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Change Leader: Overcoming Budget Constraints at State DOTs

Todd Danielson on August 14, 2017 - in Articles, Column, Profile

J.D. D’Arville (top) is the GIS/LRS data management administrator for the Alabama Department of Transportation (DOT), and John Russell (bottom), a licensed surveyor, is the surveying and mapping administrator for the Alabama DOT.

John Russell

Change

D’Arville and Russell have worked together at the Alabama DOT for 25 years, and both have seen a lot of organizational and technological change in that time.

“We know what each other is up against and how we can help each other,” notes D’Arville.

Currently, they’re involved in implementing a new geographic information system/linear referencing system (GIS/LRS), which was initiated due to a poor Highway Performance Monitoring System (HPMS) submittal a few years ago. The goal of the project is to integrate multiple databases into one unified system. And as of January 2016, they also are developing Alabama DOT’s new unmanned aerial system (UAS) section.

UAS for Data Collection

“We went out and bought four drones, and for the last year and a half, we’ve been training under a group,” adds D’Arville. “We aren’t licensed pilots right now, but we are able to fly with a group that we contracted with, so we’re training underneath them. But we’ve flown multiple missions for different type wings to keep up with construction projects.”

The first time the team flew drones for volume calculations, they came within 5 percent of the calculations from conventional survey methods. The department also is using UAS flights to look for cogan grass, an invasive weed that has been “taking over the world down here.”

“I think the UAS program is going to be a real game changer here,” adds Russell. “I’ve been involved with surveying my whole career. From a data-collection standpoint, it’s great to be able to put a tool like that in the hands of a project engineer, or someone out on the survey crew, and collect that type of data. Of course, keeping people out of harm’s way also is very important.”

In terms of software for UAS data collection, D’Arville and Russell handle most of the testing and product selection, and they’re looking at products from UAS manufacturer Pix4D as well as Bentley’s ContextCapture.

“We use both of them; we like both of them; and we’re seeing good data,” adds D’Arville. “Hopefully, within the next couple of months, we’ll be able to hire a [UAS] manager and four pilot observers, and we’re going to move forward from there.”

Innovations and Tips

In terms of passing along advice from work experience, Russell focuses on two areas: 1) Staying abreast of new technology and 2) taking advantage of existing data.

“There’s a lot of data out there,” he notes. “That’s always been my big push: instead of recreating the wheel, try to piggyback on as much existing information as possible to help improve the deliverables for a product or project.”

D’Arville points to UAS as his most-important new technology, especially at state DOTs, where UAS use isn’t nearly as common as in the private sector.

“If they’re not using [UAS], they’re falling behind, they’re not going to keep up with the technology,” he notes.

Key Difficulties

Both point to a lack of funding as the top problem and concern at the state DOT level.

“There’s not a lot of funding right now for new construction,” says D’Arville. “Most of what we’re doing here in the state is maintenance.”

Although neither has much experience with public-private partnerships (P3s) in Alabama, they believe they will happen at some point, particularly for large projects such as the state’s Mobile River Bridge Project, which is anticipated to cost a much as $1 billion when completed.

There’s not a lot of funding right now for new construction. Most of what we’re doing here in the state is maintenance.

“One of the biggest challenges is the fact that the wheels of government move slowly,” notes Russell. “The good side is that it gives us time to do our research and planning, and be ahead of the game when things start falling into place.”

Alabama Infrastructure

When asked about the state of Alabama’s infrastructure, D’Arville described it as “fair to partly cloudy. We’re definitely not the worst, and we’re definitely not the best.”

Russell sees this as another result of a lack of funding. “The public doesn’t see the value they’re getting on the taxes they’re paying,” he says. “But when you go to other places, you see roads in bad shape, and you can see how things look in your own backyard. I take pride in knowing that the department does a really good job with what we have.”

Visit Informed Infrastructure online to read the full interview.

Todd Danielson

About Todd Danielson

Todd Danielson has been in trade technology media for 20 years, now the editorial director for V1 Media and all of its publications: Informed Infrastructure, Earth Imaging Journal, Sensors & Systems, Asian Surveying & Mapping, and the video news portal GeoSpatial Stream.

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