Managing Transportation Assets in the 21st Century
Today’s transportation planners, managers and executives are in a bind. Dwindling funds, increasing demands and aging infrastructure have presented them with a multitude of asset-related challenges—from congested roadways to deficient bridges to broken-down commuter rail lines and buses. Look no further for evidence than the D+ America’s infrastructure received from the American Society of Civil Engineer’s 2017 report card.
Transportation asset management (TAM) is a strategic and systematic process for solving these challenges, focusing on the effective operation, maintenance, upgrade and expansion of physical assets through a whole-life approach. The following information outlines, for transportation stakeholders, the key elements of a modern TAM plan and the advantages that a 21st century asset management practice can unlock.
Performance Targets: Before ever sending staff into the field to inspect bridges or roads, agencies should develop goals for their assets that are risk-, performance- and outcome-based. Strong goals should align with an agency’s long-range plan for an area or region, as well as national transportation goals. For example, a state department of transportation may aim to reduce deficient bridges by 10 percent. A key to meeting TAM goals like this one is to be proactive versus corrective.
Instead of replacing bridge assets when they have failed, the department of transportation should understand what caused deterioration and how those factors can be mitigated. Using deterioration models that incorporate past experiences, the agency can forecast where those bridge assets will be in 15 to 20 years with no maintenance versus with maintenance. With these future scenarios in mind, planning and budgeting for maintenance, replacements and/or new constructions can be improved.
Whole-Life Financial Outlook: Transportation agencies are stewards of mobility for future generations. Giving our assets long, useful lives requires the development of realistic, long-term financial plans. This level of planning means recognizing the direct costs (design, construction, land acquisition, maintenance) and hidden costs (deprecation, financing, operations, preventative maintenance, management, demolition) for every asset. By taking a whole-life approach to managing these costs, agencies can better achieve performance targets and operational objectives.
Cross-Asset Allocation: Like how stock market traders decide where to invest their money, cross-asset allocation can be used by transportation agencies as a decision-making strategy to balance the risk and rewards of managing assets within their portfolio. To illustrate the concept, if an agency chooses to fund a bridge replacement in one region, it may be reducing available funding for preventive maintenance on five bridges in another location. Understanding the effects of all decisions leads to more optimized and effective asset planning, design, construction and operation.
Risk Mitigation and Resilience Evaluations: When implemented successfully, TAM programs can be powerful frameworks for managing potential threats. These risks can be internal (maintenance costs, loss of institutional knowledge) or external (legislative changes, environmental disasters). Agencies should identify the various risks that may affect different levels of their operation, programs or projects and plan mitigation alternatives for each.
Resilience evaluations are integral to a modern TAM practice and can help with risk-based financial planning. The importance of these evaluations has become increasingly important because of the effects of climate change and recent natural disasters taking a toll on U.S. infrastructure. Agencies should develop action plans to bring their assets back to full operation in the event of a disaster.
Data Collection and Management Protocols: Where traditional engineering falls short of providing the answers and tools needed to manage and maintain infrastructure, technological advancements—from drones and bridge inspection robots to the Internet of Things and big data analytics—may fill the gap. The data that can now be generated and stored is moving much faster than the ability of many agencies to analyze, structure and use it. The best TAM practices will design data collection and management protocols that leverage a mix of these and other emerging technologies to support cooperative decision making.
Knowledge Management Procedures: TAM programs should address the organizational aspects of operation at a transportation agency. This step involves managing one of the most valuable assets an agency has: its institutional knowledge. Documenting core business processes and implementing programs for knowledge acquisition and transfer will minimize disruption should staff retire or leave the agency.
Developing and implementing a TAM plan or program will vary from agency to agency, based on policies, culture, practices, organizational constraints and objectives. However, when TAM practices incorporate the key elements above, they will realize a myriad of benefits, including improved data quality, consistency and management; robust asset inventories; data-driven resource allocation; and, improved risk management.