such as manholes, valve boxes, posts, etc., and correlating this information with existing utility records.
  • Quality Level B entails the use of surface geophysical techniques to determine the existence and horizontal position of underground utilities.
  • Quality Level A (also known as "test holes") involves the use of nondestructive digging equipment, such as vacuum excavation, at critical points along the utility's path to determine the precise horizontal and vertical position of underground utilities, as well as the type, size, condition, material and other characteristics.

The ASCE standard closely follows concepts already in place in the subsurface utility engineering (SUE) profession. Nicholas Zembillas, a member of the ASCE committee that developed the standard, says, "SUE is a revolutionary engineering process that has evolved in the United States over the past two decades. Many state and local highway agencies and/or their design consultants use it routinely in the early development of highway projects. They do so by employing the services of SUE consultants to identify the quality of subsurface utility information needed for highway plans and to acquire and manage that level of information during the development of projects. The use of SUE enables designers to prepare plans with thorough and comprehensive knowledge of the exact locations of underground utilities, and enables excavators to avoid damaging underground assets, historical/archaeological sites, and other underground items."

Several DOTs are already essentially in compliance with this standard through their use of SUE consultants and/or through their inclusion of SUE specifications in their engineering contracts. Even so, modifications may need to be made to existing SUE programs to assure full compliance. States without SUE programs will probably, as a minimum, want to protect themselves by including the standard by reference in their contract documents.

TBE Group, a national SUE provider, has developed a seminar to help state DOTs adapt their SUE programs to the ASCE standard. For more information about the seminar, SUE, and/or the ASCE standard, please contact John Harter at 727-531-3505, or

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