Steve Harelson, chief engineer with CDOT, shares lesson learned – so far – from the COVID-19 pandemic and what the future of transportation may look like.
It’s safe to say that no one expected the size or the depth of the impact that the COVID-19 virus has had on the United States.
Beyond the health story, the virus has affected every aspect of day-to-day life – our workplaces, our education system, how we shop, and how we socialize, play, and worship.
All of these impacts have not gone unnoticed in the world of those who plan, build and maintain our nation’s roads, bridges, and public transit systems.
In episode 5 of the Ulteig Energy and Infrastructure Podcast series, Aaron Lauinger, Market Director–Transportation and Water for Ulteig, is joined by Steve Harelson, chief engineer for the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and Andi Schmid, Ulteig’s Transportation Team Lead to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the nation’s transportation system, and specifically in Colorado.
LISTEN NOW: Episode 5 Ulteig Energy and Infrastructure Podcast
While news reports hint at a possible vaccine sometime next year, the virus continues to rage across the country, in particular, the southern half of the country. Scientists worry about a second wave of infections in late fall and throughout the winter months coinciding with flu and cold season.
With more than 30 years in civil engineering, of which, the past 18 have been with CDOT, Harelson, like many of his peers working for other state DOT offices, is facing a slew of challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, from worries about funding shortfalls (drop in revenues from gas tax collections) to preparing projects for shovel-ready funding should Congress pass a much-anticipated infrastructure bill.
“We were just preparing for our annual road construction season when COVID-19 hit,” says Harelson.
In partnership with the state’s Department of Public Health, CDOT had to figure out how to keep employees and contractors working on CDOT projects safe during road construction. And, like many other organizations, the department also had to protect employees working indoors to ensure that planning, scheduling and collaboration with vendors could continue without interruption.
“We had to discourage our own employees from carpooling,” Harelson says.
Throughout the interview, Aaron and Andi touched on a number of issues with Harrelson that would likely concern others involved in the building and maintaining of the nation’s transportation infrastructure. Key highlights include:
Increased Productivity – If there has been a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that transportation departments across the country are completing their planned road construction projects in record time this year. For CDOT, the first two months of the pandemic resulted in record low traffic volumes, which allowed a number of road construction projects to be completed well ahead of schedule – including projects scheduled to be worked on at night, which could be completed during the day time.
Preparing for a Budget Shortfall – Harelson is anticipating a decline in the department’s budget as a result of lower gas tax and toll revenues being collected due to lower traffic volume. “We plan for the worst and hope for the best,” Harelson says.
Planning – Harelson says CDOT has a 10-year plan for transportation infrastructure projects and a 4-year plan. The department is prioritizing both plans to get as many projects shovel-ready in the event Congress passes an infrastructure stimulus. Aaron noted the importance of having shovel-ready projects – in 2009, when Congress passed a similar infrastructure stimulus (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009). States only had four months to spend their allocated funds.
Anticipate the Future of Transportation – Harelson notes that lower traffic volume is not the only reason gas tax collections are falling. The wide use of more gas efficient vehicles is lowering collections. This will be followed in the years to come by a growth in electric vehicles. The question is how do you make up for that loss in revenue, which will be needed to build a network of quick charging stations for a growing fleet of electric vehicles, as well as other transportation enhancements, including public transit options.
Smart Infrastructure – The key to building better, smarter transportation infrastructure depends upon reliability, says Harelson. For example, people want to know that they can reliability get to the airport without getting hung up in traffic. “We need a network of open roadways to ensure the proper flow through our system,” Harelson says. And, he noted, transportation departments need to anticipate a future of connected vehicles.
The Ulteig Energy & Infrastructure Podcast spans Ulteig’s Lifeline Sectors® of Power, Renewables, Transportation and Water. It offers thought-provoking and engaging conversations with key industry stakeholders on technology, innovation, policy and funding.
We are constantly seeking new ways to improve the way work is performed. A recent Ulteig innovation involves the integration of 360-degree video with GIS. We call it 360 VMI: Video & Mapping Integration. We’re using 360-degree cameras to collect videos of project areas by attaching the camera to a vehicle or walking down a corridor. This video is then integrated into our web mapping system to allow the user to click on a map and start the video at the time stamp of that exact point. This application reduces the number of return trips to the field and gives us yet another innovative tool to communicate more difficult design situations with our internal staff and clients. Because innovation has no finish line.
6 tips to get the most out of Geographic Information Systems
Ulteig has a long history of providing centralized Geographic Information Systems (GIS) solutions to support our key Lifeline Sectors® of Power, Renewables, Transportation and Water. These GIS solutions are invaluable to the success of our projects. GIS technology supports engineering projects by combining the visual benefits of mapping with the power of a database. The technology contributes to data asset management and project status tracking, and enhance communications between stakeholders throughout the project.
More Efficiency, Less Cost
One of Ulteig’s benchmarks for the value of GIS is a project developed for a Midwest electric utility company. This project received a National Recognition Award by the American Council of Engineering Companies for its design excellence.
While the designs developed by our engineering team were very accurate and met the client’s expectations, the team felt the project could be more efficient. Using GIS-based databases, workflows and applications, the team completely revamped the process to improve efficiency and deliver additional benefits from a new workflow. The Ulteig project team created a plan to meet project requirements by using GIS in field mapping applications integrated with centimeter-accurate GPS antennas and efficient GIS workflows for client deliverables creation.
Drawing on our experience with this project and others, here are six learnings for using GIS on your next project:
- Don’t be afraid to question a good process. We had a good process in place and met the expectations of our client, but we realized it could be even better with the use of GIS technology. Challenging traditional thinking led to the development of a revamped approach to energy distribution design. By utilizing GIS technology, we increased the efficiency of this particular energy distribution design project, and now we look forward to leveraging GIS to other projects involving other industries to enhance project efficiencies. At Ulteig, we are continuously seeking new ways to shorten project timelines and enhance real-time project updates with fewer paper markups and corrections.
- Choosing the right hardware and software is imperative. In incorporating GIS technology into the project, our Midwest Electric Utility team at Ulteig carefully considered the hardware and software with an eye toward efficiency. Of course we wanted to obtain the right data and of course we wanted to obtain as much useful data as possible. But what about the most relevant data? And what about data that can easily be shared and combined with data from other sources and make the entire work flow smoother? So, again, with an eye toward efficiency, we combined ESRI Collector for ArcGIS with Trimble survey-grade GPS receivers connected to ruggedized tablets to collect field data. The data created became an interactive inventory-map of the client’s existing utilities (poles, transformers, junction boxes, etc.), which was accurate to the centimeter and provided the data necessary to begin and carry out the design process. Pictures also were taken and attached to the collected features for later reference. Through integration with the utility’s GIS, the team could overlay available GIS data from city, county and utility databases. Using the collected existing utilities data and background data from other entities, we created a better design within the GIS application.
- Leverage cloud-based web services to share real-time data. Leveraging cloud-based web services made it possible to share real-time design and right-of-way (ROW) easement acquisition data and project updates among all participants. This eliminated the need for redlined paper maps and minimized time-intensive conversations about design corrections. The inventory database and project updates were immediately accessible to designers, field engineers, surveyors, ROW agents and project managers, all connected by the application and its data, keeping all participants informed and on the same page.
- Communicate early and often with key stakeholders, such as landowners. By proactively communicating early and often with landowners about acquiring easements and informing residents of proposed new equipment, we built trust. This was essential to the project’s success. To facilitate this communication, we created landowner communication maps. Live ROW and distribution data was incorporated into these maps, which allowed adjustments to be made on the fly when there were design changes or landowners refused easements. ROW, survey and design could use GIS to collaborate as a single team instead of independent silos. Addressing landowner concerns early in the process allowed for adjustments and prevented unnecessary and costly construction delays.
- Leverage technology to better manage your time. All construction projects are driven by the proper management of time. Good time management can increase efficiencies, improve consistency and reduce costs. The Ulteig team developed a proprietary scripting process, which created final design PDF maps, ensuring a consistent and cost-effective product. The interactive GIS applications used throughout the project not only kept a constantly updated and accurate inventory of existing utilities, but also decreased in-field survey and in-office design time.
- Never reach the finish line. Continue to find new ways to improve the way work is performed. For example, Ulteig recently added the use of 360-degree video cameras to collect videos of project areas by attaching the camera to a vehicle or walking down a corridor. This video is then integrated into our web mapping system to allow the user to click on a map and start the video at the time stamp of that exact point. This application reduces the number of return trips to the field and gives us yet another tool to communicate more difficult design situations with our internal staff and clients.
Benefits of a GIS App
In summary, GIS has become a critical part of the Ulteig planning process. It’s a technology that we believe should be considered for most projects. Here are the benefits that we’ve identified:
- Creating interactive inventory-maps
- Sharing updated data in real-time with staff in the field and in the office
- Decreasing survey and design time
- Flexibility to scale data to the project parameters
- Eliminating separate copies and versions of designs and data from a centralized database
- Referencing facilities data such as size and type, and pictures from the office
- Increasing accessibility to data
- Tracking the status of design, construction, and easement acquisition
- Connecting with intuitive modern smartphone apps and web apps
The Bottom Line: Consider GIS to Enhance Your Next Project
GIS technology is one of many innovative surveying services that Ulteig tailors to meet the unique needs of our clients. Our team uses the most advanced GIS software in the industry to provide customized geospatial solutions built around your business requirements. Ulteig’s wide-ranging GIS solutions range from data collection and custom mapping to GIS server solutions and technical support for utilities, commercial organizations and various levels of government. Our GIS service offerings include:
- GIS Implementation Planning
- GPS utility data collection
- As-built document scanning and map data integration
- Web and mobile GIS applications
- ArcGIS Online Setup and Training
- Site Selection Analysis
- 3D Modeling
If you’ve wondered if GIS should be incorporated into your next project, contact our GIS team at Ulteig. We can help you better understand the advantages of GIS both in the planning and building of your project, but also for the long term, when your project will need maintenance, retrofitting or repowering.
By Dan Haglund, Distribution, Ulteig
Dan Haglund is Ulteig’s Distribution Design Supervisor as part of the Field Services Team. He has more than 20 years of experience in implementing GIS solutions. He takes pride in finding ways to utilize GIS in practical and beneficial ways to improve efficiency, communicate better, and effectively manage projects.
One of our power clients reached out to us in search of a solution for a field-based design approach for electric distribution projects they were constructing in the Midwest. Ulteig created a plan to meet their project requirements by utilizing a GIS centric solution.
The solution involved a combination of developing GIS databases, publishing web services in the cloud, and building web and mobile applications to support the project workflows. Another key component of the solution was to identify the appropriate high accuracy GPS receiver that meet the accuracy requirements of the project.
Ulteig engineers combined the cloud-based web services and ESRI Collector for ArcGIS mobile app with a Trimble survey-grade GPS receiver connected via Bluetooth to computer tablet to collect the data. The field data then became an interactive inventory-map of the existing utilities (poles, transformers, junction boxes, etc.). The measurements were accurate to the centimeter and provided information necessary to carry out the design process. Through integration with the power utilities’ GIS, the Ulteig team overlaid additional GIS data from city, counties, and utilities by connecting live to their web services, such as parcels, recorded easements, and aerial imagery.
Our engineers leveraged cloud-based web services that allowed us to share real-time design and right-of-way (ROW) easement acquisition data and project updates. This service helped eliminate the need for redlined paper maps and minimized the time-intensive design conversations necessary for any design corrections. Inventory database and project updates were immediately accessible to designers, field engineers, surveyors, ROW agents, and project managers, keeping all participants informed and on the same page.
Relatively early in the design process, Ulteig’s ROW staff begin communicating with landowners to acquire easement and to inform residents of proposed new equipment. Ulteig’s system enabled the automated creation of landowner communication maps. Live ROW and distribution data were incorporated into the same maps, allowing adjustments on the fly for design changes or landowners who refused easements. ROW, survey and design team members used GIS to collaborate as a single team instead of independent operators.
Addressing any landowner concerns early in the process allowed for adjustments and prevented unnecessary and costly construction delays. The Ulteig team developed a proprietary scripting process that created final design PDF maps, ensuring a consistent and cost-effective product. The interactive GIS applications used throughout the project kept an updated, accurate inventory of existing utilities and decreased in-field surveys and in-office design time.
This power utility project challenged traditional thinking and led to the development of a revamped approach to energy distribution design. By utilizing a GIS solution, engineers can increase the efficiency of energy distribution projects and be applied to other disciplines.
As electric utilities confront the ongoing challenge of delivering reliable power to customers, they also experience an increased need for partners who offer customized solutions to address evolving demands. Ulteig’s system efficiency solutions allow for shorter project timelines and real-time project updates with fewer paper markups and corrections, resulting in resource reductions benefiting the utility (costs and time), and natural resources (reduction in paper use).
Amid COVID-19, businesses are learning to operate in a “new reality.” Employees work remotely from home. Corporate travel has been reduced or eliminated, and face-to-face meetings now happen over video calls. Even conferences, trade shows and workshops have been canceled, postponed or are being hosted virtually through the end of the year.
This void comes at a time when industry leaders are eager to share knowledge and strategize with colleagues and clients about critical trends and innovations that could help shape the national conversation. Recent research from McKinsey & Company suggests that “without fundamental change, it will be difficult to return to the attractive industry performance that has historically prevailed.” The COVID-19 nationwide stay-at-home order triggered a digital transformation that created new opportunities and channels for collaboration and sharing information.
Many industry leaders, including Ulteig, are leveraging digital channels like podcasts, blogs, and social media to spark conversation and drive change. As partners are looking to learn more about Smart Transportation, SCADA, Grid Mod, DES and other Lifeline Sectors® solutions, we want to make it easy to share with industry colleagues. In the past few weeks, Ulteig experts have covered topics on:
- How the 2009 ARRA investment can prepare the industry in the face of financial uncertainty
- Modernizing the Grid: Consider Communications First
- What Does China Have to Do With America’s Power Grid?
- Ulteig’s Creative Solutions Help Keep Texas Wind Farm on Schedule
- The impacts of COVID19 and the future of the solar market in this new world
- Asset Management During Times of Uncertainty
Ulteig’s eight-part Podcast series on Energy & Infrastructure spans our Lifeline Sectors® of Power, Renewables, Transportation and Water. Each episode offers thought-provoking and engaging conversations with key industry stakeholders on technology, innovation, policy and funding, along with some lively discussion on issues facing our industry. Our Connections Blog helps keep readers up-to-date on industry trends, topics and events.
No one knows when this pandemic will be over, or what the new normal will be. One thing’s for sure: Ulteig will continue sharing innovative solutions with the industry at large, identifying and commercializing innovative concepts that could profoundly impact our Lifeline Sectors®.
Six questions you need to ask about your assets during times of uncertainty.
The global economic landscape is changing before our eyes, in unprecedented and possibly lasting ways. As we adapt to this new normal, businesses and public institutions in the industries of power generation, transportation systems, and renewable energy need to think of new ways of planning for future uncertainties.
This is why it’s paramount for organizations to quickly adapt to the shifting economic landscape by proactively seeking new and smarter ways of doing business. Now, more than ever, is the time to be nimble and flexible.
In these uncertain times, your business is likely enacting mitigation plans. But you still may be wondering if your assets are prepared for other scenarios or future unplanned outages and failures. With increased supply chain vulnerability and prioritizing capital spend, maturing an asset management plan or program can bring you a necessary dose of peace of mind.
As an exercise in preparedness, consider your answers to the questions below as leading indicators of how to drive predictability with your capital asset lifecycle:
- Is assessing critical assets, whether visually or with routine maintenance inspections, part of your normal process?
- Do you have critical assets identified and tracked and have you identified lead times for replacements?
- Are your maintenance needs funded to a reasonable level?
- Do you have the data to support and gain organizational buy-in to invest in new critical assets?
- Do your resources have devoted time set aside and are they prepared for disruptions to your critical asset infrastructure?
- Are you actively monitoring, and tracking failures or manufacturer recalls that could disrupt your fleet?
Regardless of how you answered the above questions, it’s more important than ever to take a deep dive into assessing and analyzing your organization’s critical assets. Our engineers are here to help you look ahead to what’s next. Not just the next quarter, or even the next year. But three, five and ten years down the road.
Together, with our expertise and yours, we will make the smart decisions today that will help to position your organization to nimbly handle and adapt to whatever comes next. We’ll help find the silver lining so that you can leverage the present to develop a leaner, more cost-efficient, and effective asset management strategy for the future.
Authors: Sarah Beckman and Matt Bates
As Program Director at Ulteig, Sarah Beckman collaborates with electric utilities to build strong, trusted relationships and to develop innovative solutions to address unique challenges. Sarah’s results-driven and strategic focus is founded on more than 15 years of experience in the Power Delivery industry in both the electric utility and renewables sectors.
Matt Bates has over a decade of experience in the Power and Renewable markets supporting Owners and Developers from early stage development through operations and maintenance. His role managing a multidisciplined team and supporting key client relationships helps him bring complete solutions to our changing industries.
Ulteig defines Asset Management as the data-driven, systematic tracking of key infrastructure elements to assess organizational risk, governing and automating capital spend. This solution benefits stakeholders’ priorities by taking quality data collection and inspection and provides a roadmap to maintenance and replacement, informing new infrastructure investments.
Keeping lines of communication open is key to controlling costs and managing construction schedules in today’s social distancing/working remotely environment. Ulteig engineers are regularly onsite with our clients to collaborate on project details and work through design challenges in person and look forward to working that way again soon. In the meantime, we’re providing our clients with complimentary online access to their project information, anytime and anywhere, whether they’re in the office, in a trailer, or onsite.
To increase efficiency, improve quality and reduce risk during this pandemic and going forward, Ulteig engineers are working with clients utilizing the BIM 360™ cloud-based document management system. By leveraging this software internally and externally with our clients, we are able to collaborate throughout the design and construction of projects with computer-aided design and drafting (CAD) schematics, drawings and documents through the BIM 360™portal on a computer and/or through an app on a tablet or smartphone. Using this collaborative system virtually eliminates the need for communicating via emails on a project. This unique value-added benefit gives the client’s remote team instant access to designs, project details, and documents while reviewing construction plans (with versions, edits and times clearly marked) whenever and wherever necessary to keep the project flowing and their staff working effectively.
What if a client uses a different cloud-based system?
Ulteig has found that BIM 360™ platform is a great tool for design coordination and collaboration as it allows our clients, as well as other required organizations access to project information quickly and efficiently without additional fees or licenses subscriptions. Clients may already utilize a different platform like Procore®, SharePoint®, or Box.com., which Ulteig has and is willing to support to ensure collaborative page turns and quality reviews.
Creating technical solutions to meet current business challenges
Ulteig engineers use BIM 360™ to organize, distribute, and share documents with project teams in real-time. By using this cloud-based management platform, our engineers can circulate designs and collaborate with project stakeholders anytime and anywhere to help keep everyone in sync throughout the project.
Author: Chris Smaaladen, PE, M. ASCE, Technical Manager
Developing and maintaining effective partnerships has been at the cornerstone of Ulteig’s identity for more than seventy-five years. With today’s rapidly changing marketplace, Ulteig remains steadfast in our commitment to providing the solutions and innovative ideas you need to navigate through these tumultuous times.
Social distancing and stay-at-home requirements have forced trade show cancellations and travel plan disruptions. But while in-person meetings and events are not taking place, vital industry conversations must continue. That’s why we’re introducing a new “Energy & Infrastructure” 8-part podcast series. Our goal is simple: to inspire you, through new ideas and conversations, to think differently about industry challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting financial crisis.
The new series, spanning our Lifeline Sectors® of Power, Renewables, Transportation and Water, offers thought-provoking and engaging conversations with key industry stakeholders on technology, innovation, policy and funding. There will also be lively discussion mixed in about the latest hot button issues facing our industries.
In our first podcast, “Lessons Learned from 2009: Be Prepared for a COVID-19 Infrastructure Stimulus Package,” Aaron Lauinger, Market Director at Ulteig, examines infrastructure investments in 2020. This discourse addresses how stimulus funding could incubate and modernize infrastructure or be lost or exasperated if companies do not prepare ahead of time. The stimulus’s potential impact on transportation, water, and renewables sectors is also covered.
The second podcast continues the discussion of COVID-19 with special guest Dan Whitten, VP of Public Affairs, SEIA (Solar Energy Industries Association), as we focus on what a repeat of the 2009 ARRA Renewable Tax Credits would do for the industry (as 09 ARRA catapulted renewables) and SEIA’s strategy for federal stimulus. Future podcasts will include discussions with industry leaders on smart grids, battery storage, USACE stimulus flooding and much more.
Ulteig remains committed to being a thoughtful and innovative partner for our clients. We hope the Energy & Infrastructure podcast series provides the insights and creative ideas you need to overcome the COVID-19 crisis now and afterward as we face what will more than likely be a changed landscape.