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Most states report a fair amount of uncertainty about where underground utilities lie. 

By Angie Schmitt 

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Uncertainty about the location of underground utilities is a top cause of project delays. It is a safety hazard, and in rare cases results in fatalities. In addition, it’s very expensive for agencies; some studies have estimated the cost at $50 to $100 billion. 

A new report from the Transportation Research Board offers insight on how state DOTs are currently managing their underground utilities data. Moreover, the report tracks the progress that has been made to develop a new universal set of standards. These standards, along with technological advancements, will help ensure agencies are able to dig with certainty.   

Practices for the collection, use and management of utility as built information” was based on surveys of 41 state DOTs. Here’s what researchers learned:  

#1. Half of the states have written requirements for utility as-builts. 

However, most of the time they do not receive them according to their requirements. As a result, many state DOTs are using their own set of standards. According to the report, 71 percent of states have not begun complying with some version of ACSE 75: Standard Guideline for Recording and Exchanging Utility Infrastructure Data, the final version of which has not yet been released. Close to the same percentage said they do not plan to use the standard.  

#2. They get most data from utility companies. 

Utility companies were the number one source of information for agencies. A plurality of states (46%) ranked the quality of their records as “fair,” with depth data being a key weakness.  

#3. Most DOTs are using high-tech methods to gather and store data. 

Most DOTs reported using GPS, GIS, and ground penetrating radar (GPR) to collect as-built information on utilities. 

#4. Colorado, Michigan, and Montana are leaders in this area.  

We’ve written about Colorado’s success using a legally required set of standards to develop 3-D maps of underground utilities. Michigan is also singled out in the paper for its “Geospatial Utility Information Data Exchange (GUIDE). According to the report, the state “revolutionized spatial awareness and the spatial quality of underground utility information by requiring accurate 3-D geospatial location data on underground utility infrastructure at the time of installation and storing that information in a highly accessible and secured repository.” 

#5. Many of our international peers have implemented more advanced systems. 

Switzerland, the Netherlands, the U.K., Turkey, and Croatia are using 3-D mapping for underground utilities, the authors of the report noted. Many of these nations have universal standards. Croatia, for example, implemented a national set of laws in 2016 to standardize utility information. Since 2018, the U.K. has also implemented a national standards system.