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White Paper #7
Asset Management Software: Beware of the Foundation
A White Paper by LifeSpan Technologies
Every owner of large bridge assets is aware of the pressing need for better methods to manage their assets. This need is particularly important for state DOTs, transit agencies, and railroads, all of whom are struggling to meet the regulatory mandates imposed by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). All agencies have called for the implementation of owner-centric asset management programs through the MAP-21 and FAST transportation legislation.
But as these regulatory agencies continue to drive owners to adopt and refine their asset management programs, we want to issue a caution. Owners must accept that a complex software program, no matter how much effort was expended to develop it, is only as good as the input data it utilizes. In harmony with previous LifeSpan White Papers, we continue to warn owners that condition data most often utilized for bridges, a result of visual inspection, simply cannot be expected to produce optimal spending decisions. And that was a conclusion based on an FHWA study nearly 20 years ago.
Transportation Funding is a Driver
For too many years, especially when abundant transportation funding was available, state DOTs were subjected to local political pressure to include certain favored projects, whether it was a new bridge, highway, or related transportation structure. Some members of Congress (likely the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee) undoubtedly suspected that limited Federal funds were not being utilized as effectively as they should as a result of political pressure. For example, how can a bridge owner decide which bridge projects provide the most value for investment if the owner had to take into account political pressure in addition to bridge condition data provided by NBIS visual inspection?
The House T&I Committee was right about this issue. Since the Committee also knew that increased funding for transportation was not likely, they determined that better management methods could possibly reduce overall funding demand if the owner adopted asset management plans. Consequently, the requirement to implement asset management programs was included in the MAP-21 legislation and continued with the current Transportation Bill, the FAST Act. The FTA and FRA followed suit and are now in concert with FHWA’s legislative imperatives.
When Was Asset Management Software Developed?
About ten years ago, some enterprising companies started thinking about building software programs that could be used for transportation asset management (TAM). Those companies envisioned a shift from paper documents and hand calculations for investment analysis to computer software that could provide a host of benefits to the owners. Instead of owners shuffling through thick files and paper copies of inspection reports, they could utilize their existing computer systems to store critical asset information (description, location, condition, useage, etc.), but also conduct what if analysis using owner-driven scenarios of condition, funding, deterioration rates, risk, and other parameters of interest.
AASHTO got on-board during this time frame and implemented a contract to upgrade what was formerly known as Pontis, termed AASHTOWare for Bridge Management. In software parlance, it is known as BrM, but it is only one of several commercial programs now available for asset management. Some of these software packages allow the owner to manage all transportation system assets in one program – but BrM seems to be the leader for bridges, as a number of state DOTs have adopted this software package.
Whether an agency uses AASHTOWare, BrM or another asset management program for bridges, it is certainly a much more efficient use of time and limited resources for bridge owners. The ability to rapidly analyze different investment scenarios was a boon to owners, but it required a mind-shift of substantial magnitude, as many DOT employees have been using the NBIS condition assessment process for decades. Nonetheless, Congress wants it done and the FHWA, FTA and FRA are all involved in assuring these legislative mandates are met.
Complex, Interconnected Routines
It should come as no surprise that BrM (and other commercial asset management software) is quite complex in nature. Recently, we attended a TRB committee presentation about the latest, fully commercial version of BrM where the various features of the software were described in some detail. You have to give credit where credit is due; BrM is complex, robust, and certainly wasn’t developed overnight. From what we learned, the data interrelationships are credible and will support a variety of analytical routines for a variety of purposes.
In fact, the various BrM software analysis routines were described on a slide that had a pyramid shape, depicting how the routines were dependent upon others either alongside it or below it, meaning all routines in question were ultimately dependent upon the lowest analysis layer. One can imagine the complexity of any analysis which seeks to optimize an owner’s investment by integrating asset condition, assumed asset deterioration rates, assumed investment alternatives, risk, and other management measures of concern. Importantly, the very bottom layer, upon which every routine was dependent, was the NBIS-derived asset condition — data which has been deemed “subjective and highly variable” by the FHWA.
Using Subjective and Highly Variable Data
The readers of this White Paper #7 may have reviewed LifeSpan’s previous white papers in which we caution against using advanced statistical methods supported by subjective data. Understanding that any analysis of subjective and highly variable data will not produce optimized results is obvious to many engineers. But the executives in state DOTs are not necessarily engineers who understand the vagaries and limitations of certain data sets. We recommend caution in using the optimized output of BrM or other asset management software programs, recognizing the bridge condition data variability on which the software is based, let alone ten, twenty or thirty years of bridge spending projections.
A Better Way to Use Asset Management Software
This is not an indictment about using BrM or any other asset management software package. Our concerns are centered on decisions made to repair or replace bridges, reduce system risk, and optimize limited owner funding when the data input or foundation of the software decision making is subjective and highly variable.
We have a better way in mind.
When the computer output indicates certain bridges have to be replaced or repaired to lower system risk, or certain priorities are established based on visual inspection/condition data, it’s time to take one more step before suggesting to the DOT, transit, or railroad executive how much and where to spend limited capital funding. Owners should recognize that any computer generated optimized spending plan based solely on visual inspection/condition data is merely a suggested program. To drive more optimal results from a suggested spending list, owners need to consider the judicious use of advanced condition assessment technologies before finalizing any spending program.
There are a number of advanced condition assessment technologies which may be considered prior to making investment decisions that exceed certain parameters. In the bridge industry, we recommend considering the judicious use of structural monitoring when bridge repair spending may exceed $300,000 and replacement spending may exceed $3,000,000.
Most notably, the use of structural monitoring has shown that 30 to 40% of bridges evaluated by more precise and objective methods are in better to much better condition than the visual inspection concluded. In other words, there is a significant probability of remaining safe life for many bridges and other structures that can be collected, lowering life cycle costs while not compromising safety for users.
Isn’t a better outcome the essence of asset management and sustainability?
We think so.
For more information, contact LifeSpan Technologies on the Web at www.lifespantechnologies.com,
or by calling 770-234-9494.