Oklahoma Rides the Road to Automation with Restriction Routing
The movement of oversize and overweight truck loads require permitting by each state in order to ensure safety, to make certain that the loads fit under or can be supported by bridges, and to help defray the maintenance costs that these larger loads place on roads and highways. Standard trucks that are within load and size limits don’t require a permit, but those that are either overweight or oversize or overweight and oversize have to have a permit before traveling.
The State of Oklahoma contains the crossroads of two major national highways (I-40 and I-35) and many long haul truck distribution hubs. Until recently, the state’s permit process was a bottleneck for the trucking industry, with wait times of a day to three business days to get a permit. With a permit review process that required a customer service agent to speak to each trucker on the phone, and a manual process that involved checking paper maps of bridge clearances, bridge weight limits, and construction projects in order to put a planned route together, not only was it taking days, but the wait time on the phone was three or four hours to speak with an agent.
For the hauler, time is money. If you don’t get the permit you can’t start on the delivery, if you can’t start the delivery you can’t make the delivery, if you can’t make the delivery then you don’t get paid. These phone calls weren’t pleasant for anyone.
In 2008, the Legislature of the State of Oklahoma decided to take action on complaints they were receiving from the trucking industry, who expressed concern that it was becoming unprofitable for them to drive their large loads through the state.
“I got called over to meet with one of the representatives on the transportation committee, and he told me that we have to figure out a way to make it more economically viable for the trucking industry to operate in Oklahoma,” said Jay Adams, Project manager with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. “The legislator even painted a scenario, saying, ‘I want a trucker driver that is sitting in Amarillo, Texas at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning to get on his laptop, login to the State of Oklahoma’s site, put in his truck information, his origin and his destination, and be able to get a safe route and permit, allow him to pay for it, and have the permit sent to his truck within 15 minutes.’”
Given the systems that were in place at the time, that scenario was a pretty tall order. However, rather than just push for change, the legislature backed their demand with dollars to develop a new system.
Balancing Revenue and Cost
The process to streamline the permitting process began with a good deal of industry input. In Oklahoma, oil and gas is a primary industry, with the majority of large loads. A close second is wind energy, with as many as 2,000 oversize load permits per month for wind turbines and blades, with each blade taking an extra long truck of its own.
One of the industry suggestions came from a wind company that runs equipment consistently to the same wind farm location. As a result of the feedback, once a route is generated, companies can save that to automate the generation of their next load along that same route.
While each permit isn’t a lot of money, revenue adds up quickly with thousands of trips per month. The standard oversize permit, too high or too wide, but below the weight limit, is $40. The charge for overweight vehicles is determined by a formula, with every 1,000 pounds above the weight limit having a dollar figure, and with charges also assessed based on axle spacing.
A cost-benefit analysis conservatively estimated that the roughly $3 million investment on the new system would take three-years to achieve a return on investment. All told, the state sees more than 200,000 permits issued per year, so by streamlining and reducing operating costs, the state could not only improve their relationship with the trucking industry, but also generate funds to justify the system cost.
The process began with a scope of the project and the preparation of an RFP for system development. Early on, it was determined that the system should comprise three modules:
- the permit manager that records all of the permit information
- the route planner that generates the safe route, along with mileages and times
- the restriction manager, which is really the hub, managing temporary and permanent restrictions along the state highway network
Standard web-based routing, such as Google Maps, doesn’t take into account what can impede the trip or the kind of vehicle that you’re driving. Restriction manager allows the ability to bring in permanent restrictions such as bridge data, with vertical and width clearance and weight limits to analyze if each load that is entered is safe to pass.
There are also temporary restrictions, such as construction zones where there are limits on the width of vehicles that can pass through safely, as well as temporary closures due to weather. All the restrictions are taken into account every time a route is generated based on the size and weight of the vehicle. The system also must remain in contact as permits can be issued up to five days in advance, so if a road has been shut down for weather or a construction project, the system analyzes the permits issued and e-mails the company about the new restriction along their approved route.
The permit manager, route manager and restriction manager are all web-based interfaces. Intergraph worked on the routing and restriction management system, while Cambridge Systematics worked on the permitting.
GIS is involved with the road network and routing functions. Construction systems contain the details of road maintenance restrictions. The roadway inventory management system holds details on road size.
“They have a really nice GUI interface that allows them to assign temporary restrictions, what it is, when it comes into effect, and when it expires. Those are things they didn’t have before,” said Bruce Aquila, senior system consultant at Intergraph. “They had to tap into many different operational databases for the restriction manager — construction management, pavement conditions, research. These are islands of automation across the DOT. What we put in place was a transportation schema with transparent gateways via Oracle so all the databases operate as is, but with each change in each system, a trigger sends data up to the other databases.”
Given the web-based interface, with calls to each database to pull the details together, each department could do business as usual in existing systems without interruption as the system came together. When the system went live, information was simply funneled up from each system either on a daily or hourly basis, based on how frequently information in each system is changed, and how critical that information is to restrictions.
Each trucking company can build their company profile, and store that in the system. They can enter in their truck dimensions, their weights, their axle loads, what their load is, go to the route planner with their origin and destination, and the restriction manager will return where they can go, and where they can’t, with a detailed safe route generated. After the operator finishes and pays for the permit, the permit is then e-mailed to them, barring any issues.
The project development launched in November 2009, and in November of 2011 the OkiePros Online Permit System (http://www.dps.state.ok.us/swp/) went live. Before the new permitting system, there wasn’t much collaboration between the public safety and highway patrol operation that manages the oversize and overweight permitting process and the DOT that builds and maintains the roads. Everything was very manual, and with two agencies with different mandates, the communication was sporadic at best.
Part of the success of the system has been getting the two agencies to work together collaboratively, and now the restriction manager acts as a link between the departments where they work together to decide where they can and can’t send trucks.
For the first six months, the permitting system averaged 55% of auto approval, with delivery of the permit in ten minutes or less. The other 45% were more complex loads that are above the threshold of 14 foot tall and 16 feet wide, and those that are overweight. In all, there are 133 standards that have been calculated based on the weight, and the weight distribution across the axles, that determine routes and whether each permit application can be automatically processed.
Even those applications that require a manual review by an engineer are streamlined, instead of three days, they are down to 10 hours. The average wait time on the phone has also been drastically reduced, because now trucking companies don’t have to call in. With the digital routing system, call times have gone down dramatically. Today, the longest call wait is 15 minutes, as opposed to three to four hours, and the call wait times only occur between 9 and 11 a.m.
In the first six months, permit revenue increased by $4 million. In the first year 280,000 applications were processed, with 252,000 permits issued. The first year saw more than $8 million more revenue than any previous year. That was enough to pay for the project in the first six months, which blew away the estimated return of three years.
“We saw a 20% increase in permits that are being processed and reviewed as opposed to any other six-month period in our history,” said Adams. “We saw a 20% increase in revenue generated as opposed to any other period. It was determined that 8% was due to economic uptake, but for the other 12% we determined that companies tired of waiting or on weekends would just run without a permit. Now that the system is 24 hours a day and seven days a week, they can go online, and don’t have to wait to talk to somebody. On weekends alone, 150 to 200 permits are issued, whereas before there was no means to get a permit on those days.”
The system has seen an increase in safety, particularly with the reduction of non-permitted loads. In the first year of full production, there has been no bridge damage because of the system. There were four bridge hits in the state over the first year, but two didn’t have a permit, one had a permit but chose not to drive on the safe route, and the last didn’t put in the correct information on the height of his load.
They also looked at the staffing in the permitting office. Previously, the hours were 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., a 12 hour day from Monday through Friday, with two shifts from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. With the extreme reduction in calls, they decided to change the hours from 7:30 to 5 p.m., and eliminate the second shift. Reducing 2 1/2 hours of office time per day saved a lot of time and money. The automation also reduced a lot of stress with agents. They no longer had to talk to people that were really upset after waiting two or three hours on the phone. They were getting things accomplished quickly, and it turned into a more pleasant communication with callers.
The extra revenue from the system goes into several funds. One is for highway patrol to improve road safety, one goes into maintenance of weigh stations, and a portion goes into the state’s general fund. With the weigh station funds, the state has recently undertaken an aggressive weigh station improvement plan that will upgrade the system to electronic manifests, and install scanning equipment to speed the time trucks spend in weigh stations.
The impetus for the system was to increase the trucking industry’s confidence in Oklahoma while maintaining safety for the traveling public. This objective has been achieved, and the cost savings and added revenues are being reinvested to continue the gains in good will and efficiency that have been achieved through automation.
“There’s no limit to your return on investment when human lives are involved,” Adams concluded.