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Transforming America’s Infrastructure by Re-Imagining How We Build It

21% of American highways are in poor condition.188 million trips are taken on structurally deficient bridges every year. Poor highway conditions cost motorists $121 billion in extra vehicle repair costs.

According to the National Bridge Index developed by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), less than half of U.S. bridges are in good condition, and more than 47,000 are in poor condition. Bridges aren’t the only transportation assets in need of improvement either. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) says one-fifth of America’s highways are in poor condition, too.

There’s no doubt that significant investment in both new and existing transportation infrastructure is needed, but adequate funding is creating a roadblock. At the same time, the need cannot be ignored. Other mounting issues, such as safety, rising construction costs, sustainability, and an increase in electric and autonomous vehicles, further compound the necessity to not just repair but reimagine America’s infrastructure. 

Tackling these challenges requires a holistic and data-driven approach that must begin with the construction process. Many of the most pressing infrastructure issues can be addressed before and during construction by leveraging big data and construction technology to improve communication, collaboration, constructibility, productivity, and problem-solving. The key is identifying the right tools and processes that are proven to drive better outcomes. 

The Infrastructure Crisis Calls for Major Change

BIM in construction

If the new administration fails to take action, the worsening state of our infrastructure will create a ripple effect throughout the economy. The ASCE estimates that the cumulative effect of congestion, accidents, and other infrastructure inadequacies will cost the US $10 trillion in GDP and 3 million lost jobs by 2039. 

Because of the sweeping impact of our aging and deficient infrastructure, there’s also a groundswell of support for overhauling the way we build and maintain roads, bridges, and highways. We don’t just need to reduce costs and trim budgets (although those are certainly important), we also need to identify new ways to improve the safety, sustainability, and management of infrastructure assets.

Industry-wide initiatives are changing civil construction

Within the civil infrastructure space, government agencies and trade associations are working together to address the vast issues ahead. The Federal Highway Administration’s Every Day Counts (EDC) program identifies proven but underutilized innovations in construction and promotes their deployment at the state level. Updated every two years, the program is currently promoting EDC-6, which focuses on e-ticketing––the paperless processing of materials tickets––and digital as-builts

Watch the on-demand webinar to learn more about the FHWA’s Every Day Counts program:


Similarly, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), along with 17 state DOTs, is working to standardize BIM for bridges and structures. And multi-disciplinary partnerships bringing together organizations like the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) with the FHWA have established programs to significantly reduce accidents through better roadway design and construction. 

Now that the new federal administration is in place, sustainability will also feature more prominently in how funding for civil projects is awarded. The Biden-Harris administration has set ambitious goals to tackle climate change, and its proposed $3 trillion infrastructure program is central to achieving its objective. The Department of Transportation has already announced that it’s seeking projects that address climate change and environmental justice for its Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) grant program, a first for the agency. 

Broader social and technological influences also require infrastructure innovation

Social, technological, and societal factors are also forcing us to re-evaluate our approach to building and operating roads, bridges, and highways. Access to big data––from mobile devices and connected vehicles to Internet of Things (IoT) and geographic information system (GIS) devices––can provide engineers, contractors, and owners with the information needed to address infrastructure challenges. Stakeholders need to seek out systems and processes that make the data accessible, manageable, and actionable from the start of the bidding process through ongoing maintenance and operations. 

Emerging technologies are also changing the way we commute and placing new demands on our aging transportation systems. Four key trends––autonomous driving, connectivity, the electrification of vehicles, and shared vehicles––are transforming mobility. These advancements have the potential to improve infrastructure performance, sustainability, and safety, as well as reduce congestion. However, they require infrastructure modernization (as well as network connectivity and component topology for those technologies) for their potential to be fully realized. 

Roads, bridges, and highways in urban areas are particularly stressed. On urban roadways, vehicle miles traveled (VMT) increased by 13.7% from 2008-2018, compared to a 1% decline on rural roadways. Ridesharing is also contributing to more vehicles on the road. VMT from ridesharing grew from 30 million in December 2013 to 500 million in December 2016. Coupled with increased on-demand delivery and e-commerce sales, congestion is set to continue to rise in urban areas, where it’s projected that 89% of the population will live by 2050. 

Two Problems that Undermine Efforts to Improve & Innovate America’s Infrastructure

The factors driving change in the civil infrastructure industry impact every portion of the asset lifecycle, leaving proponents of infrastructure improvement and innovation with an uphill battle. Two core problems—spiraling construction costs and broken construction processes—make it that much more difficult to realize the level of change that is needed.  

Construction costs are on the rise, but budgets are shrinking

Cost-efficiency has always been important for infrastructure projects, but now it’s absolutely vital. Construction costs rose by 68% between 2013-2016, with the cost of concrete increasing by 107%, and metal prices rising by 45% in the same time frame. 

It’s not enough to reduce construction costs alone; operations and maintenance costs need to come down as well. In 2017, 44% of state and local highway and road spending went towards operations and maintenance, while 56% went towards capital spending. For the other major state and local budget items (education, police, hospitals, and corrections) capital spending is typically 10% or less of direct total spending.

From 2007-2019, real spending on public infrastructure operations and maintenance rose from $243.3 billion to $266.5 billion. 
–– The Brookings Institute

As the nation continues to recover from the impacts of COVID-19, state and local governments are further hamstrung by reduced revenues. States estimate they’ll face shortfalls totaling $305 billion through 2022 as a result of businesses closing or scaling back, while local government shortfalls of $135-180 billion are expected. Those estimates have already impacted infrastructure projects, leading to delays and cancelations. Between the acute need for better infrastructure and shrinking revenues due to the pandemic, it’s truly a cost squeeze.

Despite the lost revenue caused by the pandemic, projects can’t be delayed forever. Infrastructure repairs and improvements will need to be prioritized eventually and ideally before failures or emergencies force the issue. All stakeholders involved in civil infrastructure must come together to make the changes needed to rein in costs and deliver assets that perform more cost-effectively, efficiently, and sustainably.

Meanwhile, the construction lifecycle is plagued with inefficiency

Many of the issues with improving America’s infrastructure start with the construction process. The construction lifecycle is notoriously disjointed, leading to cost overruns, missed deadlines, and increased risk. Only a quarter of engineering firms, contractors, and project owners say the industry has reached an acceptable level of performance in delivering capital projects on time and within budget. This is reinforced by lagging productivity in the construction sector, which has averaged only 1% a year over the past two decades, compared with growth of 2.8% for the economy at large. 

In order to challenge the status quo, it’s critical to address the root causes of these productivity issues. Traditionally, the engineers, suppliers, and contractors involved in infrastructure projects work in siloed workflows and have limited interaction with each other. It’s no surprise then that the specialized software being used by these teams don’t often integrate or communicate with each other well. The result is poor visibility and portability of data, which make it difficult to proactively identify and resolve issues, communicate between the office and the field, and pinpoint the causes of schedule delays.

These issues have wide-ranging impacts on those directly involved in the process, as well as project owners, end users, and the environment. For starters, they increase risk. Beginning with the design process, the use of disparate technology leads to data gaps that increase the risk of issues during the construction, operation, and management of assets. Digital design models also often lack the details and critical data needed to reduce unintended but often avoidable errors that can cause delays and safety hazards, both during and after construction. 

Cost overruns are also common. Nine in ten megaprojects––those that cost $1 billion or more––goes over budget. RFIs, rework, communication delays, etc. all require more money to be spent on labor, materials, and vendor hours, not to mention the effect they have on project timelines. On average, transport construction projects are delayed by 2.3 years

The combined impact of antiquated, disjointed construction processes produces unnecessary waste that harms the environment. According to the World Green Building Council, the building and construction industry currently accounts for 39% of global carbon emissions, much of it due to waste. 

One of the primary drivers of waste in civil construction is rework. Rework is common; according to the Construction Industry Institute, it accounts for an average of 12.4% of the total cost of infrastructure projects. The energy required to fuel machines to redo tasks and create and ship additional materials due to errors produces carbon emissions that could be mitigated with better construction workflows.

Reviving American infrastructure can play a vital role in addressing climate change, but those efforts can’t be invalidated by the construction process. Every stakeholder involved in the lifecycle of infrastructure assets plays a part in breaking down silos, removing obstacles that plague the construction process, and striving towards ensuring work is done correctly the first time.

Construction Management Software Creates Efficiency, Enables Collaboration, and Improves Constructibility

Addressing the current challenges of infrastructure planning, construction, and operation requires a transformation in how engineers, contractors, and owners approach civil projects. Technology that enables and simplifies BIM collaboration can help everyone do their jobs more easily and work together more effectively. 

Engineers are under increased pressure to address safety, sustainability, and operational concerns, in addition to providing more constructible models. While they aim to provide constructible designs, some change is inevitable. The ideal is to work towards higher levels of constructibility and reduce hurdles downstream in the process. 

Contractors also play a critical role in addressing the disconnected workflows that lead to errors, cost overruns, and missed deadlines. But managing duplicate models and multiple data sets in varying formats invites errors and data omissions, only causing further delays, increased risk, and unnecessary waste. Changes must be accounted for in multiple places, further slowing down the project. It’s critical for contractors to embrace tools that encourage better data sharing and collaboration among their own staff, as well as the many stakeholders they manage.

Project owners are faced with pressures coming from multiple directions––the public, their vendors, and industry organizations. But they also are instrumental in pushing the industry forward. DOTs play a vital role in setting engineers up to deliver more constructible designs and creating the circumstances that improve collaboration among all stakeholders.

The power of a shared model and BIM collaboration

Engineers, contractors, and owners all benefit from using a shared 3D model and BIM collaboration for infrastructure throughout the construction lifecycle. It’s proven to significantly improve communication, makes it possible to create a more constructible model, and addresses many of the causes of rework and errors. 

By embracing BIM for highway and transportation infrastructure modeling, infrastructure stakeholders can fully harness the benefits of BIM technology and the data BIM models can contain. A data-rich 3D model is more constructible than a traditional 2D design, allows designers to foresee issues before construction begins, and better conveys how engineers address the sustainability, safety, and operational issues they’re being asked to solve. By enabling engineers to design to a higher level of detail (LOD), it also allows them to better communicate their design intent and create a shared understanding among the many stakeholders involved. When civil engineers design for constructibility, they’re able to foresee and rectify many of the design issues that will inevitably manifest in the field and negatively impact schedules and budgets. 

For contractors, leveraging a shared model is inherently more collaborative than traditional approaches because all stakeholders can rely on a single, constantly updated model, reducing manual data duplication and sharing. Using a data-rich model and BIM software to enable machine control on the jobsite also minimizes fuel burn and environmental disruption.

That shared continuous model can be used to generate a digital as-built, which, when compared to traditional as-builts, is a more accurate representation of the asset as actually completed. The digital as-built can also be embedded with 4D (scheduling) data, 5D (cost) data, and even 6D granular project data to allow asset owners to better leverage the volume of information available to them. This approach allows BIM to be used for both construction and the ongoing management and maintenance of the asset. Project owners can rely on the data-rich digital as-built to inform operational decisions with greater confidence, efficiency, and accuracy. 

Connected Construction Closes the Gaps

Connected construction technology is an integral component of how we’ll address the American infrastructure crisis. Specialized software programs and hardware tools must be able to communicate with each other to resolve the disconnects that hurt the delivery of on-time and on-budget infrastructure projects. 

In the planning and design phase, data can be collated into a BIM collaboration platform, like Trimble Quadri, to create a single repository for project data and enable better communication. Across engineering disciplines, structural, geotechnical, water, and road engineers can all sync to a single system and leverage a shared model. With all design and planning data centralized in a single location, engineers, owners, and contractors can engage in meaningful collaboration before ground is ever broken. 

That centralized repository, along with the shared model, can feed construction estimating and takeoff tools, like Trimble Quest, enabling contractors to produce more accurate estimates and schedules. Once construction begins, connected construction tools allow them to easily share data between the office and the field to reduce rework and monitor jobsite activity. Owners also benefit from connected data by seeing their projects come in on schedule and on budget, as well as gaining the as-built project data they need to efficiently manage and maintain their assets post-construction.

Of course, realizing the advantages of connected construction goes beyond just implementing the technology. All stakeholders need to be on board and do their part to bring the potential of connected construction to reality. But it’s well worth the effort. Connected construction produces improvements that can’t be ignored, including:

  • 10-30% reduction in engineering hours
  • 5-10% reduction in build costs
  • 10-20% reduction in operating costs
  • 5-10% reduction in decommissioning hours 

Engineering firms and contractors who can demonstrate that they’re breaking down silos internally and proactively addressing the problems that have plagued infrastructure projects will be more competitive and successful. The easiest and most effective way to benefit from connected construction is by leveraging a suite of tools designed and built to work together.