Billerica, Massachusetts streamlines asset management with GIS technology

Douglas Reed, P.E., Senior Vice President, and Jay Sheehan, P.E., Vice President and Project Manager, Woodard & Curran, Portland, Maine

The Town of Billerica, Massachusetts, has streamlined its asset management program with GIS technology to meet the demands of a growing population. Located 20 miles northwest of Boston, Billerica is home to nearly 40,000 residents. Recently, Billerica, like many communities, has experienced cuts in state and federal aid programs. As a result, planning and managing the Town's assets and aging infrastructure became increasingly difficult.

Billerica's new state-of-the-art GIS-based asset management program has yielded immediate cost savings allowing Billerica to provide efficient, effective and responsive services to the community. Through improved productivity and efficiency, the Town avoided raising taxes and cutting services. Working with the consulting firm of Woodard & Curran, Billerica replaced a cumbersome paper-based asset management system with a GIS-based digital data management system. The new system will allow Town departments to more efficiently allocate financial assets and maintain its infrastructure. Adopting digital data management for improved efficiency has helped Billerica meet the community's expectations.

"The major obstacle to better asset management has always been the sheer volume of data," explains John Livsey, former Town Engineer in Billerica. "Combining data from one department with another was time consuming and inefficient. Town departments were all working in a vacuum. There was no common denominator."

Putting data to work
The challenges to efficient municipal asset management fall into four general functions:

1. Gathering reliable data
2. Organizing the data for easy retrieval
3. Analyzing the data to identify problems and opportunities
4. Displaying the results to Town officials and taxpayers

GIS-based data management uses geographic location as the common denominator. Databases for each department and function are then compiled using location as a reference. This allows cities to efficiently collect, organize, analyze and display the high volumes of data associated with zoning, roadway maintenance, stormwater runoff, conservation, wetlands, water, and sewer.

U.S. EPA-mandated Phase II Stormwater Management regulations required data management and planning. In addition, the Massachusetts State Attorney General's goal for communities to have accurate zoning maps added more data to be managed by the Town. These requirements served as the impetus for Billerica's interest in GIS-based data management.

Taking one step at a time
Billerica recognized that it needed to update its computer-based pavement management system and digitize its mapping. So the Town allocated funds to begin the transition to digital data management and GIS-based user tools to replace old-fashioned paper files and hard copy plans.

Billerica couldn't justify creating a system that included all Town departments in one step; a comprehensive system would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and would require buy-in from all municipal employees. Changing from paper to digital in one step would be too complex and risky.

Billerica's approach of taking one step at a time presented the Town with early benefits. They initially built two GIS applications—an assessor's lookup tool for property values and user-selected mailing lists generated directly from a computer screen map image or query screen.

Pavement management was the first major program developed in Billerica. Road surface data was collected and entered into a GIS database in the field using portable tablet computers. Streets were ranked according to a standardized Army Corps of Engineers pavement condition index (PCI) stored in the database, and a summary report with maps was generated. With all this information plus repair costs in the database, an accurate five-year capital paving plan was developed. This approach helped to depoliticize road repairs and more efficiently direct available funds.

Billerica's web-based approach to asset management allows personnel to work from any computer with an Internet connection, which reduces software costs, facilitates training, and simplifies system use.

The next program addressed stormwater management. Global Positioning System (GPS) technology was used to gather field data including manholes, catch basins, and outfalls, with location and description information for each entered into a GIS database. This resulted in a comprehensive stormwater drainage atlas that the Billerica Department of Public Works can now use to plan catch-basin cleaning, maintenance, and larvacide application for mosquito control. DPW personnel will use this system to initiate an illicit discharge detection campaign to discover illegal dry weather runoff during routine catch-basin inspections by reviewing GIS-based stormwater mapping to pinpoint the source. If high fecal counts are found, Billerica personnel can overlay other utility mapping to evaluate potential sources.

Working with the Town, Woodard & Curran developed a web-based approach to reduce software costs, facilitate training, and simplify system use. The application utilizes a standard web browser like Internet Explorer, eliminating the need for users to learn asset management and GIS software. Queries are executed in the remote software and database. Now personnel can connect to the system from any computer with an Internet connection. This eliminated additional software costs, which can be as much as $5,000 to $10,000 per workstation.

Billerica is now looking at the water, sewer, and traffic control systems. Once all the data has been developed, system maps can be utilized to see how overlapping features like contours, wetlands and runoff interact with sewer and water systems. DPW workers will be able to locate features like valves and manholes, track their condition, and complete maintenance activities. Management can evaluate progress against established goals. Also, capital programs can be prioritized and coordinated so that water, sewer, and stormwater infrastructure improvements can be coordinated seamlessly.

Reaping the benefits
"Increased efficiency is the big benefit," says Livsey. "It previously took weeks to prepare our annual plan and budget. The mapping was very labor intensive. Now we can combine data and evaluate alternate scenarios. We can quickly create funding presentations that show where the money is going. Once projects are underway, we can generate detailed progress reports."

Web-based asset management also allows Billerica staff to provide much higher levels of customer service. When someone calls with a complaint about a road, for example, staff will be able to go online and immediately give them the exact status of the repair.

Easy access stimulates the work environment for municipal employees. It improves communication and allows them to accomplish more in less time. It also allows database searches to be performed from any computer terminal. Since software and database structure reside on a secure server in Woodard & Curran's office, maintenance data backup and supplemental programming can be done without traveling. Finally, easy access allows everyone, including, in the near future, the general public, to see what their Town government is doing.

In addition to heightened efficiency and improved customer service, GIS-based asset management offers benefits in three key areas—finance, environmental issues, and public services.

Multiple financial advantages have been realized. Town departments can do more accurate long-term planning, resulting in fewer costly emergencies and crises and greatly facilitating financial reporting compliance. Public parks and properties can be better maintained for less cost. The Town's eligibility for federal and state funding is enhanced.

Fewer sewer backups and overflows, combined with better stormwater management and erosion control, will improve surface water quality. Once GIS-based water, sewer and stormwater management is in place, it will be far easier to comply with federal and state regulatory agencies.

Finally, improved municipal asset management will offer important service and quality-of-life improvements to citizens and Town employees alike. Improved access to public information means the Town can provide consistently higher levels of public service at a lower cost. More consistent road surface quality and fewer traffic problems due to emergency repairs will improve traffic flow. Better sidewalk maintenance will produce safer walking conditions. More accurate long-range planning will reduce water shortages and usage bans. Fewer tax and user fee increases will build voter confidence.

While the benefits are both clear and numerous, Billerica attained them in a realistic way in today's tight fiscal times. Since realizing these benefits takes planning, agreement on priorities, and phasing in each category of municipal infrastructure, Billerica is now positioned for near- and long-term success. Gradually taking on one project at a time allows Billerica to implement a state-of-the-art GIS-based asset management program consistent with the Town's needs and budget.

Douglas Reed, P.E., can be reached at dreed@woodardcurran.com; Jay Sheehan, P.E., can be reached at jsheehan@woodardcurran.com.

Balancing needs and budgets: a checklist for getting started with GIS-based asset management

  1. Allocate funds to begin the transition from paper files to digital data management and GIS-based user tools.
  2. Phase in costs by taking on one project at a time. For example, Billerica began with an assessor's lookup tool for property values.
  3. Set priorities for which assets to manage first.
  4. Gather data, estimate repair costs, and develop a five-year capital plan to address each asset.
  5. Take on new phases as budgets and staffing allow.