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Property Management Tools and Techniques

4. Template for the Effective Management of Real Property Assets at State Departments of Transportation

The contexts under which SDOTs develop requirements for their property management inventories and the resulting systems vary; however, there are basic elements that are consistent across agencies. The following section describes property inventory system ideals that SDOTs participating in the Regional Roundtables as well as other select stakeholders suggested. State Departments of Transportation need not follow each of these approaches and, instead, should continue to tailor their respective systems to their own needs.The presented items, however, are potential best practices that may help SDOTs improve the foundations of their property management procedures, as appropriate.

4.1 Inventory System Ideals

Stakeholders from SDOTs agreed that property management inventories should be adaptable regardless of whether they are sophisticated, web-based systems or more modest tools, such as those that spreadsheets can offer. That flexibility may be expressed through what the system does (functional considerations); how the system does those things (technical considerations); and, how the staff members interact with the system (human factors considerations).

Functional Considerations and Best Practices

At a fundamental level, the inventory system should be able to answer the questions that ROW staff are being or anticipate being asked. State Departments of Transportation should consider formulating functional requirements for their property inventories in coordination with SDOT leaders and other SDOT disciplines to ensure that multiple perspectives are reflected and to reduce the likelihood of being asked to report on topics for which data are unavailable or not easily accessible.

According to SDOT stakeholders, the property inventory ideal would facilitate the sale of SDOT properties. This might include the ability to automatically populate a publicly-accessible webpage dedicated to listing properties that are on the market.[16]

In addition to parcel numbers and classes of properties, the model property inventory would have the ability to track all or some of the following:

Obtaining property encumbrance releases on acquired property may be necessary in order to clear the property’s title. The complexity of this process depends on the interest acquired and the type of title information the agency obtains. Regional roundtable participants believed an effective property inventory system would provide ROW staff members with the ability to keep all interested parties apprised of the status of ROW encumbrances and other important information. The ability for the inventory to broadcast updates would help ensure that appropriate staff members stay apprised of the best or most current information available.

Title 23 of the United States Code (USC) outlines the role of highways, including the funding of Federal-aid highways. A potential property inventory best practice would be to ensure that the inventory system links to the agency’s accounting system in order that monies from various funding streams (i.e., Title 23 funding and state funding) are kept track of separately and accurately. Alternatively, a SDOT might choose to track income generated from property sales in its acquisition system or directly in the inventory system. Either way, system users should have the ability to indicate whether federal funding was involved in the transportation project and then track how it is used moving forward.

Technical Considerations and Best Practices

Participants from SDOTs noted that modern property inventories should be designed to anticipate the expansion in use of mobile devices, including phones and tablet computers, in the field. This could include the ability to scan Quick Response (QR) codes, barcodes, or other similar markings that were imprinted on assets (such as maps or signs) in order to electronically retrieve all relevant project files. It might also involve, for example, a feature to automatically capture or access online images or real-time aerial information of the parcel(s) in question, for example via Google Streetview or Google Earth. In any case, making the link to mobile devices and incorporating more visual, user friendly elements can make all property management staff members’ jobs easier, while better engaging younger staff who may be more accustomed to modern-looking data interfaces.

A common recommendation among stakeholders was that ROW staff members should be able to search their agency’s property inventory by any criteria.Such capability would facilitate their ability to respond to data requests.Along these same lines, the model property inventory system would allow users to generate ad hoc reports, since standardized, pre-produced reports may or may not offer the information desired for a given purpose.

State Departments of Transportation with more technologically multifaceted property inventories could explore the incorporation of encrypted digital signature and validation tools into their systems.Such tools can reduce the time necessary to receive approvals, submit simultaneous copies of the signed forms to multiple recipients, and improve archiving ability.

Where possible, the fields required in the inventory’s various forms should be automatically populated to avoid duplication of work, erroneous data entry, and unnecessary clutter that detracts from the user-friendliness of the interface.Forms should also be easily modifiable so that the inventory can be adapted to evolving priorities and reporting requirements.

In some current property management systems, users must search for property owners’ names several times during a query in order to gather the information being sought.This is often due to the fact that different modules of the inventory and/or different peripheral systems were developed at different times, perhaps independently from one another.Stakeholders noted that the ideal property inventory would enable users to look up a property owner’s name only once to view all of the associated information that had been input for that owner and his/her property.

A model property inventory system would have a means by which the system itself or its users can directly interact with other contemporary systems within the agency, particularly any property acquisition systems that may exist.Property management is not a function that operates in a vacuum, and tie-ins to other SDOT activities would be beneficial.Some regional roundtable participants commented that it would helpful if their property inventories could communicate with other systems within the agency showing milestones in the utility permitting process and/or active versus closed projects, since final maps are often only created for closed projects.

This integration might also include the incorporation of or linkage to a GIS component. Nearly all regional roundtable participants agreed that integrating the property inventory tools with their agencies’ GIS has been or would be a technically and organizationally challenging, but critical and sometimes overdue, next step for the property management discipline. State Departments of Transportation should encourage decision makers to appreciate the wide-ranging value of geospatial information, including its pertinence to ROW activities such as property inventorying.

Where consultants are employed to develop or maintain a SDOT’s property inventory, their work would preferably be based on clear consultant requirements that SDOT staff members can manage closely. All terms should be plainly defined in scopes of work, and attention should be given to describing the context and specific needs of the state, as some consultants may market tools previously developed for other states.

Contract language might include stipulations that would allow the SDOT to reacquire its data if another consultant or inventory tool is used in the future; there have been cases where the code upon which a consultant’s system is founded is proprietary to that firm or where the consultant “owns” the information that is entered into the system. State Departments of Transportation might also make efforts to avoid writing unrealistic scopes that lock the agency in to inflexible positions on standards, software, schedule, or methodology.

These and other similar issues might be avoided via improved contract writing. As such, SDOTs suggested that there may be a need among DOTs for training in contract writing.

Regional roundtable participants pointed out that property inventories are only as good as the data entered into them. It was suggested that the model property inventory would provide distinct explanations for why errors occurred when they occur. In many cases currently, when data are erroneously input into inventories, users are only returned an error message indicating that something has not been accepted. More detailed clarification for what should be changed would be beneficial. This information could be supplemented by well-documented training courses or tutorials that help SDOT users learn how to input data in high-quality, standardized manners, thus reducing the likelihood of receiving error messages in the first place.

According to most Regional Roundtable participants, the ideal property management inventory would be secure, but not over-secure. Requiring too many passwords can make a system cumbersome and limit the efficiency of staff members using it. There was no recommendation as to what an inappropriate number of passwords might be, but comments suggested that this should be a topic for discussion among property management and IT staffs when SDOTs are developing or revising requirements for their respective property inventories.

Critical knowledge and skills can be lost as staff turnover occurs. By limiting the duration of application development, managers can help reduce the risk of losing expertise integral to fully deploying property management tools on schedule.

The property inventory ideal would rely on adequate computing power. Several SDOTs expressed that their systems had been known to time out before successfully generating requested reports.Model inventories would be constructed on IT infrastructure that had sufficient power to ensure that needed reports could be run with minimal risk of system time out.

Human Factors Considerations and Best Practices

Some Regional Roundtable participants suggested that, when possible, having a staff person whose primary job duty is working on the property inventory would be a best-case scenario.Another effective practice would be providing training to a staff member(s) to become an “understudy” to the consultant, when they have been hired, to develop an understanding of how to update and modify the inventory as necessary.

A model property inventory would not be labor intensive to fill out.Although several different SDOT functions may use an inventory’s data, those functions should not all need to enter the same information.Where possible, developing a single point of data entry should be sufficient.

Reports that property inventory generates should be optimized for printing.A number of SDOTs noted that significant time could be saved if staff members did not need to reformat and redesign information pulled from the property management inventory in order to produce a high-quality, clear, and easily legible hard copy for distribution.

Business needs evolve over time.Keeping those needs and the associated questions derived from them, as well as any existing performance metrics, SDOTs should periodically review the data fields in their property inventories to confirm that they are not superfluous or redundant in nature.Such an activity can help ensure that staff members’ productivity when inputting information in the inventory is maximized.

There may be a learning curve associated with new property inventory.Rolling out components gradually can help ensure that staff members are able to seamlessly adapt to the evolving business practice.

Updated: 04/02/2013
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