There is never enough funding in any organization to meet the needs, much less the wants. The debates to determine funding and how to allocate it are endless and continue to this day at all levels of government (Ryan, 2021). Typically, the effective use of available funding falls to public sector transportation professionals, unless private-sector owners, in conjunction with private sector partners. Thus, it is important to review some analytic tools, methodologies, and aspects for maximizing results with limited funding. These could loosely be considered part of asset management. A more thorough review of asset management, setting a basis, criteria, and priorities, is on the March 6, 2016, article on this website entitled Transportation Asset Management. This discussion merely augments that discussion and is by no means an exhaustive list. In no particular order, these are some of the more important tools, methodologies, and aspects that can help establish priorities and maximize results with limited funding.
- Asset Management: Every public and private body is under increasing pressure to justify investment and that it is making the best use of its resources. The essence of asset management is to better prioritize resources to optimize outcomes, basically institutionalizing a business-like approach to managing infrastructure—asset management. The ability to retain, retrieve, and analyze increasing amounts of data in recent decades has enabled evidence-based decision-making on a network scale. Made possible by computers and digital technology, other “big picture” analyses are increasingly emerging to include the discipline of sustainability that facilitates decision-making among economic, social, and environmental realms. Performance metrics also began to evolve at the same time as asset management. The result is a fundamental framework for managing resources or assets:
- Performance measures: what target is desired and achievable
- Value in dollars
- Life-cycle cost prediction: estimate remaining useful life
- Agency or organization cost
- User cost
- Trade-off analysis and investment strategies (by combining the above to produce an optimized budget)—criteria to develop needs priorities
- Develop an emergency fund for unexpected events
- Develop program including asset needs priorities with available funding
Asset management is quite literally the best of continuous improvement. That process never ends. More discussion can be found on this website under transportation asset management.
- Scope, Schedule, Budget: This is closely related to Planning, design, below. Regardless, as a program or project is contemplated, a preliminary and final scope, schedule, and budget must be developed. Tied to the next bullet point, it is common for scope to creep or an ill-defined scope to create problems later on. As such, that can lead to schedule and budget problems later. This is especially prevalent in mega and giga programs and projects. The takeaway: spend the time necessary up front to conduct thorough due diligence, planning, risk assessment, and scoping. It is a lot better and a lot less expensive in time, money, and resources to do it right the first time vice the second or more times. Effective and efficient program or project controls are essential to track changes against the baseline contract of scope, schedule, and budget.
- Planning, Design: There is no substitute for good, solid planning and design. This in no way discounts good construction, maintenance, operations, materials, and other practices. These can all save or optimize dollars when done right. However, many times problems and opportunities missed can be traced back to the beginning of planning and design. It can be a challenge and take time to get input and reviews from construction, maintenance, operations, stakeholders, and partners. It is worth the effort to do things right or as well as possible at the beginning. Otherwise, time and money will be expended later and opportunities will likely be lost. More broadly, open-source engineering can be more valuable economically and in terms of building on standard design specifications. Thus providing more cost-effective projects, more innovation, improved quality, and scalability. (Shepherd-Smith, 2021).
- Needs Assessments, Criteria, and Priorities: This may appear obvious, and as stated above it is discussed in more detail in other blogs. Regardless, this process is essential in setting priorities for what to do first, second, third, and so on in spending on the highest priorities. While many governments do this, all do not. The larger, more capable governments tend to do this a lot more than smaller governmental, typically more rural, cities and counties. This typically manifests itself in state departments of transportation doing thorough needs assessments while smaller, less populated cities and counties have neither the staff or funding to do this. This can be a problem. This can be similar in non-highway modes. One solution is to generate one multimodal needs assessment for states, cities, and counties. To gain consensus on such a mechanism would be Herculean but not impossible. As it is, each entity has its own way of identifying needs and setting priorities and the challenge increases as governments establish “formulas” in an attempt to equitably distribute funding to the highest needs. This manifests itself in several ways such as donor and donee states relative to the federal Highway Trust Fund, earmarks depending on the power of elected officials, competitive grants which typically leave out smaller, more rural communities, and others. These are all an attempt to do the best we can but they also fall short. The net result—the inability to fund the highest needs. While it is true that federal and state highways carry the vast majority of traffic, the needs of rural communities are of equal importance. So, the idea of a multimodal and multigovernmental needs assessment should be aspired to if not accomplished. There are some rare examples of similar efforts in other areas that have been successful such as the State of Iowa developing one common state-city-county design manual. Also, the State of Nebraska requires an annual needs assessment (with inventory, standard criteria, inspections, estimated scope and cost, etc) for their state highway system so that the state legislature has a target to determine funding. Uniquely, Nebraska law has a variable fuel tax that adjusts the state fuel tax to meet that funding, regardless of impacts such as decreased fuel consumption due to pandemics or other unforeseen events. A system that effectively prioritizes limited funding to address the needs of one seamless transportation/mobility system would be invaluable to our society vice each governmental entity struggling on its own. While this may never be achieved, it is worth aspiring to.
- Design Exceptions, Practical Design, and Least-cost Planning: Until perhaps the last two decades, the standards for planning and design were fairly rigidly followed, partly due to liability risks of not doing so. That is understandable because of the importance of standards. However, as funding continues to be tight as needs grow, exceptions have increasingly been made. This evolution began as design exceptions to established standards, to somewhat broader exceptions termed practical design, and that has evolved into more recently termed least-cost planning. The core purpose of all is to maximize results with limited funding where a high proportion of benefits can be gained while accepting little or no additional risk. These are of course highly scrutinized for approval but can save considerable dollars. One mega program in Oregon had 275 design exceptions which saved $683 million.
- Alternative Delivery Methodologies: Alternative delivery methodologies have been around for decades in the form of contracts of which the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers has been one of the more innovative. In 1993 the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA) agreed upon the term design-build and its use among transportation agencies began to accelerate. Originally established to save time, not money, design-build projects have evolved to save time and money (Figure 8). Other integrated delivery methodologies have also begun to emerge such as design-build-operate, design-build-operate-maintain, construction management-general contractor, public-private-partnerships, and others, each designed for a specific purpose in saving the owner time, money, level of oversight, or all three. The key is that integrated delivery teams can work together, resulting in time and money savings for the owner. Embedded is risk and who has it, but that’s another subject that warrants a paper on its own.
- Materials: This may seem out of place but it is not. High-strength steel is a good example of allowing wider gaps to be spanned with fewer vertical supports and girders. Superpave asphalt mixes compete effectively with concrete depending on the costs of oil, cement, and other commodities. Likewise, steel can compete against concrete and accrue savings. Fiberglass reinforced-polymer girders and other corrosion-resistant features have also been employed to extend the design life of bridges to at least 100 years (Knapschaefer, 2021). 3D printed bridges and other structures can save on time and labor (U.S. Bridge, 2021).
- Recycling: Recycling is about saving resources and money. Asphalt, concrete, and steel are regularly recycled by owners and construction contractors, through both on-site and off-site processes. Depending on the strength, bridge girders are utilized on other bridges as appropriate. Old rail cars have been recycled as low cost-culverts where appropriate. One of the more innovative recycling methods being studied is to use old wind turbine blades in bridges as well as buildings, etc., rather than placing them in landfills (Stone, 2021).
- Engineering Economics: This tool has been around for over 100 years but continues to be relevant although other tools now supplement it and can lead to other conclusions.
- Life Cycle Costs: This tool has been around for over 100 years although it has been refined during that time. As our perspectives have increasingly become long-term versus short-term or a human lifetime, the life cycle of infrastructure, vehicles, and other assets have taken on additional meaning relative to least-cost decision-making. Therefore, the life cycle cost of any asset is critical to know.
- Return on Investment (ROI): Commonly known as ROI, this is another analytical tool that can have myriad perspectives. That is the ROI in economic terms, jobs created or sustained, environmental values, social values, and so forth. Regardless, knowing the return on dollars expended is a critical part of decision-making.
- Benefit-Cost (BC): Benefit-Cost is commonly assessed as a ratio, normally calculated in dollars. Frequently shown as an equation such as a BC ratio of 3:1 or B/C and if the numerator or B is greater than the denominator, then it is concluded to be a benefit. If the numerator or B is less than 1 it is considered a net cost and not a benefit. Nonetheless, this is another important tool in determining investments.
- Economies of Scale: This is a methodology that can provide a return on scale. For example, “bundling” projects within a region can reduce mobilization and material delivery costs. Conversely, breaking projects up has the potential to increase competition and reduce costs. While this is not a new concept, it is valuable. The term “bundle” is a relatively new term and is now commonly used. Previously, other terms such as “tied projects” were used to describe the same methodology. Buying materials, equipment, and other assets at scale can also provide economies of scale and reduce costs.
- Multimodal Needs Assessments: Typically, needs assessments have been done by asset or mode with critically important and useful outcomes. As mobility has become increasingly multimodal, the question has become how to conduct needs assessments across all modes. Multimodal planning is common but multimodal needs assessments are largely qualitative, not standardized, and not widely accepted. One of the outcomes in the absence of good, repeatable, and reliable multimodal needs assessments is that funding (federal and state) is distributed based on modal assessments, dominated by highways and bridges, and then a somewhat subjective assessment of how to distribute dollars to each mode. Until we achieve a truly standardized multimodal needs assessment with specific criteria, allocating funds to other modes (such as transit and pedestrians) will be a challenge. Generally, transportation is not a particularly partisan topic at governmental levels, partly because it provides objective information to help determine what funds can or will be appropriated and what the long-term implications may be. This is critical for the built environment in which we live.
- Operations and Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS): ITS was one outcome of advancing digital technology. What this allowed was the transportation system to be instrumented with sensors that provide data and information, especially on volume and speed, to a central office that can more quickly and effectively assess and respond to congestion and issues stemming from traffic congestion, crashes, and other incidences. Advanced Traffic Management System (ATMS) is used for traffic management and control and accounts for the most revenue in the overall ITS market. Although the benefit-costs of ITS vary widely from 2-9:1, others exceed 100:1. One ratio used for comparing ITS to more infrastructure is 8:1, a methodology to get more capacity from the existing roadway. The prudent use of ITS technologies can achieve greater benefit at less cost than more concrete, asphalt, and steel. Related, vehicle pricing systems such as electronic toll collection, congestion pricing, vehicle miles traveled, and other road user charging systems can be cost-effective. In addition, transport and supply chain service providers are seeking cost-effective solutions that ITS can provide to boost their productivity, performance, and profits. On e example developed early in Nebraska was a statewide oversize-overweight permitting system that allowed truckers to efficiently route their trucks and cargo and became an effective decision-making tool.
- Internet of Things or IoT: There are benefits to be gained throughout society by leveraging IoT, including in government, and new opportunities are continually being uncovered to improve services and efficiencies (Center for Digital Government, 2019; AT&T, n.d.; ServiceNow, n.d.; Descant, 2019).
- Partnerships and Collaboration: It is virtually impossible for any organization to have all the talent, tools, and resources to optimize returns for society, the economy, and our environment. As such, partnerships and collaboration are keys to leveraging the unique strengths of an organization. This is not a new concept, but like the exponential growth of our 4th Industrial or Digital Age, the need is greater than ever before. These strategies continue to grow (Salesforce, n.d.).
- Program and Project Management: Good program and project management begins and ends with good leadership. The team is all-important since they are the ones that get work done. As such, good leadership can make a team better while bad leadership can destroy a team. This easily translates to improved or decreased performance, costs, and profits. This topic is also discussed in other blogs on leadership, program, and project management on this website. There are many articles and books on program and project management, one of the most prolific and best is Robert Prieto who publishes regularly in PM World. He also authored one of the most comprehensive books on the subject, “Theory of management of large complex projects” (Prieto, 2015). Also, review PMWorld Journal, https://pmworldjournal.com/welcome, and the Project Management Institute (https://www.pmi.org).
- Risk Management: This is the identification, evaluation, and prioritization of risks followed by methodologies to minimize, monitor, and control the probability or impact of unfortunate events or to maximize the realization of opportunities. The U. S. transportation industry has enormous risk exposure and among the most risk-prone industries in the world. As such, the federal transportation law—Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or MAP-21, and signed into law in 2012 (FMCSA, n.d.)—established the requirement for states to develop a risk-based asset management plan. Risk management is a dynamic process and used routinely within the public and private sectors. Without such plans, organizations can be surprised by events with negative financial impact or miss positive opportunities with improved outcomes. The literature on risk management is rich and continues to evolve.
- Strong Relationships: This is another topic that might seem odd within a discussion of maximizing results with limited funding. However, the adage “a good relationship can make a bad contract better while a bad relationship can make a good contract worse” reflects the importance of strong relationships. It is common to have disputes but resolving them in a fair and amicable way while preserving the all-important relationships is critical. No one really wins when disputes move to litigation. This topic is further discussed in other blogs on this website, including the importance of trust.
- Safety: This may seem an odd topic within the topic of maximizing results with limited funding but the cost in lives, injuries, and property damage is staggering. As has been stated, virtually every transportation organization has the safety of their employees and traveling public as their highest priority. One of these efforts to improve safety, although for NASCAR racing, has important implications for the traveling public (Midwest Roadside Safety Facility, n.d.; Wikipedia, 2021). The work towards a safer built environment will likely never end.
This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list and is only intended as a sample. The search to reduce costs is part of continuous improvement and that never ends. There are some very simple changes that cumulatively can have huge impacts including the use of LED bulbs in traffic signals and buildings, the use of highly reflective tape rather than electric lit signs, shutting off computers during overnight hours, and so on. This, again, is in no way a substitute for sound and skilled planning, project development, design, construction, maintenance, and operations, all of which continue to evolve and improve within their own discipline.
The Biden Administration recently announced through their Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grants or INFRA some of the above tools and methods as part of their criteria in addition to other related criteria such as climate change, environmental justice, and racial equity (Ichniowski, 2021). Still, other technologies are being advanced with their own inherent efficiencies (New Hampshire Union Leader, 2021; VIA, n.d.; LeBeau, 2021; Danko, 2021; Ewoldsen, 2021). Other technologies that may seem a bit far-fetched continue to advance and may be part of a transportation future and at less cost (Levy, 2021; Subin, 2021; Halvorson, 2021). Still, other areas are advancing, including space, and may well have cost-effective impacts on our futures on earth (Adams, 2021; Hughes, 2020).
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