Change Leader Interview: Overcoming Budget Constraints at State DOTs
J.D. D’Arville is the GIS/LRS Data Management Administrator for the Alabama Department of Transportation (DOT), and John Russell is the surveying and mapping administrator for the Alabama DOT.
V1: Can you briefly describe your professional background?
D’Arville: I have roughly 27-and-a-half years with the Alabama Department of Transportation. I have a Bachelor of Science from Troy State University. I started out in the drill crew, and then came into the preliminary design section. From that point forward, I spent roughly 20 years in the design bureau. Two-and-a-half years ago, I was appointed the transportation administrator in the GIS section.
In January 2016, the Alabama DOT started a UAS section within the GIS group, and we just had new positions approved for a manager and four pilots.
Russell: I’ve been employed with the state of Alabama Highway Department/Department of Transportation since February 1985, so a little more than 32 years. In about 2005, I got involved with the Height-Modernization project for Alabama that was trying to build the geodetic infrastructure to obtain reliable heights through the use of GPS. A little over two and a half years ago, I took a position in Transportation Planning as the Surveying and Mapping Administrator. The main thing we’ve had going on is a mobile-scanning project and asset management—a statewide network-level collection of asset data. I’ve also worked with J.D. on the UAS program, because of my surveying background. I am a licensed surveyor.
D’Arville: John and I have worked together for 25 years. We know what each other is up against and how we can help each other.
V1: Can you describe some interesting current projects at the Alabama DOT?
Russell: We’re heavily involved in GIS/LRS. We’ve been working on an enterprise GIS system for about two and a half, three years. And that was all brought to fruition because of a poor Highway Performance Monitoring System (HPMS) submittal a fewyears ago.
D’Arville: So we went from “worst to first” in about a year and a half of getting our submittals in.
Keeping our LRS updated is the main thing right now. We are integrating with all our other sections: maintenance, safety, bridge, etc. All those sections have different databases, so we’re trying to tie into that with one LRS, instead of five like we used to have.
As far as UAS, we started in January 2016. We went out and bought four drones, and for the last year and a half, we’ve been training under a group. Myself and John aren’t licensed pilots right now, but we are able to fly with a group that we contracted out 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 we ever flew for volumes, we came within 5 percent of what the volume calculations from conventional survey methods, which is pretty impressive considering it was the first time we ever did it. We flew a hundred acres in 22 minutes.
We’re also flying looking for cogan grass, which is taking over the world down here, so we’ve been staying busy with that. As far as software and hardware, we’re trying to figure out what’s best.
We’re working on our flight-operations procedures, log books, site surveys; all these things that have to be filled out prior to flying and after you fly. I’m going to get to the final draft of those this week, so we’ll wind that up shortly.
On the software side, as far as post-processing, John and I pretty much handle all of that right now. We’re looking at a couple different software: Pix4D and Bentley’s ContextCapture. We use both of them; we like both of them; and we’re seeing good data. Not getting survey-grade data yet, but definitely seeing preliminary design-type data, and we’re going to continue to move forward. Hopefully, within the next couple of months, we’ll be able to hire a manager and four pilot observers, and we’re going to move forward from there.
Russell: I think the UAS program is going to be a real game changer here with the department being able to put that kind of equipment in the hands of survey crews and project engineers, keeping up with construction practices. Keeping an accurate diary of the construction process protects the department and hopefully also will result in better final construction.
V1: Why would you call that a “game changer”?
Russell: It’s the ability to easily collect that much data and process it in a short amount of time. I’ve been involved with surveying just about my whole career. And 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.
D’Arville: We want to use this data for the project lifecycle, from beginning to end. We’re just scratching the surface of what we can do.
V1: Could you describe any important innovations in the transportation industry that engineers should know about and use?
D’Arville: I’m going to point out UAS. If they’re not using that, they’re falling behind. If you’re not in that game, you’re not going to keep up with the technology. It’s such a quick and easy effort, coming back, processing it, getting it out there.
I’m working with the Georgia DOT and Washington state DOT. We’re getting together and coming up with policies and procedures. There are not a lot of DOTs using UAVs. There are a lot of consultants?—not a lot of DOTs. For us, it’s nice to be out on the “cutting edge” of technology. We’re still learning, but that’s half the battle, getting in there and jumping in with both feet.
Russell: Number one is staying abreast of new technology. And number two would be taking advantage of existing data. There’s a lot of data out there—it’s almost at everybody’s fingertips. 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.
V1: Could you share some of the major problems from the perspective of a state DOT and how you work to overcome them?
D’Arville: I’ll say funding. There’s not a lot of funding right now for new construction. Most of the work we’re doing here in the state is maintenance. We have to get a funding mechanism in place to take care of that.
Here in Alabama, they were proposing a gas tax, and it’s election time, so nobody wanted to bite the bullet and do that. And I think the feds are also talking about a gas tax. I think you’ll also see some public-private partnerships (P3s).
V1: Have you worked with any of those P3 models?
V1: Do you think P3s might be able to work in state DOTs, or is it problematic?
D’Arville: I think it’s going to happen at some point. We have a major project—the Mobile River Bridge Project—that’s an $850 million project. We anticipate a billion dollars when it’s done. That could be an ideal situation for something like that.
Russell: One of the biggest challenges is the fact that the wheels of government move slowly. The good side to that is that it gives us time to do our research and planning, and be ahead of the game when things start falling into place.
V1: Do you work with other state DOTs or engineering firms, and how does that work?
Russell: I haven’t done a lot of that lately in this job. I did previously when I worked in Design Bureau.
D’Arville: I spent about six and a half years working with various consultants throughout the state. That kept us pretty busy back in the day. We were doing a lot of projects that were being consulted out at that time, but things have slowed down because of the lack of funding.
Russell: We just don’t deal with them as much as we did in design. Now I’m dealing with just two contractors for an asset-collection project.
There are some consultants trying to help develop the LRS, meet some deadlines. And there’s a consultant helping out with the enterprise-wide GIS to help streamline and facilitate the HPMS process as well as the dashboard to give all the databases within the department a common interface.
V1: What are your opinions on the current state of infrastructure in Alabama?
D’Arville: We’re definitely not the worst, and we’re definitely not the best. I think we fall somewhere in the middle as far as our infrastructure here within the state. We only have about five interstates, but only one big one that runs north and south, and it’s in pretty decent shape. But how do we get to the top?
I think a lot of it depends on how we fund our projects in the future. You’re only allotted so much money, and you can only do so much with that.
Russell: The issue goes back to funding. For the last few years, we’ve seen a trend where there hasn’t been as much funding for new construction and capacity. And a lot of the work that’s done is resurfacing projects. And due to federal requirements, the amount of data you need to collect is increased dramatically, so we’re spending a lot of time and effort on maintaining what we already have. There’s really not much funding in place for capacity increases.
V1: Are there are any differences in Alabama, or is this universal?
Russell: I think problems are pretty similar. I know in some other states, they’ve gone through with public-private partnerships. I think Texas is a good example. In Alabama, that just hasn’t latched on yet.
D’Arville: John and I have the opportunity once a year to meet with the Highway Engineering Exchange Program. It’s a conference that we hold once a year, and it’s geared toward DOTs, so we usually have anywhere from 25-35 DOTs there. We discuss these types of issues that affect our DOT’s. And I agree with John that a lack of funding is a common theme throughout the United States.
Russell: It seems to me that the mindset of the general public is that they’re taxed to death, and when you look at the revenue from the gas tax here in the state, for example, it’s been flat since 2007. Just not a lot of growth in it.
One of the biggest problems is that the public doesn’t see the value they’re getting on the taxes they’re paying. 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.
V1: How can you get the public to better realize the value of infrastructure funding?
Russell: It’s not just with DOT funding. With any discussion of a tax increase to help with mental health, prison, any agency, there’s negative backlash. I don’t think people understand exactly what it is they’re getting, and how little they actually are paying.
D’Arville: The department does a good job of trying to do public outreach and explain our projects in detail—even show them virtually what we’re trying to do. We get some buy-in that way, but when you mention tax and fees …
Russell: The politicians run from it.
V1: Do the DOTs have any responsibility to demonstrate the value of what they’re doing, or does that just fall on politicians and other parts of the government such as marketing departments?
D’Arville: I’m going to say we have some responsibility in that. The more we do public outreach, explain what we’re trying to do, meet with the public, the better it can be.
I believe our department tries to put its best foot forward and meet with the public and do the things we need to do. But if the public mindset is that they don’t want to hear from you, it’s hard to change their mind.
V1: How do you try and affect change in your work?
D’Arville: For me, it’s always been an attitude to keep pushing the envelope. Keep moving forward with technology. I did it with 3-D models and virtual design, and now I’m involved in UAS; technology’s not going to sit back and wait on you. You have to keep trying to change with the times and move forward with it.
That said, you really have to convince upper management to buy into what you’re doing. But if you go in there and show them how this can be an asset to the department, I think you can get buy in from them. I’m not saying it happens overnight, but it takes that type of effort and attitude to see things move forward.
Russell: With any new technology, process or procedure, you need to do your homework and investigate it. Make sure it’s going to do what you need, and it’s going to be cost effective. Take mobile scanning, for instance. We thoroughly evaluated that before we bought into it and did a lot of tests and developed reports. When you do your homework, and you have the data to prove that what you’re wanting to do is effective, then the buy-in is usually easy.