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As Congress and the administration develop bipartisan legislation to provide the elusive significant new investment in our nation’s infrastructure, there is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for federal and state leadership to accelerate the transformation of the nation’s public infrastructure agencies responsible for delivering projects in an integrated digital world.

While the commercial and industrial world has embraced a wide array of new digital technologies, the construction and infrastructure sectors have historically been slow to adapt. The result, according to a KPMG Global Construction Survey, is that productivity in construction has been flat for decades while it has increased dramatically in other industries, and in the case of public infrastructure, the cost of this flat productivity is being borne by the U.S. taxpayer.

The good news is this is changing rapidly, because it had to.

Spurred in part by private sector innovation and a program called Every Day Counts ­– a partnership between state departments of transportation and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which since 2010 has worked to identify and deploy proven innovations – digital construction technology has slowly worked its way into today’s highway and bridge construction projects. This includes 3D modeling, AI and robotics, building information modeling (BIM) and cloud computing, drone monitoring and more. These technologies are now in the field, revolutionizing not just how roads and bridges are modeled and configured but how they are built.

The cost savings resulting from the use of digital construction technology in project delivery – to infrastructure owners, to contractors, to state governments, and the public – are well documented, lowering the cost of major construction projects by as much as 25 percent, according to one review by the Florida Department of Transportation.

But there is much the industry and Congress can do to speed the adoption of this time and money-saving technology. As Abe Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I’ll spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.” As we prepare to administer trillions in urgently needed infrastructure investment over the next decade, let’s spend some time sharpening of our axes.

In the current “Round 6” of the FHWA Every Day Counts partnership with the states, one of the seven initiatives is “e-Ticketing and Digital As-builts.” According to the May EDC-6 Summary and Baseline Report:

  • “Forty-three states plan to be at the demonstration, assessment, or institutionalized stages of e-Ticketing at the end of EDC-6, compared to 18 at the beginning.” (An all- time record of participation for an EDC initiative.)
  • “The number of states attaining the demonstration, assessment, or institutionalized stages of digital as-builts is expected to grow from 10 to 27.” (A significant number, but we can do better.

Widespread adoption of these initiatives across the state DOTs over the next two years will pay significant long-term dividends to the taxpayers. They also provide critical leadership that influences county and local infrastructure agencies.

There are many champions of change working to advance digital delivery transportation infrastructure across the spectrum in the public and private sectors. Data-driven decision making is at the core of the Federal-Aid Highway Program. There is incentive language supporting digital construction technology advancement in the states in both the Senate Environment and Public Works and the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee versions of the five-year reauthorization of the surface transportation programs. All that is needed is for policy leadership of our infrastructure agencies to engage and support their champions of change and simply make this a priority.

A whitepaper on Digital Construction Technology we developed illustrates opportunities for streamlining project delivery in the Federal-Aid Highway Program. Digital delivery is the road to get there. I attempt to make the policy case for this moon-shot moment for how we deliver the nation’s public infrastructure. Download here:

Gregory G. Nadeau is chairman of Infrastructure Ventures and former administrator of the Federal Highway Administration in the Obama Administration.

Originally published in ARTBA July/August Transportation Builder Magazine https://www.artba.org/news/transportation-builder/