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|Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 69 · No. 5 > Geospatial Technologies Improve Transportation Decisionmaking|
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-2006-003
Geospatial Technologies Improve Transportation Decisionmaking
by Lindsay Banks and Mark Sarmiento
Geographic information systems enable State DOTs to streamline tasks and projects related to operations, road routes, safety, engineering, conservation, and more.
Faced with the daunting task of managing the Nation's transportation system with limited resources, the work of State departments of transportation (DOTs) is driven by the need to produce quick, high-quality results without overspending. Delivering transportation projects on time without sacrificing quality requires accurate and complete data. Geographic information systems (GIS) and advanced data collection technologies such as remote sensing and global positioning systems (GPS) have helped many DOTs produce that data, enabling them to improve decisionmaking while saving time and money.
"GIS should be the tool of choice for forward-looking executives—those who . . . want to "skate to where the puck will be,'"says Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Associate Administrator for Planning, Environment, and Realty Cynthia J. Burbank. "GIS can improve the speed and quality of decisions, cut costs, and allow multiple teams to work together effectively. What executive isn't seeking that?"
Many State DOTs are going a step further, using the systems in conjunction with Internet technologies and the Web to distribute the information more widely and in a more cost-conscious manner. As more and more States apply GIS, and as they share their experiences with others, the benefits of using geospatial technologies can multiply.
"But it isn't going to happen without an executive-level commitment to GIS—a commitment to funding and staff for GIS, and executive-level time to figuring out what decisions could be aided by GIS applications," Burbank says.
Recognizing the potential impact that geospatial technologies can have on the work of State DOTs, FHWA has taken an active role in promoting these technologies through courses and workshops. FHWA encourages State DOTs to exchange their knowledge of geospatial technologies and their experiences with using them. In addition to providing support for GIS activities, FHWA is seeking champions to share their work with other DOTs.
A number of States have charted successes with geospatial technologies and report satisfaction with their experiences in using those technologies to improve decisionmaking and save time and money. A sampling of six States offers examples from various regions of the country: Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Nevada, Virginia, and Washington.
The Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department (AHTD) used GIS to streamline the transportation decisionmaking and permitting process for the Southeast Arkansas I-69 Connector. GIS enabled AHTD to share and consolidate environmental and engineering data, and to refine and efficiently analyze large amounts of information on study areas. The agency also used GIS to foster coordination with resource agencies, the public, and Native American tribes early in the environmental review process while efficiently addressing review requirements. Partner agencies supported using GIS because the project steps occurred more quickly.
Mainly through the use of this technology, AHTD was able to reduce by almost 60 percent the amount of time required to move from notice of intent to record of decision. The maps and analyses that GIS investigation provided also gave partners and communities tangible examples of how various project alternatives would affect environmental, cultural, and economic resources.
Randal Looney, environmental coordinator at FHWA's Arkansas Division Office, says, "The use of GIS as a preliminary screening tool for environmental constraints has greatly accelerated the decisionmaking process for us, particularly on large-scale study areas associated with EIS [environmental impact statement] -level projects."
Robert Fuhler, the section head for GIS in AHTD's Environmental Division, also praises the technology, especially its use on the I-69 project. "Generally, the use of GIS has greatly increased efficiency and data distribution on projects," he says.
His team has been successful in providing others at AHTD with GIS training, data coordination, and method development, making for a smoother transition and improved incorporation of data within the department, he says.
In addition, with the incorporation of GPS technologies, accuracy in identifying and collecting constraint locations and their delineation has increased substantially. "Processes and procedures covering the gamut from project start to final output of analyzed data for decisionmaking increases efficiency [and] productivity, and greatly reduces redundant efforts," according to Fuhler.
For transportation professionals at the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT), GIS is a powerful, efficient tool to construct and analyze transportation networks; conduct impact assessments; and create visual representations of assets, project locations, and transportation data layers. DelDOT had adopted GIS technology in its day-to-day operations, but various limitations remained: data were maintained in several locations, and employees had to have GIS software installed on their desktops to access the data and create maps, or needed to contact DelDOT's GIS group to request data or maps.
DelDOT officials recognized that collecting information was a time-consuming obstacle to completing projects quickly and efficiently. Also, many employees needed access to spatial data but lacked the skills to navigate desktop GIS programs. In 2004 DelDOT decided to pursue a more cost-effective and user-friendly system that would accommodate its burgeoning volume of spatial data.
The agency teamed with GeoDecisions®, a Pennsylvania-based consulting firm specializing in GIS and information technology, to create an online information portal for DelDOT employees. The portal is known as the "Information Network for Online Resource Mapping" (INFORM).
"The goal was to provide optimized data dissemination in a cost-effective manner," explains Brian Smith, GeoDecisions project manager. "A Web portal provides easy data access without the need of additional client software and with little training involved."
By allowing key decisionmakers and planners access to a database of project information that is regularly updated and maintained, and with all stakeholders sharing the same information, INFORM leads to more informed decisionmaking.
"These data were available before, but they weren't easily accessible," says Don Burris, DelDOT's manager of transportation assets and engineering systems. "With INFORM, the data are found at one location, most data can be accessed with three simple mouse clicks, and everyone within DelDOT is now looking at the same dataset."
INFORM also integrates data from a variety of DelDOT business systems. Among other things, it enables employees to analyze multiple types of projects to ensure correct scheduling or to view various types of traffic information. Crash, road, bridge, transit, environmental, and basemap data features are available for analysis throughout the network. Users also can display various basemap features at one time and create multiple thematic maps based on business data.
"Overall," says Burris, "the new Web application has increased productivity, improved decisionmaking, and translated into cost savings for the Delaware Department of Transportation."
After undertaking a thorough review of day-to-day activities and general areas that could benefit from improved technology, the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) decided that a GIS portal could improve the agency's business operations. The GDOT reviewers realized that GIS could not only improve existing services but also provide new services by centralizing various databases and making them accessible through an Internet portal.
Using in-house resources and personnel, GDOT created the "Transportation Explorer Information Portal" (TREX), an online GIS portal that enables the department to present information to State employees, citizens, elected representatives, and officials from FHWA. "We are now addressing a greater diversity of needs from a much larger audience than we were before," says Teague Buchanan, GDOT's GIS manager.
To meet the rapidly increasing demand for maps and spatially enabled data, GDOT wanted to make this information readily available to anyone who may need it. Due to the powerful capabilities of GDOT's ArcIMS®/ArcGIS® server, users can access information about current projects, review plan details, view photos, and look at contract details—all with the click of a button.
"Fulfilling information needs is more effective than teaching everyone to be a GIS user," Buchanan says. "Web-based GIS helped us simplify the end-user experience." Unlike other static Internet maps, this system enables the user to interact with the data, selecting and finding features by attributes. Easy access to data makes the project development process more inclusive and helps organize the management of projects.
GDOT has reported significant improvement in the delivery of services and information. Some tasks that formerly required hours or even days of information gathering now take only minutes. While increasing the timeliness of response to data inquiries, GDOT also was able to decrease the cost of responding. Additionally, agency officials have noted an increase in the amount of citizen participation. The program is easy to use and can be accessed from the comfort of private homes. The considerable amount of information available publicly has increased the transparency of GDOT's work, which could result in an increase in public trust.
"Our greatest satisfaction is watching people use our application in their day-to-day business," says Buchanan. "It's very gratifying to know that our application is providing a valued service to the public and our transportation partners."
TREX recently won a Best of Georgia Award in the category of redefining government. The award, created by the Government Technology Conference (GTC) with Governor Sonny Perdue and the Commission for a New Georgia, is presented to the agency or organization "that has adopted the best practices already being utilized by the private sector wherever appropriate to make State government function as productively, effectively, and as efficiently as possible," according to GTC.
The Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) built a transportation GIS that merges crash data with a roadway basemap and relates the two. NDOT compiled partial datasets from several State and local offices into a single, consistent basemap in a new database, converting the data regardless of its native format. The new, geospatially enhanced Safety Management System (SMS) also stores and retrieves all of the various linear referencing methods used by police to locate crash sites, including intersection offsets, milepost offsets, and address matching. Dynamic segmentation capabilities that correctly maintain the relationships between roads and their crash attributes also are incorporated in the new system.
With SMS, NDOT staff can perform the following additional applications:
Practically, NDOT's use of GIS technology means that it can better coordinate with other authorities and field staff to improve highway safety, says Chuck Reider, principal safety engineer for NDOT. "GIS technology can display information in a way that's much more intuitive and easy to understand." Tables, spreadsheets, and the like are easily usable by some, especially experts and professionals, but graphically displaying a problem can drive a point home to decisionmakers, the public, and any other interested stakeholders, he says.
For instance, GIS data can pinpoint and show a problem area, say, an intersection with a high rate of injury crashes. It may further show problems with nearby intersections and graphically reveal a swath of areas, perhaps a whole transportation corridor, that warrants attention by safety professionals. "A picture really is worth a thousand words," Reider says.
The GIS system serves as a conduit of sorts, he says. Just as NDOT headquarters staff can go to local authorities to point out a problem revealed by GIS, field personnel can transmit information back to educate headquarters about a safety issue.
As expected, the agreement has proven mutually beneficial. The database has provided VDOT with easy access to data that were previously difficult to locate, enabled regional visualization of resource distribution, simplified decisionmaking, and created the ability to streamline project review procedures. For VNHP, advantages include a reduction in the volume of projects to review for VDOT, enhanced ability to respond to problem projects, and the database itself, which enables the agency to fulfill its mission more effectively.
More generally, GIS has helped VDOT fulfill a mandate for greater openness to the public, says Dan Widner, the agency's GIS program manager. "We are spatially enabling our business processes," he says, to allow for improved tracking of construction and maintenance projects. GIS supports other informational efforts of the agency and helps with integrating information. Clearer data can be supplied to decisionmakers, VDOT constituents, taxpayers, and the public at large, Widner says. "We are making GIS part of our everyday business processes."
When conducting environmental assessments, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) obtains environmental information from its partner resource agencies. Gathering data from many agencies for each project can be a time-consuming process. The Environmental GIS Workbench is a custom-built, online GIS application designed to give WSDOT staff access to a broad range of statewide environmental and natural resource management data. The application is a step toward eliminating redundant data and improving data quality. WSDOT supports the GIS tool by coordinating with numerous Federal, State, and local agencies to ensure that datasets are updated continuously and remain accurate.
With this tool, users are able to produce their own maps that combine environmental data on wetlands, historic sites, and parkland with a proposed highway corridor to see how these natural and cultural resources might be affected. The digitized data layers are available as ArcView® readable files and may be easily downloaded, overlaid, and manipulated.
"The Environmental GIS Workbench was so successful for environmental assessment work that other groups started asking for their own workbench," says Elizabeth Lanzer, environmental GIS/information technology program manager for WSDOT. "Rather than building many different tools, we built an updated workbench that provides GIS support to multiple agency functions."
The project has seen promising results. The increased availability of information has reduced decision review time, while centralized control of the system by WSDOT continues to maintain and improve data accuracy.
How to Learn More
With more and more States interested in geospatial technologies, FHWA has worked to provide opportunities for States to come together and share their knowledge and experiences. The National Highway Institute offers a course, Applying GIS and Spatial Data Technologies in Transportation (FHWA-NHI-151039), that helps managers at State DOTs become familiar with geospatial technologies and their relevance to transportation planning. Also, the GIS for Environmental Streamlining and Stewardship workshop, developed by the FHWA Resource Center, provides opportunities for State DOTs and resource agencies to learn about and discuss other States' experiences with GIS related to environmental streamlining. See www.nhi.fhwa.dot.gov/ or www.fhwa.dot.gov/resourcecenter/ for more information about these training opportunities.
In the summer of 2006, the FHWA Office of Project Development and Environmental Review will offer workshops on Application of Conservation Planning Tools for Transportation Planning and Project Development. The workshops, cosponsored with NatureServe and Defenders of Wildlife, will focus on coordinating State conservation and transportation planning and the GIS tools available to help.
Finally, FHWA has a "GIS in Transportation"Web site (http://gis.fhwa.dot.gov), which highlights innovative transportation-related applications of GIS across the country.
In addition to these resources, a GIS-T (GIS for Transportation) Symposium in Columbus, OH, was held March 27-29, 2006. Hosted by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, Urban and Regional Information Systems Association, Highway Engineering Exchange Program, and the U.S. Department of Transportation, the workshop offered an opportunity for State DOTs interested in using geospatial technologies to learn from the experiences of others.
From high-tech mapping to information sharing, many State DOTs have seen the benefits of using geospatial technologies. GIS allows for complex analyses, easily understandable graphics, and scenario comparison. Indirectly, it has facilitated improved working relationships between State DOTs and their partner resource agencies.
Mark Sarmiento is a planning analyst with FHWA's Office of Interstate and Border Planning. Currently he is promoting the use of geospatial technologies by State DOTs and metropolitan planning organizations. He has been with FHWA since 1995. He has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and a master's degree in civil engineering, with a concentration in transportation, from the University of Virginia.
Lindsay Banks is a GIS specialist with FHWA. Her position in the Office of Interstate and Border Planning focuses on promoting advanced geospatial technology at the State DOT level. She has a bachelor's degree in urban planning from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master's degree in GIS from the University of Redlands.
GIS is an FHWA priority, market-ready technology and innovation. For more information, see www.fhwa.dot.gov/resourcecenter/teams/planning/plan_5gis.pdf.
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