Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Brings Digital Construction to DOTs

Bentley Systems has sponsored this post.

You don’t need to consult last year’s Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers to know many of America’s roads and bridges are in dire need of repair. Nor do you need to be a civil engineer – or an accountant – to know the price tag of those repairs will be in the billions.  Compound this need to repair existing infrastructure with the growing demand for new infrastructure projects as the U.S. population continues to grow. 

With so many competing demands on tight budgets, what’s a state government to do?

Fortunately, an unusual amount of financial help is on the way. Joe Biden’s signature bill, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), aims to fix our roads and bridges with a panoply of initiatives—including one program designed to encourage state departments of transportation (DOTs) to adopt advanced digital technologies. This low-key part of the law should be of high interest to forward-thinking legislators and bureaucrats in every state in the nation.

What is the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA)?

Commonly known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the IIJA is the largest and most complex infrastructure bill in U.S. history, with a price tag of $1.2 trillion. It includes funding for everything from highways, rail and bridges to broadband access and the electric grid. But there are priorities within that broad range of needs, notes Dustin Parkman, vice president of mobility at Bentley Systems. “If you read the bill, you can pick up on an intent to find the quick wins, which is rehabilitating what we already have,” he says.

While many of these aspects of the IIJA have received broad attention, the law’s lesser remarked upon Section 5113 includes $100 million to encourage DOTs to adopt advanced digital construction management systems (ADCMS). Although the Notice of Funding Opportunities (NOFOs) for this program had yet to be issued at the time of this writing, DOTs would be wise to prepare for them.

“If you’re a DOT and you know your highest risk is with your bridge inventory, that’s obviously where you’d want to invest a lot of capital,” Parkman says. “We haven’t had the capital for years, but we’ve had the plans, and now we can execute on them. DOTs have a pipeline of work, but they can retrofit that pipeline to meet the criteria of these different funding vehicles.” In other words, programs like the one outlined in Section 5113 can provide additional funding for critical infrastructure projects, provided DOTs are able to take advantage of them.

Further to this point, the funding for ADCMS can potentially be combined with funding from other IIJA programs, such as the Bridge Replacement, Rehabilitation, Preservation, Protection and Construction Program, which is providing $26.5 billion in federal funding over five years.

What Are Advanced Digital Construction Management Systems?

ADCMS include cloud-based decision-support software for planning and coordination, building information modelling (BIM) and digital 3D-design software. In general terms, these are commercially proven digital technologies or processes for managing construction and engineering activities. ADCMS can be grouped into three categories:

SYNCHRO lets you manage tasks and data in context to the project with dashboards, map views and 2D and 4D models on desktop, mobile or wearables. (Image courtesy of Iowa DOT.)

SYNCHRO lets you manage tasks and data in context to the project with dashboards, map views and 2D and 4D models on desktop, mobile or wearables. (Image courtesy of Iowa DOT.)

Model-based Project Delivery

While most DOTs have been using 3D design for quite some time, model-based design delivery goes beyond creating a BIM model to incorporate project information that has conventionally been distributed across organizations. This includes not only the construction and bidding processes, but any grant applications and funding, as well as insurance—virtually the entire ecosystem that surrounds any major infrastructure project.

Ultimately, the value of the model is in how it can be leveraged by the project ecosystem during construction to plan and execute on the project to deliver better outcomes, more efficiently. Most construction projects (80 percent of large projects) exceed budgeted costs and planned time. By leveraging a model to better plan, execute and hand over digital information, all stakeholders in the project will have better visibility at every step to ensure projects are on time, on budget and compliant with quality and safety requirements.

Of course, this means that opting for model-based delivery will impact more than just engineers, and in such cases, one might expect departmental resistance to slow things down. While that has historically been the case in DOTs, Parkman believes the winds are changing.

“That’s always been the constraint,” he says. “We can do 3D-model delivery, but then we must reduce everything down to plan sheets, so we don’t disrupt the other departments. Now we’re seeing a change in attitude: those departments need to be disrupted because that’s where there are a lot of efficiency opportunities to be gained.”

Advances in design modeling have been accompanied by advances in solutions that aggregate design models into a collaborative cloud-based environment. Here, the models can be reviewed by extended teams to ensure the optimal designs are coordinated across disciplines. Further solution takes these aggregated design models along with reality models to create construction models. These models can be used for collaboration and coordination during construction, but are also very useful to provide transparency to the public, who are better able to understand the project in 3D vs 2D paper plans. The right collaboration software can support the entire project lifecycle, including design and construction, as well as operators and maintenance technicians that need to sustain these assets once they are completed.

“There’s a wide range of collaboration tools out there that allow all these different stakeholders to work together,” Parkman says. “And the bigger the project, the more complex it is, the more stakeholders there are, the more that effective collaboration becomes essential.”

Depending on whom you ask, everything from video conferencing software to virtual and augmented reality systems could be called “collaborations tools.” The IIJA itself does not specify which collaboration tools are eligible for funding, so DOTs are well advised to read the NOFOs right down to the fine print and make sure they are not counting on federal funding for their Zoom subscription (unless, of course, it’s covered by the IIJA).

Virtual Construction Planning

A key part of any project is preconstruction planning, including the development of schedules, construction sequencing and cost estimates. These steps can be digitalized in many ways, including moving from paper and spreadsheets to purpose-built scheduling solutions.

The most advanced solutions also take advantage of the models delivered from design and aggregated into construction models. They can split up model objects (such as roads or bridge models) into their constructible components. A constructible component is part of a model object that represents how a model will be built. For example, roads are often designed (modeled) as five-mile-long model objects. However, a construction firm will build that road in multiple phases and steps. 

Digital construction provides better visibility to ensure projects are on time, on budget and compliant with quality and safety requirements. (Image courtesy of Bentley Systems.)

Digital construction provides better visibility to ensure projects are on time, on budget and compliant with quality and safety requirements. (Image courtesy of Bentley Systems.)

Construction model objects enable construction information such as scheduled activities, costs and resources to be added to the model to create 4D/5D construction models. These 4D/5D models make it much easier to optimize plans and resources by building the road or bridge virtually so that mistakes are made in the virtual environment rather than in the field, where mistakes cost money and time. The models simulate schedules and costs (through a video of the construction process) so that mistakes in the design or construction process can easily be seen in a visual 3D environment. 

“Virtualizing the physical world gives you more opportunities to analyze, collaborate and, ultimately, make decisions faster,” Parkman says.

Digital Construction (Project) Management

The heart of the digital revolution in the construction industry, digital construction management replaces the conventional methods using generic tools, such as Excel or even pen-and-paper, with cloud-based platforms that bring project data, analysis and intelligence together. Bentley’s SYNCHRO Construction is one example, handling document management, task management (issues, RFIs, inspections), cost management, field performance management and project intelligence on a single platform. As a result, videos, photos, PDF plans and 4D models can be found in the same place as daily logs, RFIs, change orders, progress tracking and quality inspections. Tasks and data can be managed in the context of the project with views of data including dashboards, map views, 2D CAD views or 4D model views on any device, such as desktops, tablets, mobile or wearables.

The goal of digital construction management is to optimize the entire construction process, starting with more competitive bids. This depends on having more and better data, but the benefits are well worth it. “Information allows contractors to assess the competitiveness of their bids quickly, as well as understand and de-risk their projects,” Parkman explains. “We’re already seeing really competitive bids come in to the tune of 15-20 percent less than what they were, and when 93 percent of your total costs are in construction, that’s a significant savings.”

ADCMS Adoption in Transportation

The transportation industry has been more gradual in its adoption of advanced digital technologies compared to some others, such as manufacturing, but DOTs are starting to catch up to the private sector in terms of ADCMS.

“Most are what we would call ‘hybrid 2D/3D,’ which means they’re using 3D surface geometry, but are still in transition to model-based workflows,” says Parkman. “Probably 50 percent of the industry is still in a 2D world.”

Indeed, there are numerous examples of ADCMS adoption among state DOTs. Parkman cites pilot projects in New York, Minnesota and Texas, to name a few. With the introduction of new sources of federal funding, more DOTs than ever are positioned to make a leap forward in digital construction management and model-based delivery.

“Particularly in the last four or five years, there have been a number of federal incentives—financial incentives and other programs—to try to encourage more DOTs to adopt advanced technologies,” Parkman says. “Everybody’s been doing pilots, but they didn’t have the hard data showing how something like model-based delivery can increase efficiencies and decrease costs. Now they do, and with the IIJA they can finally go full steam ahead to model-based delivery and ADCMS.”

ADCMS Applications in Infrastructure

The need for conventional methods of infrastructure assessment, repair, rehabilitation and construction is obvious, but in many cases, “You can’t just repave your way out of the problem,” says Parkman. Many assets were based on designs more than half a century old, so they are no longer capable of handling the volume of traffic they see today. In such cases, maintenance and repair projects cannot proceed according to the status quo, and this is where ADCMS can help.

Rehabilitation projects are anything but straightforward, and one of the most difficult steps is knowing exactly what to repair and where. While capital planning is an important consideration, ADCMS can provide important insights and improve efficiencies.

“One of the things we’re doing is digitalizing bridge inventories in 3D by flying drones and combining that with mobile scanning data,” says Parkman. “We’re helping DOTs build portfolios of all of their bridge infrastructure in detail, and they can actually have people do bridge inspections completely remotely—not from a compliance standpoint, of course. You still need to physically send somebody to the bridge, but you can quickly review your bridge inventory remotely and at scale (with submillimeter accuracy) using just a desktop.”

DOTs can digitalize bridge inventories in 3D by flying drones and combining that with mobile scanning data. (Image courtesy of Collins Engineers.)

DOTs can digitalize bridge inventories in 3D by flying drones and combining that with mobile scanning data. (Image courtesy of Collins Engineers.)

Once a capital project has been identified and starts to be planned, ADCMS can help reduce constraints and mitigate unknowns going into a new project. By simulating the construction process in detail before putting shovels in the ground, DOTs and their partners can anticipate the impacts of their projects during construction—not just on the environment or traffic flows, but on the local economy as well. The result is greater efficiency and more competitive bidding due to fewer unknown risks.

During construction execution, the construction plan can be coupled with real-time information from the field, such as from IoT sensors, mobile app data capture and reality capture. These tools enhance visibility into project performance, enabling construction teams to make better, real-time decisions to keep projects in control, on time and on budget.

Workflows that can be enabled during construction include quality and safety inspections and progress tracking. These workflows can also be enhanced by leveraging the 4D model as context for data access and capture. For example, construction field staff can access and navigate the 4D model on a mobile device (tablet or phone) to ensure they are doing the correct work, they can update the status of construction activities by selecting the asset (e.g., bridge piers) in the model and changing the status or simply capture issues in real-time all based on their location using device GPS. Seeing your location in the model on the job site ensures that the information captured is accurate. All of this adds up to significant improvement in project delivery efficiencies and reduced risk, cost and rework.

IIJA Offers One More Reason to Adopt ADCMS

The funding for advanced digital construction management systems provided by Section 5113 of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act means that transportation agencies, engineering firms and construction firms that do not take advantage of these opportunities are effectively leaving money on the table.

“The way it’s typically structured,” says Parkman, “for every dollar the DOT contributes, the federal government allocates four. We don’t know exactly what the funding model will be because the NOFOs aren’t available yet, but dozens are coming in the next few months alone.”

When the NOFOs are issued, organizations will have just 60 days to apply. Given such a narrow window, it behooves applicants to be as prepared as possible.

“We’ve been working on a few different value propositions and templates,” says Parkman, regarding how Bentley has been preparing to help DOTs with their applications. “So, as soon as the funding becomes available, we can work with the DOTs to help them get funding for new technologies, staff augmentations, and the things that will enable them to execute on this new pipeline of work. We actually helped sponsor the ADCMS bill, so we know the language very well: what applies and what doesn’t.”

For more information, visit the Bentley Systems website.