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What DOTs Need to Know to Overcome Infrastructure Cost, Safety, and Operational Challenges

Did you know the American Society of Civil Engineers scores American roads with a D and its bridges with a C+? While politicians and lobbyists debate about how to address the U.S. infrastructure crisis, DOTs are tasked with the actual execution of new projects, as well as management and maintenance of existing ones. The pressure to improve and innovate the country’s transportation network is intense. 

Many of these critical assets don’t just need to be repaired; they need to be modernized. As urbanization, the internet of things (IoT), and automobile technology continues to grow, new approaches are needed in the areas of traffic management, safety, and ongoing operations and maintenance.

To rise to the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, you need the ability to harness data and do more with less. 


Budget Shortfalls Jeopardize Funding for Critical Infrastructure Projects 

U.S. infrastructure is in desperate need of repair, but the pandemic has made an already challenging funding issue more acute. The World Economic Forum ranks U.S. infrastructure as 13th in the world, and according to McKinsey, the U.S. needs to invest $500 billion in infrastructure between 2017 and 2035 to address deterioration. Because of COVID-19, state and local revenues are expected to decline by $167 billion in 2021 and $145 billion in 2022. As a result of pandemic-induced budget shortfalls, 65% of cities report that they’re planning to delay or cancel capital expenditures and infrastructure projects due to budget shortfalls, according to the National League of Cities.

At the same time, construction costs are on the rise, and dollars don’t stretch as far as they used to. From the 1960s to the 1980s, interstate construction spending per mile increased threefold. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)found that highway construction costs rose by 68% between 2013-2016. In that same time period, the price of asphalt increased by 107%, concrete costs rose by 61%, and metal prices increased by 45%. 

Even in times of prosperity, these high costs were creating serious challenges. For example, the Michigan State Senate found that rising costs for road building materials were a major reason why, despite generating increased funding for road repairs, the state was still falling short of meeting its infrastructure needs. Now that we’re in an economic crisis, states are generating less funding, and the infrastructure challenges persist.


Improving Road and Bridge Safety for Both End Users and Workers Is Paramount 

The infrastructure crisis is also a safety crisis. In 2019, 38,000 people were killed on roads in the U.S. The deteriorated state of America’s bridges alone poses serious safety concerns. According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, 46,100 bridges need urgent repairs. Vehicles cross these deficient structures 178 million times each day. Plus, each construction or maintenance project puts workers in harm’s way. 

More than 1,200 workers died in work zones from 2003-2017.
Source: The National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health

To address transportation safety, effective and often innovative accident mitigation strategies (such as access management, safety edges, and speed management) are being implemented throughout the country. For example, road diets, where four-lane undivided highways are converted to three-lane roadways with the middle lane being a two-way left-turn lane, reduce accidents by as much as 47%. The challenge in implementing these strategies is having the data intelligence and technology to execute them effectively. 

To accelerate the implementation of proven safety improvements, government agencies and industry organizations are partnering up to lead the way. Several initiatives hold the potential to significantly reduce roadway fatalities. For example, the FHWA, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), and several state DOTs have teamed up to promote the Towards Zero Deaths (TZD) initiative, a national campaign that supports transportation stakeholders in developing consistent safety plans and prioritizing a safety culture. Similarly, the Road to Zero Coalition is a partnership between USDOT, the National Safety Council, and others; and the Institute of Transportation Engineers has created its own Vision Zero Initiative. These programs, along with the industry-wide push to improve safety, give DOTs a path forward to addressing the serious safety concerns they face.


Reducing Infrastructure Operating and Maintenance Costs Post-Construction 

Another pressing challenge project owners face is funding ongoing repairs and maintenance. A Transportation for America study found that it costs approximately $24,000 per year to maintain every new lane-mile of road. According to the Reason Foundation’s 25th Annual Highway Report, maintenance disbursements per mile have increased 54% since 2007, more than doubling the rate of the Consumer Price Index, which has increased only 22% over the same period of time. On top of maintaining the structural integrity and safety of roads and highways, many DOTs must also address increased congestion. A July 2020 report from TRIP, a nonprofit organization that researches, evaluates, and distributes economic and technical data on surface transportation issues, recommends that investment in the Interstate Highway System should be increased by 250% to $57 billion annually over the next 20 years to address operational deficiencies.

The intended lifespan of interstate bridges is 50 years. 54% percent of America’s interstate bridges are at least 50 years old.
Source: Restoring the Interstate Highway System, TRIP, July 2020

The good news is there’s no shortage of data that can be used to improve road and bridge operations and maintenance. Geographic information system (GIS) and commuter behavior data is abundant due to the rise of smartphones, global positioning systems (GPS), a generally more connected society, more sophisticated analysis tools, and better data accuracy. The challenge is in making that information operational. Often it exists in its own silo, away from other project data and not readily available to the project owners who could benefit from it. DOTs need better, more integrated technology solutions to enable data accessibility, aggregation, and analysis. 

Industry-wide Initiatives Encourage DOTs to Adopt New Technology 

The cost, safety, and performance pressures project owners face are nothing to sneeze at. Budget shortfalls will continue through the economic recovery, and there’s no indication that prices for road building materials will fall. To successfully modernize and repair America’s infrastructure requires the modernization and repair of the current processes and methods that are used to build and maintain assets. 

In addition to addressing safety issues, government agencies and industry organizations are also driving the mainstreaming of technology to deliver better infrastructure projects. The FHWA’s Every Day Counts (EDC) program is one of the more prominent initiatives to encourage innovation through increased technology adoption. Seeking to improve outcomes in road construction and maintenance, EDC, now in its most recent iteration for 2021-22 (EDC-6), promotes the use of technologies like e-ticketing to digitize materials ticketing and digital as-builts, which provide a more efficient solution to traditional as-builts (more on that below).

AASHTO‘s Innovation Initiative also promotes the adoption of proven technologies, processes, and software. E-Construction, or paperless contract management for construction projects, is one of its focus technologies. E-Construction improves document management by enabling digital signatures, electronic communication, and secure file sharing, and by streamlining version control with a centralized repository for all contract documents.


Funding for infrastructure technology investments is available 

Of course, implementing these technologies does require investment, but several funding incentives are available to help overcome budget shortfalls. The FHWA has already committed more than $60 million to its Accelerated Innovation Deployment program, which assists agencies with implementing innovations in highway transportation. The National Safety Council also offers grants through its Road to Zero program. Even in the face of compounding challenges, project owners have opportunities to take advantage of the momentum being generated in the industry.

How Digital As-Builts Increase the Safety, Quality, and Cost Efficiency of Infrastructure Assets 

Digital as-builts are highlighted in EDC-6 as one way to make project data more accessible and, in doing so, yield needed improvements in safety, quality, and cost-efficiency. By providing an accurate representation of the asset as it was built, digital as-builts allow for easier diagnosis and faster resolution of maintenance issues, as well as more informed decision-making about future expansions and improvements.  

When used as part of a BIM workflow, digital as-builts are proven to improve processes and reduce costs. Under the traditional approach, a project may require more than 1,100 drawings. Using a 3D BIM model workflow for a similar project, that number was reduced to 89. That’s a 90% reduction. With traditional methodology, change orders account for 19% of total project costs. That number goes down to 7.5% with a BIM workflow. 

Digital as-builts can be used to capture 4D (scheduling) data, 5D (cost) data, and 6D data (project lifecycle management). Having a data-rich model facilitates and streamlines the flow of information between the office and the field. For example, machines can use sensors to track their progress and other vital details (such as compaction values, utility locations, and pavement thickness) that’s fed back into the model. That data can be used to inform ongoing operations and maintenance decisions after the asset is built. Centered on BIM collaboration, a digital as-built can ultimately create a single source of truth for the entire project. 


Building Successful Infrastructure Projects Starts with BIM Collaborations & Data-Driven Processes

The advantages of innovations like digital as-builts can only be realized through increased collaboration between all stakeholders throughout the design and construction phase. Before and during construction, BIM collaboration provides data transparency and portability that ultimately deliver measurable improvements like reduced rework, change orders, and RFIs that drive subsequent increases in jobsite productivity. Post-construction, BIM collaboration ensures asset owners have access to project data and historical information to make better, faster maintenance and management decisions, reducing the cost of operations. 


Greater detail at the design stage produces measurable cost and time savings 

The use of 3D models has become the preferred method of designing transportation systems to communicate design intent. The Michigan DOT reported a net benefit of over $18 million by implementing 3D models as reference information documents (RID) from 2012-2016. These savings translated into a 32% return on investment for MDOT, meaning they saw a return of 32 cents for every dollar invested in 3D models.

The next evolution of 3D models is designing them for constructibility. When you require that 3D models be designed to a higher level of detail (LOD), you can produce even greater efficiencies during construction and ultimately accelerate project delivery, saving time and money. The advantages of designing higher LOD constructible models are already being realized in the UK and Norway. As America’s transportation agencies and associations continue to seek ways to improve the delivery of infrastructure projects, you can anticipate that they’ll promote a similar approach. 


BIM collaboration improves safety for end-users and workers 

Increased collaboration beginning at the design stage can also accelerate the identification and resolution of safety hazards. It’s estimated that as many as 71% of safety incidents can be prevented by considering hazards at the design stage. The BIM model can be used as a tool to improve visualization, simulation, virtual prototyping, validation, and other processes. When shared with workers, for example, the BIM model can help them visualize the site and its potential hazards before actually going out to the field. 

The BIM model can also facilitate greater collaboration between engineers, designers, and contractors. In addition to communicating design intent, the model provides an opportunity to evaluate options and alternative potential scenarios, so that users can assess the advantages and disadvantages of each one. BIM data can also be leveraged for Prevention through Design (PtD) and Designing for Safety (DfS). For instance, a model can be used to measure the depth and dimensions of a planned excavation, which can then be used to develop the excavation protection system.


Digital as-builts improve ongoing asset operations and maintenance

The use of data-rich digital as-builts lets project owners capture a wealth of project data and embed it into the model, creating a single source of truth about an asset. By gaining access to data provided by engineers, contractors, suppliers, and other sources (GIS, consumer behavior data, etc.), they reap the benefits of streamlined construction processes and more efficient asset management and maintenance. 

Imagine approaching a road repair project and having access to granular construction data like the thickness of the asphalt pavement, the date it was installed, the conditions, and the temperature at which was applied. With this information at your fingertips, you’re able to make faster and better decisions to conduct the repairs. 


Using BIM Collaboration Software to Reduce Costs, Improve Safety, and Increase the Lifespan of Critical Assets

While transportation infrastructure projects are notoriously complex and involve a range of stakeholders to bring them to fruition, the project owners are ultimately responsible for the outcomes. You can have greater confidence in the success of your projects by using technology tools to facilitate BIM collaboration.

BIM collaboration software like Trimble Quadri can drive significant improvements in cost control, safety, and quality. By creating a common data environment for project owners, engineers, and contractors, it provides unparalleled transparency and traceability of projects and critical data. With easy and centralized access to vital project information, you’re able to realize meaningful improvements to schedules and budgets, and efficiencies throughout the asset lifecycle.