Converted forestry app finds 'sweet spot' for highway repairs
Advanced analytical technology used by the Transportation Department of New Brunswick, Canada, could serve as a model for how U.S. cities and towns could take a proactive approach to repairing their aging highway infrastructure.
Most highway departments take a “worst first” approach to repairing infrastructure. But it is more expensive to fix roads at the end of their life cycle, said Kim Daley, the department’s acting assistant deputy minister of corporate services and fleet management.
There is a sweet spot in the deterioration curve of roads at which preventive work can be done to save municipalities from making more costly repairs later, Daley said.
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“You have to have the right business framework and types of data in place, as well as the right tool to optimize all the data, to give you the output you need for decision-making,” she said.
For the New Brunswick DOT, that tool turned out to be forest management software from a Canadian company called Remsoft that was converted into a transportation asset management tool.
As a result, the New Brunswick DOT has saved about $210 million in the past three years and expects to save $1.4 billion in the next 20 years, Daley said.
“We would have had to spend $210 million to get to the new upgraded condition that we have now in our province with our assets,” Daley said.
How did the department move to what officials call the least life cycle cost approach?
Ten years ago, New Brunswick officials realized the province was not managing its assets in a sustainable manner. To address the situation, they established the Asset Management Business Framework to aid in developing solutions for problem areas.
The New Brunswick DOT has 3,000 bridges and 11,185 miles of highway to manage, as well as a variety of traffic control devices, buildings and ferries, Daley said.
Most modeling tools the department used could provide detailed analysis for operational or tactical planning, but they didn’t do optimized modeling, which focuses on finding the best possible choice from a set of alternatives.
Some staff members were familiar with the Remsoft tool because they had used it on a project with a forestry company. The forest industry uses the software to model the age difference rate between different types of trees. Once trees reach a certain age, the density of the wood is at its best and can yield the best profit on the market. The technology allowed forestry workers to build a model that helps determine the optimal yield of trees at certain ages.
“We thought: What if we could use that for highway assets?” Daley said. Instead of a yield curve, they would devise a deterioration curve to help the department make the best decisions about where and when to spend money on road repairs.
With the help of Remsoft and consulting firm xwave, a Bell company, the DOT team developed a modeling tool that could give them either very high-level or very detailed data. “You can start with a proxy for deterioration, such as age, or you can input sophisticated, quantified condition measurements that you may have,” Daley said.
The Remsoft technology was expanded to include multiple assets, such as bridges and different types of road surfaces. If New Brunswick officials have limited funds to spend and must choose between road or bridge repair, they can do a trade-off analysis to determine how best to spend the money.
“We’ve never seen a modeling tool that could do cross trade-off analysis and optimized long-term strategic” planning for deteriorating assets, Daley said.
Remsoft pulls data from existing asset management systems, enterprise resource management systems, spreadsheets, or almost any source that contains mapping and inventory data, said Steve Palmer, co-CEO of Remsoft.
The software is designed for collaboration across departmental and agency systems and for use by people who are not modelers but instead are business analysts, planners, auditors, investors, asset owners or corporate executives, Palmer said. Modelers can start with whatever data and constraints are known and easily refine the model over time.
As an example, Daley described how the software’s analytical and predictive modeling capabilities can be applied to moose fencing. DOT analysts might use the software to get data on areas where there have been more than five moose collisions in five years within a 50 kilometer stretch of highway. They might then view the data by year and road type.
The analysts can tap into their asset management systems, and because Remsoft uses spatial technology, they can spot the locations on the highway that meet the statistical guidelines. They can also review the cost of fencing to prevent moose encounters. Then the optimization software can present data on the fencing program for the next few years.
Or if a new mill is being built, the software can help reprioritize roads leading to the mill so they are fixed every 10 years instead of 12, Daley said.
Currently, North Carolina, Oregon and Washington are using Remsoft for forestry management. No state in the United States is using the software for transportation.
But that could change “once people catch on to how powerful [the tool is] and what it can do,” Daley said, noting that New Brunswick has received national and international awards for what it is doing in the area of highway maintenance.
“I think you are going to see a lot more of its application in the transportation industry,” Daley said.