Innovations Hit The Road
Project showcases are a powerful tool for converting the skeptical. If you have doubts about some new technology, these success stories might change your mind. Join the domino effect.
It’s one thing to explain to someone the benefits of an innovation on a construction project. It’s quite another to convince them to take the leap of actually using it.
All too often, the risks involved in trying something innovative can keep organizations and individuals from experimenting with a new procedure or technology. Project showcases are proving to be a key tool in bridging the yawning gap between risk and experimentation. Technology showcases enable professionals responsible for highway programs to stand on the sidelines of someone else’s project and watch as the innovation is applied, see the real-world challenges, and question those involved, one-on-one, about concerns--all without any commitment or risk.
At a September 24, 2013, showcase featuring slide-in bridge replacement technology, hosted by the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) in Westchester, NY, one participant observed, “This was a new concept to me, and it was great to have the opportunity to hear the contractor, the owner, and the consultant inspection firm share their experiences first hand.” Said another, “It helped shape my ideas about when this type of project would be beneficial.”
Multiply that individual level of enthusiasm by the several thousand other people in the highway community who have participated in showcases, and you’ll understand why project showcases are such a powerful tool. Attracting designers, builders, and owners of highways and bridges to someone else’s jobsite where a real project is being constructed enables the participants to see the unvarnished reality of the innovation’s benefits. Brochures and videos might not be clear, and presentations can overlook potential problem areas, but seeing is believing.
What Are Project Showcases?
Showcases are special events built around projects that use particular design or construction innovations. They bring together highway professionals--usually from other cities, counties, States, or countries--to witness for themselves how the new approach works in actual practice.
A typical showcase might begin in the morning with a series of presentations in a hotel conference room or public facility near the project site, aimed at familiarizing visitors with the technology and providing them with a context for the construction project they will visit later. The owner agency’s project manager, construction contractor, design consultant, or others involved in the project each give their perspectives of project-specific problems encountered and how the innovation helped address those concerns. In addition, the presentations often include discussions by national experts about the particular innovation, as well as talks about other projects where the innovation was used successfully.
After the presentations and questions from the audience, the group moves from the meeting room to the project site. In some cases, because of how construction is timed to accommodate traffic, organizers may schedule site visits late in the evening or very early in the morning. Visitors often see activities and details onsite that bring up additional questions, and the professionals who presented earlier are on hand to respond.
As a visitor to the I–84 Echo Frontage Road bridge replacement showcase held in Park City, UT, August 17–18, 2013, stated, “The site visit provided real and valuable experience. [That experience] could not be duplicated through a [PowerPoint], webinar, or presentation.” The showcase featured two innovations: slide-in bridge construction and the geosynthetic reinforced soil–integrated bridge system.
More than 11,000 highway demonstration projects having cumulative construction costs of more than $40 billion have occurred since 1970, and dozens of these have been showcased. The innovations used on these projects have ranged from simple changes in pavement mixtures to replacement of entire bridges.
Although the innovations that these showcases highlight might be new, the overall approach is not. Demonstration activities emerged during the earliest years of the Federal highway program and have been a hallmark of the Federal-aid approach ever since.
From its origins in 1893 as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Road Inquiry, the Federal road agency has found innovative ways to showcase success stories. For more information on the history of innovation showcases, such as object-lesson roads and Good Roads Trains, see “How the Uncommon Became the Commonplace” on page 18 in this issue.
As State transportation agencies grew in size and sophistication, it made sense to have the owner agencies themselves host showcases, using their own projects as case studies. Showing often proved to be a more effective way to convince State and local officials than writing about what to do. It helped them adopt new ideas and adapt to change without creating resentment. In fact, it helped turn the hosts of the demonstration events into advocates of change.
When a project used for a demonstration is the first time that a sponsoring agency has applied that particular innovation, any anticipated time and cost savings may be lost due to the learning curve faced by agencies, designers, and contractors. The sponsoring agency also might have concerns over the financial risk involved with doing something different.
Therefore, a critical element in the success of a program that relies on demonstrations has been to provide the owner agencies with supplemental funding. Under the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), the Technology and Innovation Deployment Program includes grants through the Accelerated Innovation Deployment (AID) Demonstration program. Although the AID Demonstration program has funds specifically dedicated to demonstration projects, such projects do not have to fall under the area of construction. They can involve planning, finance, environment, design, materials, pavements, structures, and operations. More details on the AID Demonstration program can be found at www.fhwa.dot.gov/accelerating/grants/index.cfm.
Helping Transform Bridge Construction
How have project demonstrations transformed specific innovations? Showcasing innovations in accelerated bridge construction is a good example.
Cases in point: high-performance concrete, prefabricated bridge elements and systems, the use of self-propelled modular transporters or lateral slides for superstructure moves, and geosynthetic reinforced soil–integrated bridge systems. Each of these has had numerous showcases to provide the opportunity for structures specialists to see for themselves how these innovations work and how agencies can benefit.
For example, in 1996, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), and the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas at Austin cosponsored a workshop and showcase to promote high-performance concrete. The activity focused around the Louetta Road Overpass in Houston, TX, the first U.S. bridge to have high performance concrete in its superstructure and substructure. High-performance concrete has a longer life and more durability than other kinds of concrete. The showcase included dissemination of information about the concrete itself; a presentation of products available; an exchange of ideas among representatives of local, State, and Federal government agencies, the construction industry, and the academic community; and a tour of the overpass project site.
The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) sent several engineers to the showcase and FHWA’s Georgia Division bridge engineer also attended. After the event, the group returned to Georgia and did a pooled-fund study using Georgia aggregates. Paul Liles, GDOT’s Assistant Division Director of Engineering, said, “The benefit we got from attending the Texas high-performance concrete showcase was learning that Georgia could use [the concrete] in its bridges. We just had to work out our aggregates as compared to Texas aggregates.”
As is often the case, Georgia’s success resulted in GDOT sponsoring a showcase of its own in March 1997 in Atlanta. That workshop included participants from Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and four other States. Shortly after the showcase, Georgia started using high-performance concrete in its projects as a Special Provision.
One-Hour Bridge Placement
The deployment of the prefabricated bridge elements and systems technology and self-propelled modular transporters was even more dramatic. After participating in an international scan on these technologies, William Nickas, then the State structures design engineer with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), opted to use the technologies on a bridge replacement. In 2006, FDOT and FHWA cosponsored a showcase in DeLand, FL, that featured the accelerated removal and replacement of two bridge spans on Graves Avenue, spanning I–4. Using the innovations required a change order to the already existing contract, which cost the State an additional $560,000. But the detour on Graves Avenue that would have been in place in 12 months required only 8 months, meaning that the project was completed in time for the start of school; lane closures on I–4 dropped from 32 nights to only 4; and user cost savings from avoiding delays totaled $2.2 million.
The Florida showcase took place over a weekend. The program, from 1 to 6 p.m. on Friday, consisted of presentations and panel discussions in a hotel conference room, followed by a bus trip to the project site for a daytime tour. There, on a parcel of land adjacent to the site of the old bridge, which had been removed the weekend before, the participants viewed the new superstructure constructed from prefabricated bridge elements and systems and saw a demonstration of self-propelled modular transporters. At 10 p.m. on the following (Saturday) evening, attendees returned to the site to view the new bridge span being lifted and dropped into place. The self-propelled modular transporters moved the span to its final location in less than an hour.
Highway engineers from several State departments of transportation and Canada attended the showcase. The then director of project development and chief engineer for the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) took a delegation from his State, including UDOT engineers and staff, construction contractors, and consultant designers. The group returned to Utah and began the process of employing the technology they had seen at the showcase. In October 2007, they installed the 4500 South Bridge over I–215 in Salt Lake City using self-propelled modular transporters.
Showcases Expand Across the States
From there, UDOT began the process of making the new accelerated approach to bridge design and construction the standard for Utah. By January 2014, the agency had built more than two dozen precast superstructures using self-propelled modular transporters, and used various accelerated bridge construction methods and elements more than 230 times.
Other States had similar results. Wayne Seger, director of the Structures Division with the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT), also attended the Florida showcase. He says, “The showcase itself was very valuable in that attendees were given both the contractor’s perspective and comments as well as the State’s perspective on the project. The contractor shared the challenges he faced in constructing the superstructure spans . . . and how he used the self-propelled modular transporters to haul the new span.”
How enthusiastic was Seger? “I was excited to bring this technology to Tennessee when I returned to my office the following week. It’s like getting a new tool for Christmas--you can’t wait to try it out. . . . The showcase filled me with enthusiasm to share this technology with my people as well as the administration--I experienced a self-propelled modular transporter move, and it really works and is very exciting.”
As a result, TDOT is now developing projects using accelerated bridge construction techniques. The agency has a project with four bridge replacements requiring acceleration on the I–40/I–65 loop around Nashville, and a potential bridge move using self-propelled modular transporters on the drawing board. TDOT is planning to complete the bridge replacements using prefabricated bridge elements and a construction manager/general contractor method for project delivery. Says Seger, “The department and the commissioner are very interested in doing more accelerated bridge construction work.”
Meanwhile, as UDOT developed its expertise in this area, it too began holding showcases. Representatives of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) attended and, in 2011, developed a project using modular decked beams. The megaproject involved replacing 14 superstructures on I–93 through Medford over 10 weekends (see “The Fast 14 Project” in the May/June 2012 issue of Public Roads).
MassDOT hosted a demonstration showcase on the Fast 14 Project in 2011. The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) sent five project managers from the agency’s newly formed accelerated bridge program. Wayne Symonds, the State structures design engineer, says, “We used it as an opportunity to team build and to make many connections with MassDOT. In the evenings we discussed a lot of what we learned individually and discussed how we could implement those lessons in Vermont.”
The timing of the Massachusetts showcase was fortunate. Says Vermont’s Symonds, “The Fast 14 bridges are pretty standard superstructure-type replacement and construction, and that is where we see the most potential for accelerated bridge construction in Vermont. Tropical Storm Irene followed the Fast 14 showcase by a couple of months. We have designed and constructed a number of bridge replacements for bridges damaged or destroyed during Irene.”
Clearly, project demonstration showcases have played a key role in transforming how bridges are constructed in the United States. And, thanks to this approach, many other technologies are getting deployed faster.
What’s next for showcases? With more limited budgets, more restrictive travel policies, and the impact of heightened security measures on travel, whether the concept can survive is an obvious question.
One possibility is that the next phase may be virtual reality showcases, where participants can visit a project site via computer without actually leaving their offices. Animation and 3–D virtual reality modeling is already so lifelike that the movie industry has been using it to blend in things previously impossible to put on a screen. Video games have become so realistic that professional football and baseball players are using them to study the actual playbooks of their own and opposition teams.
For several years now, training programs have been available that use virtual environments and platforms to teach such subjects as maintenance programs for nuclear power plants and flight training for pilots.
More recently, developments in both software design and hardware have made the idea of sharing space in virtual reality at a reasonable cost a realistic possibility. Earlier in 2014, Facebook spent $2 billion to purchase Oculus Rift, a company that created a cost-effective headset that enables wearers to feel as if they are actually in a different environment. Currently, its use is limited to video games, but the potential is huge. As Alex Sarnoff, CEO of the manufacturer Control VR, said in a June 2014 interview with Forbes, “Gaming is just a start. Where can you take this beyond video games? When you think about social media and where it’s gone, [you can] imagine two different people across the world joining each other in a virtual environment. You can put two people in the Sistine Chapel together, and we can both be looking around, all while I’m still sitting on my couch in L.A.”
One might add that putting several dozen people at a virtual highway or bridge construction site for a project demonstration showcase should be just as conceivable.
Government research agencies, such as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, are using Virtual Learning Environments to perform research on complex topics like recognizing cognitive biases inside interactive virtual worlds. All of these varied approaches to using virtual technology point toward a significant tipping point around the infrastructure required to support them, such as affordable and capable laptop/workstation hardware, ubiquitous Internet bandwidth to support collaboration, and the explosion of cloud-based virtual world and gaming hosting solutions. They also herald the broader acceptance of this technology as a medium that can provide significant advantages over more passive, didactic training and education materials.
Reducing or eliminating travel costs by providing virtual showcases on a 24/7/365 virtual platform enables users to collaborate in real time from anywhere in the world, with the opportunity to provide real-time information in addition to what is available at the in-person physical demonstrations. Imagine if the virtual world users were able to independently play and replay a bridge replacement animation, view it from any viewpoint around the bridge, strip away ground layers and construction material layers to observe the composition, and bring up technical documents related to the equipment, all on their screens in real time. All of these capabilities are available today in many virtual platforms, along with multiuser voice chat to support discussions and facilitate questions, text chat, and the ability to import 3–D models of transportation project equipment and environments.
The virtual showcase concept may at some point provide one more tool in the acceleration-of-innovation toolbox. And although virtual implementations or representations might never replace the value of physical onsite demonstrations, they have the ability to support them, expand access to them, and accelerate the breadth of knowledge available from them in an engaging, interactive, and visual manner. No matter what form they take, demonstration showcases are sure to continue their century-old tradition of providing highway professionals the experience of applying an innovation on a real-world project without a long-term commitment.
Mary Lou Ralls is an engineering consultant and principal of Ralls Newman, LLC in Austin, TX. She earned her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and master’s of science degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1981 and 1984, respectively, prior to joining TxDOT. At TxDOT she worked in various engineering positions before being appointed the State bridge engineer and director of the Bridge Division in 1999. Ralls retired from TxDOT in 2004 after 20 years of service and continues to advance innovative technologies, including accelerated bridge construction.
Bruce Seely is a historian of technology who focuses on transportation history--with special attention to the history of American highway development and highway policy. Currently, he is Dean of the College of Sciences and Arts at Michigan Technological University.
Ewa Flom earned her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Florida State University and M.B.A. from George Mason University. She is a licensed professional engineer in Virginia. She has worked for FHWA for 16 years in various technical assistance, strategy development, and technology deployment areas. She is currently program manager for the Accelerated Innovation Deployment Demonstration program within FHWA’s Center for Accelerating Innovation.
Randy Brown is the director of the Virtual Heroes Division of Applied Research Associates. With 25 years of interactive 3–D graphics experience and 15 years applying this technology to virtual training and education content development, he is a recognized leader in the Serious Games, Virtual Worlds, and Simulations for Training arena.
For more information, contact Ewa Flom at 202–366–2169 or email@example.com.