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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - Nov/Dec 1999

FHWA Creates An Office Of Asset Management

by Madeleine Bloom

Asset management – the cost-effective operation, maintenance, and preservation of transportation systems – is not a new concept for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). But with the opening of the agency's first Office of Asset Management on Feb. 1, 1999, the concept received a new emphasis and a new focal point.

Working with our partner, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the Office of Asset Management is dedicated to putting into practice FHWA's belief in an integrated asset management system that incorporates highways, bridges, tunnels, hardware, and other assets.

An integrated asset management system incorporates bridges, highways, tunnels, hardware, and other assets.

These assets are, of course, the property of the states, not FHWA. Nevertheless, the Office of Asset Management "brings much to the table" to assist the states as they strive to keep their transportation systems and their budgets in the best possible shape.

In helping the states, the Office of Asset Management agrees with AASHTO that:

  • Asset management needs to be flexible to address the varying needs of each state.
  • Implementation of asset management must be voluntary.
  • Asset management should involve a great deal of communication and education.

What's new about FHWA's view of asset management? The agency continues to believe that asset management should be guided by sound engineering and economic principles. Asset management is a framework for relating investment to the performance of the highway transportation system.

Up to now, however, asset systems have to a large degree been viewed separately. Pavement engineers have been responsible for pavements; bridge engineers have been responsible for bridges. And each group has worked with its own set of data.

The creation of the Office of Asset Management represents a shifting of focus. Working with AASHTO, the agency has now made it clear that the full potential of asset management is reached only when systems are managed together. Therefore, system integration is a major goal of the new office.

In the future, when it's time to make decisions about repairing or replacing a segment of highway, for example, engineers will have access to much more than just pavement data. They will be able to make appropriate decisions after reviewing data concerning all the transportation systems owned by their state.

In encouraging the states to move away from a purely engineering-based system to more of an economic system, part of the office's role is helping the states to think more like the private sector when managing their assets . that is, to consider the costs and benefits.

The result ideally should be transportation systems that are effectively managed from a user perspective. That means taxpayers truly get full value for every dollar spent. They get pavements, bridges, tunnels, and hardware that are in the best condition over an extended life for the greatest number of users.

Developing the tools and techniques engineers will need to do this is another major goal of our office. Many different capabilities are required to make this happen, and so, the agency has pulled together a diverse group of professionals to form the new office. The staff of the Office of Asset Management comes from a variety of backgrounds, including economics, management, planning, policy, pavement engineering, and bridge engineering, and each member has a place on one of three teams that make up the new office:

  • The Construction and System Preservation Team's portfolio includes construction and maintenance policy, technical support and outreach, quality management, pavement smoothness, and system preservation.
  • The System Management and Monitoring Team is responsible for pavement-management systems, bridge-management systems, and pavement-performance support. It is also tasked to develop a management system for tunnels and hardware, which includes traffic signals and roads signs; a focus of the office is to incorporate assets like these for which there are presently no management systems into an integrated asset management package.
  • The Evaluation and Economic Investment Team develops materials that explain asset management; provides outreach to other agencies, the private sector, and the public; and has the lead in developing and promoting engineering/economic analysis tools, including life-cycle analysis to assist states in making cost-effective investments. In addition, this team is responsible for advancing techniques to integrate the investment decision-making process.

All three teams report to a management council made up of the director and team leaders. The management council focuses on the three tracks of the office's performance plan.

The first track is the current individual management systems that FHWA wants to maintain and expand to stay on the cutting edge of technological innovation.

The second track is to work with our AASHTO partners to bring a systems-integration perspective to the areas of highway preservation and investment. There is special emphasis on preservation as the agency's role shifts from helping states build roads to helping to care for existing roads. For example, FHWA has partnered with AASHTO to create workshops, seminars, and publications aimed at helping states develop a regime of preventative maintenance. Preventive maintenance, rather than waiting for roads to deteriorate before fixing them, can extend the useful life of a pavement by many years at considerably less expense than the cost of conventional pavement rehabilitation or reconstruction.

In the area of bridge maintenance,  FHWA developed, and then turned over to AASHTO, a computer program called PONTIS that is now licensed in 38 states. PONTIS, the Latin word for bridge, analyzes data provided by bridge engineers to assist the engineers in determining whether a bridge needs repair or replacement.

The third track of the business plan is to develop tools and techniques to assist states in making transportation decisions from an economic point of view. Helping them to employ cost-benefit analysis for each project – a procedure that is commonplace in the private sector – is one way to do this.

The staff of the Office of Asset Management intends to act as consultants to the states as they implement asset management practices. This is one of our primary roles in this new office.

Knowledge-sharing is the root of this effort. To assist the states in managing their transportation assets, the Office of Asset Management will use every possible means to provide useful tools and information and to facilitate the exchange of information.

For example, by the end of the year, the office will publish an executive-level primer on asset management. The primer will describe asset management, provide an overview of how infrastructure assets are presently managed, and then lay out, in general terms, the components of a fully functional and integrated asset management system. The primer will give readers a sense of where we are today with asset management, where we would like to be, and how we might move in that direction. It is not designed to present all of the issues associated with asset management, but it will answer the most often asked questions: What is asset management? Who uses it? What are its benefits?

The office is also helping AASHTO and the Transportation Research Board prepare an asset management guidebook for the state use. The first part of the guide will include a synthesis of current practices and tools, a framework of an asset management system, and a prioritized research plan to address gaps and develop future tools. The second part will be a detailed first-generation asset management guide for all AASHTO members and will also highlight case studies of best practices among the states.

Working with AASHTO, the Office of Asset Management will co-sponsor a third major seminar on asset management in transportation. The topics at this seminar, planned for December of this year, will highlight state capabilities in the various aspects of asset management, including:

  • Keeping an inventory of the state's transportation assets.
  • Maintaining available information on the condition of assets.
  • Determining the value of their assets.
  • Using effectively the data they collect.
  • Analyzing properly the cost of maintaining an asset over the cycle of its life.
  • Analyzing costs and benefits of a project and determining the best course of action.

A key feature of the seminar will be a peer exchange among representatives of the states. They will share their experiences in asset management.

As these events proceed over the next several years, I am optimistic that they will contribute significantly to bringing asset management to the forefront of the consciousness of government at all levels. The Office of Asset Management is pleased to be the focal point at FHWA for this strategic way of thinking about transportation management in the future.

Madeleine Bloom is the director of FHWA's Office of Asset Management. Previously, she directed the Office of Policy Development.