With the construction of the Nation's Interstate highway system virtually complete, State and Federal highway agencies are shifting their attention to preserving and operating this $1 trillion investment in highways and bridges. This change in focus reflects a new concept known as asset management. The asset management approach emphasizes the preservation, upgrading, and timely replacement of highway assets through cost-effective planning and resource allocation decisions.
"Asset management looks at all of the assets, and not solely from an engineering perspective, but from the user perspective as well," says Madeleine Bloom, director of the Office of Asset Management at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). "In the United States, and throughout the developed countries of the world, there has been a shift from constructing new highway systems to preserving, maintaining, and maximizing the operation of what we have."
A typical State highway agency's assets would include infrastructure items such as pavements, bridges, and tunnels, as well as construction and maintenance equipment, vehicles, and the human resources of its staff. As an agency evaluates its assets, key questions to consider would include:
To assist States, FHWA and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) are developing a guidebook that will offer advice on applying asset management principles and provide examples of best practices already underway in some of the States. AASHTO has also set up an Asset Management Task Force to guide this effort.
"Transportation agencies have undergone a fundamental change," says Mary E. Peters, director of the Arizona Department of Transportation and head of the AASHTO task force. "Nationally our priorities are moving to focus on more efficient and effective management, operation, and preservation of transportation systems, rather than placing a primary emphasis on adding capacity. Yet, for the most part, we are still operating our agencies with management information systems that focus more on how many miles of highway we have built or maintained rather than how those systems are performing. We can tell you how many ribbons we cut last year, but not a rate of return on investment."
One example of an asset management technique that is helping States better evaluate their existing assets and calculate the return on investments in roadways is the use of a pavement management system (PMS). This software tool is used in the collection and monitoring of information on current pavement conditions, forecasting future conditions, and evaluating and prioritizing alternative reconstruction, rehabilitation, and maintenance strategies. The evaluation, forecasting, and prioritization is done in order to maintain the system at a steady level of performance.
The alternative rehabilitation and maintenance strategies analyzed by the PMS might include shutting down a road completely for repair work, rather than putting the public through months or years of work zones and detours. States such as Virginia and Washington have chosen this option with great success. In the long run, the shutdowns saved the public time, money, and aggravation and were preferable to a protracted series of backups.
Some States are also using bridge management system (BMS) software to help determine the best program of bridge investments to pursue over a certain time period, given particular funding levels. Ideally, a BMS should identify current and future deficiencies, estimate the backlog of investment requirements, and project future requirements.
Another powerful software tool that is currently being tested by States is a modified version of FHWA's Highway Economic Requirements System (HERS) program, which provides benchmark estimates of future highway system requirements, given some user-defined criteria. The model conducts its analysis by:
Using tools such as the PMS software and HERS program can bring States closer to what Jim McDonnell of AASHTO calls the "ultimate goal of asset management." This goal is to "look at all elements of the transportation system comprehensively, rather than as separate pieces, and to achieve your performance goals by analyzing the trade-offs between various alternative funding scenarios." By looking at the overall system and evaluating what needs to be done to maintain it in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible, States can not only maintain an invaluable national asset but keep their customers happy.
For more information, contact the FHWA Office of Asset Management at 202-366-0392 (fax: 202-366-9981).