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Concept Design for an Online Information Source for Major Surface Transportation Projects: A Discussion Paper

June 2017
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1 Online Information Source Structure and Purpose

1.1 Introduction

Title IX of the Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015 calls for the establishment of a National Surface Transportation and Innovative Finance Bureau. In fulfilment of this mandate, the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) established the Build America Bureau in July 2016. The FAST Act mandates the different functions the Bureau will serve. One of these is to promote best practices in project delivery for major projects receiving federal assistance. In order to accomplish this, the FAST Act calls for the Bureau to establish procurement benchmarks to ensure accountable expenditure of federal financial assistance over the life cycle of projects. The FAST Act requires that these benchmarks:

  • Establish maximum thresholds for acceptable project cost increases and delays in project delivery
  • Establish uniform methods for States to measure cost and delivery changes over the lifecycle of projects
  • Be tailored to different types of project procurements including design-bid-build, design-build and public-private partnerships (as well as other alternative contracting methods such as Construction Manager/General Contractor a.k.a. CM/GC)

The FAST Act also requires that the Bureau work in coordination with the modal administrations, including the Federal Highway Administration, to collect project specific information and make it available on a publicly accessible Internet website. The purpose of this information source will be to address questions around the mandated benchmark development as well as to facilitate other information needs of the stakeholder community regarding various project delivery approaches.

The information source would compile data and descriptive information on major surface transportation projects delivered conventionally and through Public-Private Partnerships. Information on projects already implemented or in various phases of development could provide a resource for practitioners seeking to develop or implement similar projects. A secondary purpose of the information source might be to provide a basis for substantiated conclusions about the appropriateness of different procurement strategies in constructing and operating transportation infrastructure under different conditions.

1.2 Online Information Source Components

It is anticipated that the Information Source for Major Surface Transportation Projects will initially focus on major highway transportation projects ("major projects") that have been implemented in the recent past or are currently being implemented in the U.S. For the purpose of this paper, major projects are defined as highway projects of $500 million or more in cost that use Federal financial assistance or those that use USDOT financing programs administered by its Build America Bureau. These projects are identified in Appendix A of this paper. It is anticipated that the information source could grow to include transit, rail, and marine and air transportation projects. Therefore, it is anticipated that the architecture of the information source will be designed to accommodate these future expansions.

The purpose of the proposed information source is twofold:

  • Provide project information for project delivery practitioners and others who are involved in delivery of major transportation projects, and may have an interest in how other projects, similar to the ones under their consideration, have been delivered; or those who are involved in oversight of specific projects, including stakeholders, state and local managers, Federal officials from the various modal administrations, as well as the USDOT's Build America Bureau. The Bureau has been charged by Congress to monitor and track against benchmarks all transportation projects that receive Federal financial support, including TIFIA, PAB and RRIF 1 credit assistance and discretionary grants under the FASTLANE program authorized by Congress in the FAST Act, i.e., all projects referenced in Section 9001 (d) (1) of the FAST Act. The type of project data required by this user group is similar to the information currently collected by FHWA's Office of Infrastructure for major highway projects.
  • Provide more detailed project data for project delivery practitioners, policy makers, decision makers and academics that may have an interest in analytical studies of project delivery methods. For example, Value for Money studies require inputs such as expected impacts of various project delivery options on cost, delivery schedule, and quality of service; and studies seeking to perform comparisons of various project delivery options require reliable data on projects delivered using those options. The level of detail required for this purpose is much greater than that for the first purpose discussed above and the information is much more difficult to collect.

Addressing the information needs for the first purpose above could be relatively simple and straightforward. It could also be less costly to implement. For example, a library of documents from major projects (e.g., P3 agreements) could be developed, based on the needs of that audience. The beginning of such a library for highway projects already exists on the web site of FHWA's Office of Innovative Program Delivery. A database of major projects implemented since 2005 (albeit requiring a high level of curation) already exists for the project development, procurement and implementation phases of highway projects and is maintained by the FHWA Office of Infrastructure's Major Projects Team; it could be a source for data for this purpose. However, continuing curation of the data and addition of information on the operations and maintenance phase would be needed.

Comprehensively addressing the information needs for the second "analysis" purpose above would be resource-intensive and more challenging. For example, a comprehensive database has been developed by the University of Colorado for a single project, the Presidio Parkway project in San Francisco, CA, at a cost of approximately $500,000. The data for this project could be used to populate the Information Source initially, with relatively little effort, but it would require a significant investment to include information for other highway projects at that level of detail. Therefore, it might be more practical to collect comprehensive data only for select projects and only when appropriate levels of funding are available, and collect readily available data for other projects at a much lower level of detail.

It is therefore recommended that the information source be organized in two tiers that correlate with its two purposes and related target audiences - Tier 1 (basic) for basic project information and Tier 2 (advanced) for more detailed analysis. The primary target audience for Tier 1 of the online information source is the public agencies that use or are contemplating the use of P3 delivery and are seeking information on similar projects implemented by others, including state DOTs and local transportation agencies. Tier 2 of the database could inform decision making on the appropriateness and use of P3 project delivery and provide detailed information (e.g., for input assumptions in value for money analysis) to support the decision making. The comprehensive nature of the Tier 2 information would enable broader assessments of the factors that contribute to successful projects outcomes for P3 and non-P3 projects.

The paper addresses, for each of the two purposes discussed above, the following: (1) information needs based on identified questions from each audience; (2) sources of information to answer the questions and populate the information source, along with related issues; (3) online platform configuration considerations; and (4) long-term maintenance issues.

The content of the information source could initially be focused on highway projects, and would depend on the level of resources available for development and maintenance. It is important to achieve useful products within whatever level of funding support is available. Thus, this paper proposes a strategy (outlined in Table 1 below) to address the needs of each purpose incrementally (with respect to highway projects) depending on level of funding.

Table 1. Recommended Information Source Tiered Structure
Purpose and Target Audience Information Product Highway Projects to be Included Initial information to Build Upon
Tier 1
Project information for project delivery practitioners and others
Library and high-level "benchmark" data for project development, procurement and implementation to assist in project oversight and in decision making regarding future programs and policy development All projects (irrespective of delivery method) since 2005 that are in the FHWA major projects database (projects using federal funding with a capital cost of $500 million, or more) FHWA Office of Innovative Program Delivery/ Center for Innovative Finance Support web site "library" and FHWA Office of Infrastructure major projects database
Tier 2
Detailed data for practitioners and academics
Detailed data on project development, procurement, implementation and operations for a full range of questions related to project development, delivery, operations and maintenance All major projects (irrespective of delivery method) for which the required data is available and affordable within funding constraints, with the intent of obtaining data for a sufficient number of projects delivered under alternative delivery methods so that comparisons can be made (if possible) on a case study basis Presidio Parkway

In order to make the information source as useful as possible, it will be necessary to define the data elements clearly. This would likely include the preparation of a data dictionary that provides concise definitions of all performance metrics included in the information source, bearing in mind that complicated data items would create difficulty in data collection. Whenever possible the information source should focus on observed data rather than information that is estimated or based on judgements.

This paper raises the issues that would need to be addressed if it were to be useful to its audience and worthwhile to its sponsors. The discussion paper identifies:

  • A set of core questions that the Tier 2 database could answer
  • Clearly defined information sets that could be used to assess the project performance outcomes of P3 and non-P3 projects
  • Potential initial and continuing information sources
  • The type of platform through which the information could be delivered efficiently
  • Potential institutional structures and funding mechanisms for the ongoing maintenance and expansion of such an information source.

Based on the feedback received from industry stakeholders during the development of the discussion paper, a decision was made to first focus on compiling the Tier 1 information. Chapter 3 of the discussion paper therefore identifies the candidate Tier 1 data metrics together with the anticipated sources of that information. A discussion of the Tier 2 information has been retained in Appendix B of the discussion paper for use by other researchers.

1.3 Organization of the Discussion Paper

This discussion paper is organized into five chapters, including this introduction. The remainder of this chapter identifies core questions that the information source would be designed to address, for both Tier 1 and Tier 2 users, and the basic steps that would be involved in assembling the information source.

Chapter 2 of the discussion paper discusses the types of P3 and non-P3 projects that could be included in the online information source.

Chapter 3 describes a possible organizational structure for the online information source and makes recommendations on the different descriptive and performance metrics that could be included in Tier 1 of the online information source.

Chapter 4 of the discussion paper describes the types of on-line platforms that could be used to house and deliver the online information source, including technology options and the functionality of the information platform.

Chapter 5 discusses the long-term enhancement and maintenance of the information source, identifying different models for data management and alternative institutional structures and responsibilities.

Finally, Chapter 6 provides conclusions and recommended next steps.

Appendix A of the discussion paper identifies all Major Projects designated by FHWA since 2005.

Appendix B of the discussion paper includes a detailed matrix identifying potential Tier 2 performance metrics that could be considered for inclusion in the online information source.

1.4 Core Questions to be Addressed by the Information Source

At its best, the online information source is envisioned as enabling P3 stakeholders including departments of transportation, public policy and project procurement professionals, and academics to determine if and under what conditions the value propositions sought under P3 project delivery are borne out by the data. A logical first step in developing a framework for the information source is to identify the universe of overarching questions that the target audience could be seeking to answer concerning P3 project outcomes. Understanding these core questions would drive the structure and content of the information source and help identify what information and performance metrics would need to be included in it. It is recognized that there are tradeoffs between the ability to address "all" questions and the effort and cost to address them in a credible and useful fashion. For this discussion paper, the "universal" list of questions is considered in order to determine the functional implications for the information source and provide options for consideration by potential sponsors.

The information source could be designed to provide users with the information that they would need to address the following core questions:

Table 2. Core Questions (for Tier 1 and Tier 2 Combined)
  1. How do cost savings, efficiencies and other important outcomes of specific P3 projects compare to non- P3 projects? What project characteristics and external conditions have enabled P3 structures to achieve in cost savings, efficiencies and other important outcomes compared to non- P3 projects, e.g., risk transfer?
  2. What types of risk have been mitigated most appropriately by P3 and non-P3 project delivery techniques?
  3. How have the capital and operation and maintenance costs for P3 and non-P3 projects differed?
  4. How do estimated and actual costs evolve over the course of the development of P3 and non-P3 projects?
  5. How does project scope evolve over the course of development of P3 and non-P3 projects?
  6. At what stage of a project are costs reasonably known for P3 and non-P3 projects (cost-certainty)?
  7. How has schedule certainty differed between P3 and non-P3 projects?
  8. How do the costs of procuring and overseeing P3 and non-P3 projects differ for project sponsors?
  9. How do the operating and life cycle costs for P3 and non-P3 projects differ?
  10. How do the financing costs for P3 and non-P3 projects differ?
  11. How do the timeframes for the various phases in the development and implementation of P3 and non-P3 Projects differ?
  12. What types of design, finance, construction, and operating innovations have been fostered by P3 and non-P3 projects?
  13. How have design and construction quality differed between P3 and non-P3 projects?
  14. How have post-construction maintenance quality differed between P3 and non-P3 projects?
  15. How has post-construction service quality differed between P3 and non-P3 projects (e.g., customer satisfaction, facility condition, etc.)?
  16. How many claims, disputes and change orders have been experienced with P3 and non-P3 projects?
  17. What has been the level of local subcontractor and disadvantaged business enterprises involvement in the construction of P3 and non-P3 projects?
  18. What have been the labor rates for the design, construction and operation of P3 and non-P3 projects, and what share of the labor is from foreign countries?
  19. What issues have arisen from payment default and completion with P3 and non-P3 projects, especially for those that do not use traditional bonding methods?
  20. How have the outcomes of real toll and availability payment P3 concessions differed?
  21. What influence has P3 enabling legislation and agency policy had on the outcomes of P3 projects?

In order to ensure credible comparisons among projects, the data elements to be included in the information source would need to be defined as clearly as possible.

1.5 Steps in Assembling the Online Information Source

The possible steps involved in assembling the online information source are suggested in Figure 1. Based on the core questions, the projects to be included in the information source and the metrics that may be used to describe the projects and measure outcomes would be identified in tandem. As individual metrics are considered, information sources and an appropriate means of collection would also need to be considered. As the nature and scale of the information to be included in the information source comes into focus, options for storing and accessing information would need to be assessed. The ultimate selection of a data platform would need to reflect user needs. Considerations should include on-line availability and the desired flexibility to search and query the information source and generate reports, as well as the ability to accommodate ongoing data updates and incorporate new projects over time. In order to maximize the usefulness of the information source to users, it will need to be as flexible as possible. It is envisioned that the information source would be available to users without any restrictions.

Figure 1. Online Information Source Assembly

Figure 1.

Source: WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, 2017

Once these fundamentals have been established, data collection would begin. This would likely involve a variety of collection methods, with the data ultimately put into a spreadsheet environment from which it would be uploaded to the data platform. Careful quality review for consistency from project to project will be an essential element of the data collection process. Data quality assurance is discussed in greater detail in section 5.1.3 of this discussion paper. A trial data collection phase may be employed to determine whether the information provides sufficient value and reliability, as well as the cost and level of effort involved in assembling it.

Once the information source is populated and made available to users, the data maintenance and expansion phase would begin. During this period, additional performance data on the projects included in the information source would be added at regular intervals as they become available. Regular updates would be necessary to sustain the information source as circumstances change. The information source would also likely be expanded to include additional projects or project cohorts. If the initial iteration of the information source were to be prepared by a consultant, suitable arrangements would need to be made for the ongoing maintenance and operation of the information source. This would involve identifying funding sources to cover the ongoing cost and an institutional structure to oversee the process.

The different steps involved with the creation and ongoing operation of the online information source are addressed in the remainder of this discussion paper.


1 See the List of Acronyms and Abbreviations on p. iv.

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