By Alexa Mitchell, Dan Giles and Jennifer Steen, Contributing Authors
Reorganizing a statewide transportation agency to deliver its project plans entirely digitally is no simple task. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) learned this when it replaced the printed 2D plans with 3D design models as part of its Digital Delivery Directive 2025 Initiative.
By the end of the PennDOT’s initiative in 2025, it expects to have the ability for all its projects to be bid and constructed using 3D technology.
“The Digital Delivery Directive 2025 Initiative is the department’s top transformative effort currently underway,” said Allen Melley, chief of PennDOT’s digital delivery section. “We view this effort as a game changer in the way we conduct business. This will provide the department the ability to provide higher quality designs, increased construction efficiency, reduce project costs, and the ability to track assets that we were unable to easily track previously.”
Research-Backed Cost and Schedule Benefits
PennDOT is among a growing number of state DOTs moving forward with model-based deliverables. About a third of state DOTs now require a for-information-only BIM model on projects. And some states have gone further, making the model the primary contractual document and in many cases eliminating selected 2D plan sheets. Nine states have completed, or are in the middle of, pilot projects that use a model as the signed and sealed legal document.
National organizations such as the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the Transportation Research Board (TRB) and the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) are also dedicating significant resources to developing best practices and national standards.
The digital delivery approach — sometimes called BIM for Infrastructure — offers an array of benefits, including improved constructability, fewer change orders, enhanced visualization, better interdisciplinary coordination, an improved ability to share design intent, and enhanced design and construction efficiency. In plain terms, the approach means lower project costs and time saved.
Recent benefit-cost analysis research completed by HDR for TRB and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) validates these benefits and others. After 18 months of analysis, the research team identified 29 benefits of BIM and model-based delivery. The biggest benefit was a reduction in change orders.
Researchers reviewed projects that used digital delivery and found that its use saved about 15% in change orders, a significant financial benefit. The overall conclusion was clear: a shift to digital delivery pays for itself within a few years.
Pennsylvania Leadership on Digital Delivery
The five-year PennDOT effort includes the development of new statewide standards and workflows, extensive training, and the completion of multiple pilot projects to test and refine the department’s processes.
PennDOT has made considerable progress since the initiative began in late 2020. An internal review mapped existing processes to help identify areas that could be streamlined with digital delivery. Procurement language is being reviewed and adjusted where needed to reflect new scopes of work for design. Modeling requirements are being set, creating design standards for state projects. PennDOT has also begun extensive and ongoing stakeholder engagement across the many disciplines and industries this will affect.
The department is exploring options for using cloud-based technology for model-based reviews of projects. This would allow the agency to review the project model in real-time while documenting and assigning their comments. Software would keep track of who made a comment and the location of the issue in the model. If implemented, this could expedite the review process from days to hours.
PennDOT Successes Offer Lessons for State Agencies
PennDOT’s Digital Delivery 2025 initiative offers lessons for other states:
· Develop and empower advocates. A far-reaching shift requires the input and acceptance of stakeholders. There are many approaches to digital delivery, and champions with a clear vision who are fully behind the plan are key to moving forward. The best advocates are familiar with agency operations down to the local level and lead digital delivery solutions with a keen understanding of how these changes will affect staff and projects.
· Fully understand the current process. Some roles and needs will change. Having a clear grasp of how projects already move through the planning, design, and construction process has helped identify potential efficiencies and revealed what training will be needed and where.
· Address one problem at a time. Instead of attempting to do everything at once, isolate and solve one problem at a time.
· Be flexible. After picking the right tools, expect updates and workarounds. Modeling software is advanced but still evolving to meet the diverse needs of civil engineering projects. Programs should expect to customize their efforts to make the best use of them.
· Offer opportunities to practice. New software, new methods and new requirements create a lot of uncertainty. To reduce this, PennDOT has requested a simulated letting environment. This “sandbox” would allow contractors to load files and practice navigating this new environment as much as needed.
· Plan for continued designer support during construction. Especially as this technology and software emerges, the adjustment to new formats means that designers who helped craft project plans might need to assist construction teams in navigating digital delivery information most efficiently.
A National Shift Toward Data-Centric Design
This industry transition is well underway. National organizations such as AASHTO and FHWA have dedicated significant time and resources to advancing national standards. The BIM for Bridges and Structures pooled fund study led by HDR, for example, is being supported by 24 states to standardize the process for BIM design and construction of transportation projects by embracing internationally recognized and ISO compliant open data standards.
A larger BIM for Infrastructure pooled fund study is scheduled to start to expand these efforts. FHWA has invested more than $35 million on BIM-related studies and deployment through research and Every Day Counts initiatives. FHWA, AASHTO and many others are working toward a national open data standard that will work more seamlessly across digital applications from different software providers, working closely with buildingSMART International and the Open Geospatial Consortium.
Ultimately, model-based design involves shifting thinking from plan-centric work to data-centric work, where information can be used in multiple ways. Instead of drawing 2D lines on a piece of paper for a specific project, infrastructure assets will be designed as 3D objects that virtually represent the physical asset, with all the information needed not only to construct it, but also to inspect and maintain it. Digital delivery offers a solution for taking data away from silos within organizations and providing it when it is needed, to whoever needs it.
This data-centric understanding is particularly critical for models used as the contractual, signed and sealed deliverable. Engineers need to understand what they’re signing and certifying and how it will be used. Engineers also need to understand how that data will be sealed, to ensure the data is secure and matches the information that was signed.
The Digital Future Is Coming
This ongoing digital delivery shift in transportation infrastructure will touch every part of the project delivery process, from design to construction/fabrication to operations and maintenance and long-term asset management. Other sectors, from geotechnical to utilities, will need to adapt to this new method of if they plan to continue to collaborate with transportation agencies.
This transition is achievable, as PennDOT showed. The benefits are tangible and substantial, allowing transportation agencies to harness the power of data to improve the efficiency of their work and better create and maintain our complex transportation systems. R&B
Alexa Mitchell, P.E., is HDR’s transportation BIM program manager.
Dan Giles, P.E., is HDR’s project manager for the PennDOT Digital Delivery Directive 2025 initiative.
Jennifer Steen, P.E., PMP, ENV SP, is HDR’s highways and roads BIM director.