Project development and delivery technology is advancing at a rate that could leave an unsuspecting practitioner behind if they are not acutely aware of the changing landscape. During a panel at the 2023 Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting, Amy Lucero, FHWA Associate Administrator for Innovation and Workforce Solutions, joined transportation leaders from across the country to discuss this topic.
Other panelists included Tony Tavares, Director of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans); Mary Leary, Acting Associate Administrator for Research, Demonstration, and Innovation for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA); and Molly King, Executive Vice President of Project Connect Integration for the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (CapMetro) in Austin, TX.
The Every Day Counts (EDC) program took center stage during portions of Lucero’s discussion as she highlighted innovations promoted by EDC that have advanced digital project development and delivery. These included 3D engineered models, e-Construction and partnering, collaborative hydraulics: advancing to the next generation of engineering (CHANGE), and e-Ticketing and digital as-builts.
Past rounds of EDC have provided new opportunities for collaboration and sharing as practitioners seek to eventually connect the entire project lifecycle digitally. Working together to bring legacy systems into the digital age fits with the Secretary of the U.S. DOT’s innovation principles. “This work is helping future-proof our infrastructure,” said Lucero. “It’s something we’re very committed to.” She indicated that FHWA is excited about expanding the EDC program beyond highway infrastructure to promote innovation across transportation modes and to reach out to our transit partners.
Lucero also mentioned that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) includes funding for Advanced Digital Construction Management Systems (ADCMS). She said the funding provides a transformational opportunity for the transportation industry, which has traditionally been slower to adopt these technologies. ADCMS, including 3D models and Building Information Modeling (BIM) for Infrastructure, can give practitioners the right data to make the best decisions. They also offer increased promise for working together across agencies and organizations.
The panel’s speakers highlighted the importance of engaging across agencies and offices to break down silos that can prevent the free flow of ideas and information. And, in terms of data, Tony Tavares recommended that agencies “collect data once and share it often across functional programs and partner agencies.” Sharing data across offices means it does not need to be recreated.
Panelists also reminded the audience that most projects are not delivered by a single entity or agency, so partnerships are critical. Digital innovation offers the ability to instantly bring together the power of multiple entities. It becomes a force multiplier for any single office or user that taps into the connected digital ecosystem.
This was the case for an emergency repair Tavares described on California’s Highway 1 near Big Sur in Monterey County. After a rain event in 2021 washed out a 150-foot section of the roadway, agency collaboration facilitated its rapid reconstruction. The coastal highway reopened to traffic in 86 days. Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) were one of the technologies used that helped improve data gathering and sharing. UAS also minimized exposure of field staff to risk at this cliffside location along Rat Creek.
Project Connect in Austin, TX, is a comprehensive transit expansion plan that includes zero emission buses, new light rail and commuter lines, and expanded and better bus service. Molly King said the project integrates technology as a key element and the IT team is a critical partner in evolving legacy systems to support this digital transformation. A piece of advice she offered was to use process mapping and develop an IT plan early on.
Mary Leary of FTA dove deeper into a reoccurring theme throughout the panel discussion—the importance of Information Technology (IT) Offices and software providers as a partner in an agency’s digital evolution. She noted the importance of the data element of technology integration, particularly when trying to link systems together that may not originally have been designed to communicate with one another. She also noted the critical role of planning and benchmarking with strong involvement from all functions in an organization, and the need for program managers of major enterprise solutions like ADCMS to engage senior leadership early and often as champions.
Lucero also shared advice for other agencies on the digital revolution they find themselves in the midst of: Be a champion for change. Take the first step. Innovation does not have to be a new technology—agencies can innovate by implementing existing tools or practices in their jurisdiction. Also, ask for help when needed and be open to results when things do not go according to plan.