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Transportation GIS: Promise and Reality

GIS promise and DOT asset management reality

Those of us in the GIS community take it for granted that the incorporation of GIS enriches effective asset management practices, to the point where we find it difficult to understand how good asset management could be practiced without GIS. In reality however, most departments of transportation (DOTs) report only limited success in both good asset management practice and incorporating GIS into their asset management practices. So, why the gap between promise and reality?
First, despite our common beliefs in the power of GIS, I don’t think we have effectively demonstrated the inherent advantages of a GIS-based asset management system. Since the original 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), the promise of better transportation infrastructure management and better capital improvement planning inherent in good asset management practice has been understood. Most DOTs have successfully implemented GIS-based pavement and bridge management systems, but the type of integrated cross-asset capital planning envisioned by the act is rare.
This is certainly not due to a lack of software programs or applications that facilitate such cross-asset modeling. Rather, a recent survey of GIS managers at DOTs pointed to the lack of support for and understanding of GIS-based asset management systems on the part of senior management. These executive managers need to be convinced of what some of their city-level counterparts have found: that the use of GIS allows them to better manage the information about their assets, better visualize the alternative options, and more effectively communicate those options to elected decision makers—all leading to better decisions concerning the allocation of scarce public resources.
Second, while better decision making is certainly a good thing, in today’s environment, we also need to demonstrate to executive managers that the effective use of GIS for asset management will save money. There needs to be a tangible return on investment to justify the expense associated with good asset management practice. The geospatial industry has not been effective at demonstrating how GIS can help asset managers save through better and more cost-effective management of existing assets, and how GIS can save money by allowing asset managers to better coordinate the timing and scheduling of cross-asset activities. Forward-thinking cities and counties have long recognized the ability of GIS to look at the strategic scheduling of maintenance across asset classes to avoid utility repairs on newly resurfaced roadways and other costly noncoordinated maintenance activities.
The promise of GIS-based asset management—an approach that strives to provide the best return on every dollar invested by maximizing system performance and minimizing life cycle costs—is yet to be realized in most state DOTs. We in the GIS community need to do a better job of communicating those benefits, or else this will be unlikely to change. This begs the question:

What can the GIS community do to fill the gap between GIS promise and DOT asset management reality?

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