How a GIS-Driven Right-of-Way System Supports NDOT Planning and Staff
NDOT's new GIS-driven right-of-way information system provides a more accurate and up-to-date data source that will dramatically reduce staff workloads and the time taken to respond to inquiries.
Right-of-way (ROW) information requests range from simple inquiries about the types of rights held and their configuration, to complex questions that require in-depth research to determine sufficient rights-of-way. Records can be decades old, and the original sources of information can be irregular and sometimes of questionable accuracy. It is not uncommon for records to be missing or for them to bear little or no resemblance to contemporary conditions.
ROW requests make up a large portion of Nevada Department of Transportation's (NDOT) Right-of-Way Survey Services (RWSS) team's workload. These requests historically required researching hard-copy records from archives. An ongoing effort has been made by RWSS to consolidate and digitize all the ROW information on top of the team's daily workload. Even if the eventual benefits are obvious, the effort involved can often be quite substantial, which only increases in proportion with the size of the territory covered.
Undaunted, and recognizing the gains to be made, NDOT has created an online ROW app. In January 2023, its use was opened to the public, significantly decreasing the burden on RWSS staff.
NDOT Manages 100,000 Lane Miles across a Complex Landscape
With a total land area of 110,577 square miles, Nevada is the seventh-largest and the 32nd most-populous US state. Geographically, it is broken up north to south by numerous mountain ranges. The topography is a mix of desert—the Great Basin to the north and the Mojave to the south—and forested uplands, which can be thousands of feet above sea level.
Nevada is served by six interstates, five US routes, and more than a hundred state highways, totaling more than 100,000 lane miles. These cross areas that differ widely in terms of economic potential and, thus, interest to investors and new development.
NDOT, which manages the road network across this challenging landscape, was formed in 1917. Its four divisions—Administration, Engineering, Operations, and Planning—oversee mobility across a total of 17 counties. The Right-of-Way Survey Services section sits within the Engineering Division.
A Challenging Paper-Based System Inspires Digital Change to ROW
Change is often brought about by a singular event that results in a need for prompt action. An example might be an extreme weather event that causes massive and prolonged disruption to transportation networks and leads to the realization that reliable ROW information will need to be available at a moment's notice.
For NDOT RWSS section manager I Gregorio Torres, the challenge was the huge number of documents dispersed among many different folders, boxes, and filing systems.
"Information wasn't consistent or reliable," says Torres. "It hadn't been brought together in a way that addressed all of the issues that the digitization process highlighted. We needed to change."
Daily Scrum Meetings Support Staff and ROW Digitization
The key to developing NDOT's new ROW resource has been the use of Scrum methodology.
Scrum is used specifically to facilitate projects. Teamwork is emphasized, as is action in the form of regular meetings and progress checks. Consolidations and redirections are common to address sticking points and allow other areas of a project to progress while more challenging aspects are brought up to speed.
Given the ROW digitization task's size and complexity—as well as the need for already-busy staff members to fit it in around business as usual—agility, near-immediate, and transparent communications were essentials for the project team.
"For a project like this, I simply wouldn't want to do without an agile approach and committed client. Because of the data sources' variability, we needed to be able to be flexible with our data development options," says Mark Goetz, geographic information system (GIS) director at Civix, the transportation software company that worked with NDOT to revitalize the ROW project.
Scrum is easy to learn, according to engineering technician and project co-owner Christine Hannah: "Things were a bit confusing at the beginning, but we very quickly got into the groove. I noticed in team meetings during [the COVID-19 pandemic] how we'd started gelling. As each sprint was completed, the process became more clear, making it easier to remain engaged, which in turn kept the project on track."
"Scrum also teaches accountability," says Chad Foster, GIS supervisor at Nevada Department of Transportation. "If you say you're going to get something done, you have to get it done. Otherwise, everyone knows. It becomes a trust issue, and in the end, everyone wants to have those gold stars and not black marks against their names."
Civix took lead, communicating issues whenever there were particular problems on a task card within the Microsoft TEAMS Planner. These were ranked in terms of complexity, and the development team was then able to plan and track as issues waxed and waned.
Scrum master Sarah Berdine says, "If for legitimate reasons someone couldn't complete a task, it could be pushed out to allow the person responsible more time. It wasn't a case of, 'We're failing because this task is stalled.' Team members would just pull up another task card and carry on.
"Daily Scrums kept everyone in touch with whatever was going on," Berdine continues. "It was okay to ask others if they'd had time to look at something, and everyone understood that everyone else had other jobs to do. The team managed to work this project within the contract period. There were no time period extensions to the project. That's incredible."
Not All Maps Are Equal—Ensuring That NDOT Resource Has Accurate Data
A known challenge was reviewing and unifying large quantities of documents of various origin and levels of accuracy, but the project also gave rise to some particular problems. One, according to Goetz, was the sheer scale of the area involved in combination with its diverse characteristics.
"There can be a 2,000–3,000-foot change in elevation along a roadway requiring two or three low-distortion [customized state plane] projections to achieve the desired survey accuracies required to design and build roadways including stationing," says Goetz. "These presented challenges in compiling the required statewide product. One factor in our success was how we compiled new and recompiled existing alignments within Autodesk Civil 3D prior to loading into GIS."
Gregory Bigby, professional land surveyor and the manager II in the section, says that it took from six to eight months to work out methods to address map variability. He points to alignments and being able to figure out stationing from documents that were archaic—in some cases, the marked route could be inaccurate by 100 feet.
"Not all mapping is equal," says Bigby. "You've got the 100-year-old, 100-foot tangent; then the 12,000-foot radius curve; then another 90,000-foot tangent. In many cases, we had to go to the Location Division and use [its] survey control point data to correlate existing mapping to ROW monuments."
Bigby continues, "Or there may be a boundary marked but no COGO data, so there's nothing we can use. We could georeference and then digitize the boundary or use parcel data." However, he notes, existing GIS parcel data "often ignores the ROW."
"This is especially so where the areas covered are seen as void spaces, in the sense of not being the most active or valuable pieces of land in the inventory," he says. "Often, jurisdictions take the view that because taxes aren't being collected on a patch of land, there's little need to record the right-of-way. In fact, it makes sense to record it regardless."
On the other hand, Bigby did offer high praise to Washoe County and Clark County's parcel data, saying it is "some of the best data I've ever seen."
Then and Now a Successful GIS-Based System for NDOT Staff
Even within NDOT itself, a wide variety of people need access to the data. Margaret Nutt, a business analyst within the Engineering Division, points to staff who are responsible for acquisitions, utilities, appraisals, and survey services. While permitting is carried out at the NDOT district level, there is a headquarters office that oversees these. In addition, RWSS recently entered into an agreement with Civix to get leases and licenses—anything on the ROW considered to be part of property management—added to the system.
"It's a bit of a never-ending story," she states.
The success of the early trials of the new ArcGIS software-based system led to calls for an early release to other NDOT staff, with the Environmental Division being the top requester for access. Nutt shared that people are eager to use the capabilities.