The New Brunswick Department of Transportation is implementing an asset-management program unlike anything used anywhere in the world. Built around a solution that uses mathematical optimization to prioritize long-term planning, it’s designed to get optimal performance from the province’s entire network of transportation assets while retaining fiscal responsibility. The award-winning solution, the Asset Management Business Framework, is being implemented province-wide.
A robust transportation system is a given in any strong, competitive economy. Without a network that effectively gets people, goods and services to market, there can be no market.
The New Brunswick Department of Transportation manages 18,000 kilometres of roads, 2,900 bridges, 18 ferries, and a myriad of other assets. The province’s large infrastructure inventory and relatively sparse population present significant challenges. As this transportation network continues to expand, it is difficult for supporting budgets to keep pace. Assets continue to age. Funding remains tight.
Deciding that these realities called for genuine innovation, the department began the search for an asset management system that would be highly efficient, cost-effective, and objective, maintaining the long-term integrity of the province’s entire transportation infrastructure at the least cost. A challenging set of criteria.
To find a solution, the department teamed up with IT provider xwave. From the start, they recognized the new system would have to revolve around the assets themselves – their condition, expected life spans, maintenance costs, and so on.
“Though the word ‘unique’ is a hackneyed marketing term, that’s the word I’m compelled to use in describing the framework,” says Mark Gallagher, lead of xwave’s Civil Infrastructure Practice. “We knew we would indeed have to build something unique – something asset-centric – to effectively address the ‘fix the worst first’ conundrum.”
Planting trees to paving roads
As part of its research, the department and contractor team looked at the challenges faced by other transportation agencies, as well as the infrastructure and asset-management practices of other industries. Other agencies reported similar difficulties such as too much or not enough data, disconnected information systems, and an inability to effectively visualize and “trade off” various options for maintenance and funding.
In assessing the practices of other industries, the team closely examined the mathematical optimization methods applied for a number of years in forestry. These involve computer software-based processes used to determine appropriate cutting and reforestation relative to the life spans of trees.
The framework is the only solution to incorporate these processes in a transportation context, enabling the department to manage and maintain civil infrastructure relative to the life spans of its roads, ferries and bridges.
Two primary software tools are used to formulate a suitable program of treatment and funding. The supporting business processes necessary to carry out the program are outlined. All information requirements are clearly described, as well as processes for continuous improvement. Ultimately, the department is able to establish and meet acceptable asset-performance standards while maintaining expenditures within realistic fiscal limits. It is a more efficient means of allocating available funds amongst the valued and competing needs of the transportation network.
Part of the mathematical software component – the heart of the solution – is the Long-Term Investment Management Plan (LTIMP) tool. The LTIMP processes large volumes of information, received as a series of inputs that fall into six categories. One of them, Engineering Science, includes asset-centric information related to conditions, deterioration and related treatment options and costs.
The LTIMP receives information as a series of inputs that fall into six categories, and which result in a detailed yet unconstrained 20-year program for asset management.
What comes out of the LTIMP is a strategic, budgeted plan that sets priorities – a 20-year to-do list. The plan outlines which treatment should be applied to what asset and when it should be applied: for example, a certain stretch of highway that needs a specific resurfacing treatment in year three; a bridge that requires a special deck treatment in year twelve. The plan also indicates how much the treatment should cost.
Modelling using constraints
Most asset management and budgeting is accompanied by constraints that govern the planning process. Recognizing the variation and complexity of these constraints, in addition to the already highly-intricate calculations involved in the LTIMP’s processing of data, the team started with a largely unconstrained plan. This has enabled the department to use existing asset-condition information to set performance targets. It also means, of course, that initial planning does not take into consideration important factors such as budget, regional asset distribution and workforce allocation. These constraints are phased in later, ultimately providing a realistic 20-year plan.
Relative to the expected life of many of New Brunswick’s assets, 20 years is not a long time. And yet, a 20-year plan looks too far ahead to effectively manage short-term needs. Moreover, the LTIMP produces a plan that is condition-based – again not necessarily conducive to addressing more immediate requirements that might be based on other (perhaps unexpected or changed) factors. Enter the Program Development Tool (PDT), designed to evolve the LTIMP’s 20-year horizon into a more functional four-year action plan. Drawing more directly from the department’s working knowledge of its assets, the four-year plan integrates criteria that, experience dictates, will tend to affect short-term asset management. And from the completed four-year plan, the department is able to prepare and implement a one-year asset-rehabilitation program.
These new tools for solving old problems similarly require new methods for evaluating performance and making adjustments – processes and tools to collect condition assessments, project deterioration curves and treatment efficacies. These processes and tools will play a vital role in creating the 20-year investment-management plan, the four-year breakout plan, and the one-year detailed program of asset rehabilitation. However, the creators of the tools, looking ahead two decades, will have had to make a number of assumptions. So the framework incorporates processes for ongoing evaluation and amendment of these assumptions, ensuring users of the solution are adequately informed when deciding on improvements today and 15 years down the road.
Are we there yet?
The entire solution-building process began in 2002 and, though the framework has just been implemented province-wide, it has already won a Knowledge Industry Recognition & Achievement award for Technical Advancement/Innovation in the Public Sector. The award is the highest knowledge industry accolade in New Brunswick. Other provinces and countries (the US, Australia, Costa Rica) have expressed interest.
For the Department of Transportation, the solution promises markedly improved decision-making and cost-savings.
“While we have been utilizing asset management for many years, the framework delivers the next