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Infrastructure Outlook: How Location Intelligence Can Accelerate High-Speed Rail

Terry Bills on February 4, 2019 - in Articles, Column

When it comes to updating and innovating our nation’s infrastructure, the challenges involve much more than just construction. Environmental, safety, and other regulatory concerns require developers to ensure that each aspect of the project goes through lengthy approval processes and compliance reviews. This can make even the prospect of initiating a large-scale public work daunting.

A long-time advocate of one such infrastructure project—a high-speed rail system in California—Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation for a study concerning the economic, social and environmental impacts of implementing high-speed rail (HSR) in the state during his first term in office in the late 1970s. The California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA), formed in 1996, accelerated the project’s plans. In 2008, California voters approved a bond issue to begin funding the project, and the state was awarded federal stimulus funds as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Construction of the CHSRA project began in 2015.

The project will extend high-speed rail from Sacramento to San Diego, making the total high-speed rail system about 800 miles in length. The multifaceted project requires the study and acquisition of more than 10,000 parcels of land as well as construction of extensive infrastructure, including viaducts, tunnels, electricity-generating stations, railway track beds and other critical components. But because some proposed routes require running track through environmentally sensitive areas, stringent monitoring by CHSRA is necessary to adhere to environmental regulations. This is where location intelligence comes in.

Maintaining Compliance

A fundamental component of the design, construction and maintenance workflows of the project is CHSRA’s Environmental Mitigation & Management Application (EMMA). This database serves as a repository for the thousands of documents required by local, state and federal authorities certifying that each required activity—review, survey or environmental commitment—is in compliance with the environmental requirements specified in existing laws and the guidelines of various regulatory agencies.

An environmental commitment is anything CHSRA is obligated to do in relation to the project, and they can be incorporated into documents such as project plans and permits. Because a commitment is recognized as part of the contract, it can be included in any stage of the process. Permits to do specified work are issued by government authorities, and commitments are part of the permit-issuing process; some permits have hundreds of commitments attached to them. Maintaining compliance with these commitments requires comprehensive understanding of the geographic data involved.

Using Location Intelligence

The location intelligence technology of GIS serves as an integral component in the environmental compliance management process in EMMA. It provides a mechanism for end users to effectively plan for future construction activities on parcels that require specific environmental commitments to be fulfilled prior to construction. After an activity is completed, it becomes an EMMA record that provides evidentiary documentation that the commitment was fulfilled.

There can be 20 to 50 commitments on a single parcel that must be completed and tracked on a regular basis. Tracking commitments for environmental compliance on 10,000 or more parcels across the 800-mile route is a task of formidable size and scope. Building a tool like EMMA was critical to accomplishing HSR objectives.

Bringing that workflow to the field was a key requirement for EMMA. During the construction phase, much of the environmental compliance work is completed in the field. Inspections are conducted by specialists in disciplines such as biology, anthropology, hydrology, air quality, and cultural resources that ensure all construction activities remain in compliance with established environmental policies and the specified commitments related to those disciplines.

A contractor working in the field now can digitally link a commitment with its matching Evidence of Compliance via the internet. The records are connected to their corresponding location using the GIS interface. The combined information is referred to as an EMMA record. Maps, filters and text searches can be used to query the database to create environmental compliance reports.

GIS data used by EMMA are maintained in the GeoPlatform, CHSRA’s enterprise geospatial asset management system, built on Esri technology. This system maintains geospatial data such as project footprints, parcel datasets, and the construction package extents used by contractors for construction purposes. Additional enhancements to EMMA will include expanding the map interface to act as a spatial selection tool. For example, if HSRA wants to know what type or volume of work is being done in a specific location, the system will produce a report on all work at that site, and it will be available in a variety of common formats such as PDFs and Microsoft Excel spreadsheets.

Location intelligence means having a complete and holistic understanding of assets and environment as well as the regulatory data that affects them all. And having such data in one place where everyone can access them is part of the solution to some of the biggest roadblocks to realizing the infrastructure the U.S. desperately needs.

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About Terry Bills

Terry Bills is the Global Transportation Industry Manager at Esri; email: [email protected].

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