US is Falling Behind in Infrastructure Technology

Terry Bills, Global Transportation Industry Manager at Esri, a geographic information system software company, says the US is coming up short in its infrastructure game.

Sure, FMI’s Second Quarter 2018 U.S. Construction Outlook is bullish on infrastructure spending. Total engineering and construction spending for the U.S., including infrastructure spending, is forecast to rise 6% in 2018, compared to a 4% boost in 2017. The FMI report is upbeat on highways and streets projects, noting: “States are successfully passing increased gas taxes and user fees,” and that there are some public-private-partnership opportunities available in select markets.

In June, construction employment grew by 13,000 jobs, says the latest Employment Situation report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Construction jobs are now +4.1% compared to 2017. Heavy construction and civil engineering project work saw the largest month-to-month pickup in hiring.

Terry Bills

The numbers above don’t include the sizable boom that would result if Congress approves Trump’s mega-MAGA- infrastructure proposal.

Terry Bills, Esri’s Global Transportation Industry Manager, tells Icons of Infrastructure that the US is coming up short on several infrastructure fronts (below). Esri’s products enable problem solving using geographic information systems (GIS). It has built ArcGIS mapping and spatial analytics software that governments, industry and citizens use.

Image shows gate design at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Icons of Infrastructure: Why is it important that more money and resources be devoted to infrastructure rebuilding in the U.S.?

Terry Bills: Our infrastructure – roads, bridges, ports, airports, rail networks, even our educational infrastructure – are all critical to our economy, and our nation’s economic performance and competitiveness. Indeed, one could argue that much of the United States’ economic performance in the post-war period was attributable to the investments we made in research and development, and our investment in infrastructure in the early post-war period after World War II.

Unfortunately, the US has been systematically underinvesting in infrastructure and maintenance for some time.  In fact, recent figures indicate that state and local spending on infrastructure is at a 30-year low. A big part of the problem is that federal investment in infrastructure has dropped by half during the past three decades, from 1 percent to 0.5 percent of GDP, leaving more of the responsibility and financial burdens to state and local governments.

Compared to other nations, the US also invests considerably less on infrastructure as a percentage of GDP. China for example, spends roughly 8.6% of GDP, India 5.2%, Australia 4.7%, Canada 3.5%, while the U.S. only spends 2.4%. (The global average is 3.5%). This underinvestment will unfortunately continue to handicap the American economy for some time.

Overall total infrastructure spending has fallen from a high of three percent of GDP in 1960, to roughly 2.4% today.

At the same time, the cost of raw materials like concrete and asphalt has increased more rapidly than the prices of other goods. Factoring in these specific costs, inflation-adjusted public infrastructure spending has declined about 9% since 2003.

Compared to other nations, the US invests considerably less on infrastructure as a percentage of GDP.  China for example spends roughly 8.6% of GDP, India 5.2%, Australia 4.7%, Canada 3.5%, while the U.S. only spends 2.4%.  (The global average is 3.5%).  This underinvestment will unfortunately continue to handicap the American economy for some time.

As a result, it is no surprise that the American Society of Civil Engineers has given the US’s infrastructure a grade of D+, underscoring the consequences of this lack of investment.

IOI: How can 3D planning and design technologies, civil integrated modeling, and sensorizing and digitizing our environment help overcome the shortage of construction professionals and skilled construction personnel? Will the use of virtual design and construction (VDC) also possibly help overcome labor shortages?

TB: I think there are really two trends which are occurring simultaneously. The first is that the required skills needed in transportation planning, design and construction are rapidly changing. The tools that we use to help us analyze projects and select among a number of alternatives are becoming more complex, and require much more significant technical skills to help make good planning decisions. The same is true through the design process, and certainly the technical requirements of construction engineers have grown exponentially.

These trends have created a shortage among technically proficient planners and engineers, and I see many transportation agencies struggling to hire the right kind of young professionals to fill these positions.

The second trend is that our construction processes are becoming more automated and efficient, and this is reducing the total number of bodies needed to build the infrastructure projects of the future.  I travel around the world, and it is interesting to compare a road project in Asia or Latin America, with those in the US or Europe.  In the first, road building is still a fairly labor-intensive process, while I generally see many fewer workers on major projects in the US.

These two trends are creating a labor mis-match that I think will be difficult to fill.

The image shows a new bridge design; on the left is the Esri 3D while the bridge on the right is in Autodesk’s format

IOI: How do infrastructure designers and builders and governments gain thru ESRI’s partnering with Autodesk, Bentley Systems and other construction software vendors and construction platforms?

TB: For some time, the goal of smart infrastructure professionals has been the integration of information throughout the infrastructure lifecycle: from planning through design, construction, operations and maintenance, with the goal of achieving greater efficiencies and cost savings. In fact, a recent National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) study found that creating a more seamless information flow between the various stages of the infrastructure cycle could reduce project delivery time between 20 and 50%, and could save up to 14% of the project’s operations and maintenance (O&M) costs during the project’s lifespan. In that regard, most infrastructure professionals recognize there are quite significant inefficiencies that we could squeeze out through better integration of our software systems, and the data and information they produce.

As a result, over the last several years there has been recognition among the major software platforms that we need to do a better job of making the hand-offs between our technologies more seamless, and interoperable. This trend holds out the promise not only of the ability to create better designed projects, but also to be able to deliver at a lower cost and shorter delivery cycle.  But I think we are at the very early stages of being able to capture these benefits, and it will largely be the firms that understand these technologies, and their advantages, that will prosper in the future.

IOI: Is there one kind or category of infrastructure project that requires the immediate attention of government?

TB: I always start any Smart City discussion by pointing out that you cannot be a Smart City without solving your congestion problems, as our cities become more and more crowded worldwide. And clearly solving our congestion issues is going to depend on having an effective public transport system at the heart of urban mobility.

That said, it is often our metros which have most consistently deferred maintenance to the point of crisis. In this regard, New York and Washington, D.C. are just two of the most critical examples.

We have also underinvested in more traditional public transit systems (buses), and unfortunately, many public transit agencies have not effectively responded to the rapidly changing mobility patterns in our cities. Taken together, these are creating a crisis in many of our cities, and represent the area of most acute need.

Unfortunately, in the U.S., we seem to be developing a “social” division between our cities and more rural areas, and this in turn is developing into a “political” division. There seems to be less and less consensus over the need to invest in urban mobility, yet our cities are our centers of innovation and economic activity. This is only going to make this congestion and mobility crisis that much more intractable.

IOI: How are technologies such as computer-aided design (CAD), GIS and Construction/Civil Information Modeling (CIM) transforming how infrastructure projects are delivered?

TB: I think the advantages start early in the planning process, and continue throughout the project lifecycle. On the planning side, we have much more sophisticated modeling tools which allow us to integrate a wide range of factors – land use, mobility, environmental, social – which allow us to plan more sustainable infrastructure. We have much more sophisticated decision support tools, which allow agencies to select those alternatives which maximize community goals. This holds the promise that we may be able to redesign our cities to be more livable, and sustainable for the long term.

The move to 3D technologies allows us to better understand the context of any project, and certainly the move to 3D design technologies allows us to design more “constructible” projects. We are able to de-conflict our designs before they are handed over to the contractor, with the resultant decline in change orders and overall lower cost. Increasingly we are moving beyond 3D design, to include cost and phasing in our designs, in ways that allow us to better plan and manage the construction process.

And finally, on the construction side, with the greater use of automated machine guidance and other precision technologies, we can construct our infrastructure more efficiently, and with greater precision. Project management tools have become more sophisticated, with greater ability to quickly uncover project issues.

Increasingly we are hearing the concept of building a “digital twin” as part of our infrastructure projects. For example, the project leaders of Britain’s Crossrail project (the largest infrastructure project in the UK) were very conscious that they were building two projects: the physical project and its virtual twin. The digital project would also be handed over to Transport for London upon project completion, which would move immediately into operations and maintenance.

Together, this is leading to what we call “engineering information systems” which allow us to better plan, design and construct our infrastructure, and to pass that information seamlessly to the operational and maintenance stages of the project. As we perfect these processes, we will begin to achieve the types of cost and time savings promised by the NIST study.

Location is fundamental to all electric and gas utilities. Staff can leverage critical location data with ArcGIS technology.

Icons: Is Europe further ahead of the U.S. in requiring infrastructure builders & designers to use digital technologies?

TB: I do think the European governments have taken a much more aggressive position in terms of pushing these technologies, and in fact requiring the use of integrated technologies under the rubric of Building Information Modeling (BIM) standardization. The European Union has assembled joint task forces to develop common standards, and many of the individual governments have adopted aggressive policies to require the adoption of digitalization practices in the procurement and delivery of public infrastructure projects. There has been significant cross pollination between these task forces and the various International Organization for Standardization (ISO) working groups, with the result that the European governments are very actively working towards a unified approach to BIM and the advantages of transforming the construction industry.

There is much greater adoption of ISO standards in not only the construction, but also in asset management terms.  The majority of significant or major infrastructure agencies in Europe follow ISO 55000 standard practices, which ultimately leads to better preservation of public and private infrastructure.

That doesn’t mean that American firms are necessarily behind their European colleagues, but there is certainly much greater variation in the U.S. Some of the most advanced BIM and CIM design and construction projects that I have seen happen to be in the U.S., but this has largely been the choice of the individual firm or jurisdiction, rather than by a mandated policy. And you can certainly see these “divisions” between traditional design/build firms and the newer practices at the major construction engineering conferences.  In the long term however, my sense is that it will be the firms which wholly embrace these new technologies who will thrive in the future.

About Terry Bills: He is the Global Transportation Industry Manager at Esri, responsible for all transportation infrastructure segments worldwide. He has over 25 years of experience in transportation planning and policy, information technology and GIS. He has been a Principal Planner for a large regional transportation planning agency, as well as the president of a GIS and transportation consulting firm during his career. He was a doctoral candidate at UCLA, where he was also awarded two master’s degrees.

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