The Tipping Point? Trip Summary on the International Scan on Transportation Asset Management

Patricia Bugas-Schramm
Assistant to the Director
Portland, Oregon Office of Transportation
Presenter, 2005 APWA Congress

In 2005, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the U.S. transportation infrastructure a grade of D+ based on condition, performance, capacity and funding need. In an attempt to target how the U.S. can reverse this trend, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) sponsored an international scan of best-case examples of transportation asset management practices. FHWA/AASHTO/NCHRP partnered to identify best-case examples in asset management techniques for implementation in the U.S. Lessons learned will improve our understanding of how asset management can enhance the effectiveness of decision-making and infrastructure management in public transportation agencies.

FHWA and AASHTO define asset management as:

... a strategic approach to managing transportation infrastructure assets. It focuses processes for resource allocation and utilization with the objective of better decision-making based upon quality information and well-defined objectives.

The Scan Team
The Scan Team reflected the diversity of organizations tasked with understanding the process, tools, funding and organizational structures used to manage transportation assets. The panel included:

  • FHWA officials from national and field offices;

  • AASHTO and state transportation representatives from Michigan, New Mexico, New York and North Carolina;

  • A representative of the American Public Works Association (APWA) and local government from the City of Portland, Oregon;

  • Chair of the Transportation Research Board's (TRB) Committee on Asset Management and a representative from University of Illinois at Chicago; and

  • A report facilitator from Georgia Institute of Technology.

Sites Visited
Based on an initial review process, leaders in asset management practice were identified in Australia, Canada, England, and New Zealand. Between April 8-23, 2005, the scan team met with national, provincial, state, and local transportation agencies; Britain's national rail provider; local government associations; toll authorities; transit providers; public/private partnership concessionaires; research organizations; and professional engineering/asset management associations.

The driving forces for asset management in the sites visited are:

  • Limited resources;

  • Increasing traffic volumes, heavy trucks and greater customer expectations;

  • Desire for credibility with elected officials and the public;

  • Need for strategic oversight where services were privatized; and

  • Legislation mandating asset management planning.

Significant progress in asset management is evidenced in four areas: outsourcing of services, information management, processes used for making tradeoff decisions and including stakeholders in priority setting.

Following the last major worldwide recession in the 1980s, the countries visited embraced the need to streamline government management processes, reduce costs and increase effectiveness. This led to many experiments in contracting out services up to and including the sale of public transportation assets (British Rail). In New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland, Australia, capacity needs that require significant investment are funded and managed through public-private partnership. Most maintenance and renewal services are contracted; however, even though such outsourcing occurred, it was not a necessary precondition for undertaking asset management. Indeed, the reverse was true. Prior to outsourcing, an asset management system needs to be in place.

While outsourcing has resulted in a lower level of service, this was described as acceptable by the transportation agency and stakeholders in Victoria, Australia. Service is based on available total funding that meets customer expectations. Testing the market by contracting services requires adequate performance-based contracts and knowing the exact parameters of maintenance standards and outcomes for good management. Regardless of whether services or improvements are contracted out or kept in-house, the drive to implement asset management, to be a "knowledgeable owner," was stressed at all sites.

Evolution of information technology in the 1990s led to more complete, accurate and widespread use of infrastructure management systems. Databases are primarily linked through a locational referencing system, not a unified database.

As in the U.S., legacy systems specific to one asset (pavement, for example) are complex and allow specific tradeoff analysis that is difficult to redesign into a unified, cross-asset application. Rather, tradeoff analysis across asset classes is based on decision-making models; there is no "black box" or single algorithm that results in good decision-making. In Alberta tradeoffs were based on three key asset indicators: physical condition, utilization and functional adequacy.

Successful asset management requires support at the highest levels of government and agency leadership. Taking a longer-range view of transportation management is long past being viewed as "new" or optional; all governments visited accept asset management as the method to gather facts that inform decisions on where money should be spent. Change in corporate culture needs to be a "top down, bottom up" strategy. Training and job descriptions specific to asset management principles are available through international associations such as the National Asset Management Steering group of New Zealand.

A significant difference between countries visited and the U.S. is that funding is not always dedicated to transportation or a particular purpose. This approach has led to a funding allocation process that sets transportation needs in competition with hospital, education and other public infrastructure. Stakeholder advisory groups examine asset condition and level of service options and their outcomes. By understanding the consequences of underinvestment, these groups understand what they are "buying" for their dollar, and know that the dollar will be invested wisely.

Data is treated as an asset with a build-operate-maintain-replace lifecycle. Data is collected only where business decisions rely on it. This ensures lowest lifecycle cost for data collection and recognizes data management as a growing but necessary cost center. Asset condition is frequently based on inventory samples, not 100% inspection, and data quality is checked to assure accuracy. Data collection techniques are not much different than the U.S., although condition data is collected using high-speed deflectometers along the highways in Australia.

Outcome-based performance measures are aligned between strategic, service or program level, down to specific asset strategies. New Zealand is known for this tight integration where funds are allocated only when asset plans reflect regional and national strategic priorities and community involvement in decision-making is demonstrated. Legislation in Australia, New Zealand and England mandates the use of asset plans to demonstrate needs. For instance, the lack of a traffic signal asset plan in Brisbane resulted in refusal to allocate funds for this purpose.

One of the most important success factors was the active promotion and support of asset management by professional associations and local transportation officials. These groups advocate for changes in laws and provide guidance, as well as actively develop technical materials that define the overall framework for asset management in their countries.

The Scan Team recommends refocusing the national viewpoint on the transportation system by developing a transportation asset management model for the Interstate Highway System prior to the next highway authorization in 2010. This would define a framework for a discrete segment of the overall system that highlights the benefits of using asset management plans. It moves the U.S. perspective to one of investing transportation resources rather than expending them.

The team also recommends creating a National Asset Management Steering Committee in the United States. By understanding and promoting asset management strategies and educating its membership and decision-makers, APWA can help reverse the decline of the nation's transportation network.

Patricia Bugas-Schramm will give a presentation on this topic at the 2005 APWA Congress in Minneapolis. Her session, entitled "Asset Management in Action: Moving from Theory to Practice," is on Monday, September 12, at 10:00 a.m. She can be reached at (503) 823-4588 or

FHWA/AASHTO/NCHRP, Trip Summary of the International Scan on Asset Management: Alberta, Australia, England and New Zealand, November 2005 (estimated publication).