Transportation Policy

Decision time: software-as-a-Service (SaaS) or custom-built software systems? Part 1

1. Cost

Pay close attention to upfront and ongoing costs for each option, typically, custom solutions will have deceptively low ongoing costs with huge upfront costs that hide the inevitable, massive rebuild cost when the technology becomes obsolete (think of a new car that devalues as soon as it leaves the lot). This is because the low ongoing cost will only cover the basics to maintain the system, not keep it up-to-date with new product features and technology updates. Enter SaaS, typically lower upfront costs but higher ongoing costs for precisely the reason above – constant updates so large fees due to obsolescence never occur and the system continuously improves.

2. Speed

Custom solutions are exactly that, custom – meaning it takes additional time to gather requirements and build from scratch. SaaS solutions typically have out-of-the-box platforms that can be spun-up very quickly while allowing for configurations that would adapt the platform to the client’s specific needs. Within agencies today, as various point solutions are adopted for different functional needs – the idea of interoperable data becomes even more important. 

3. Flexibility

Custom solutions due to initial customization and pricing structure are generally set in stone after they are launched barring minor changes here and there, material modifications are both difficult and costly, SaaS solutions on the other hand, are highly adaptable and generally straightforward to modify by nature of the continuous product and technology updates.  

While it may seem obvious that we feel this way, think on these three points and check out our SaaS solution: ProjectTracker in the meantime if you like, no pressure! Stay tuned for part 2.

Achieving Successful System Integrations on Planning Software

In today’s complex organizations, no single job or the system used to support a job can afford to be a lone island.  

That’s why any software must make sense within the broader technology ecosystem it needs to fit within for its end user.

Take transportation planning or capital programming for example – planners use cloud-based solutions like ProjectTracker to streamline their main workflow of planning and programming capital projects. 

At the same time, planners may also need to integrate programming data with financial system data for budgeting, push or pull FMIS obligation data from FHWA for federal funding updates, pull contract award and letting data from AASHTOWARE for visibility on project delivery status – among other examples of system integration needs for programming.

Here are some some insights we’ve learned from years of work with government agencies on what to consider when choosing a software that needs to integrate with other systems:

1. Identify software with a track record of existing functional connection to your preferred system as much as possible

Often teams with no prior experience on a particular system will underestimate the effort and time it takes to develop a robust integration for the very first time. 

This is an aspect of custom development that always ends up taking longer and more costly than expected. This is especially true when integrating with systems that do not have mature APIs. At one end of the spectrum, a system with well-documented API presents the easiest point of integration. As an example, If ESRI has a well documented API, it’s relatively straightforward for any reputable software company to establish a simple integration. 

However, many legacy or custom built systems do not have APIs – especially in the government space. FHWA’s FMIS is an example. The level of effort to unpack the FMIS data, transform and perform operations on it, build the data pipe in a first integration attempt can be magnitudes of degrees higher than anything else and possibly take years. 

As much as possible – find solutions that have a functional integration already with the system you need. 

2. Develop a robust, centralized data warehouse in the agency

Within agencies today, as various point solutions are adopted for different functional needs – the idea of interoperable data becomes even more important. 

It’s valuable to not only be able to import data from other systems – it also becomes critical to easily export data out of each system so data can be centralized and normalized. 

Enter the centralized data warehouse. 

We’ve seen agencies successfully invest the staff resources in developing and maintaining a comprehensive, centralized data warehouse. 

Such a warehouse pipes in data from all software at the agency, and allows designated technical staff to create complex and custom reports, visualizations and ad-hoc or ongoing queries to extract useful insights from all of the data captured across the whole organization. 

This gives agencies unprecedented transparency and visibility to all of the data generated across all its systems, and augments the reporting capabilities that exist across individual software platforms. 

Centralized data warehouse puts the control back in the hands of the agency of its entire data across the whole work lifecycle of its organization. 

In your procurement process, look for software with an API or direct database connection to easily export data out of the platform for integration with an internal data warehouse. 

3. Consider choosing the path of direct database connection for data warehouse integration

When exploring a software’s capability to work with an internal data warehouse, one option (if available) that can save agencies much time and effort is to choose a live, direct database connection. 

This connection capability allows the client agency to directly tap into another software’s database without having to do essentially any development work. 

This approach works especially well for agencies using advanced BI tools like Tableau or Power BI, and wish to add another data source from a software in a manner requiring zero work outside of credentials to establish the connection for the first time. 

Once established, the live direct database connection allows your BI tool to “see” instant changes to the dataset in the connected system – and utilize those updates right away in your reporting. 

These days, government departments are increasingly seeing the benefit of choosing the best-in-class point solution for specific needs, vs. using an all-encompassing heavy software that does everything but meeting various specific needs only half-way. The fact that many modern software has configuration capabilities to display different types and layouts of data from other systems makes the choice even more compelling. 

We hope the above suggestions can help any transportation programmer or planner wrestling with how to ensure a technology transformation will achieve successful integrations with other internal tools.

What is in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act 2021?

How does it impact transportation planning and program management over the next five years?

In November 2021, President Biden signed into law the largest infrastructure bill of the last decade – the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act (IIJA). This bill will deliver a historic infusion of public spending on infrastructure improvements totaling nearly $973 billion over five years. 

The bulk of the IIJA funding will be directed through USDOT to invest in transportation infrastructure upgrades:

States and the District of Columbia will see an immediate financial windfall in December 2021 with a 30% increase in Highway Formula Funding vs. FY2021. The largest % increases in FHWA funding went to STGBP set-aside for transportation alternatives, HSIP, Metropolitan Planning, and Ferry Boats and Terminals:

Breakdown of Highway Formula Funding

It is encouraging to see greater funding for MPOs – agencies that shoulder particularly heavy responsibilities for investing a large portion of FHWA’s transportation dollars. To fulfill their important mandate of responsibly investing public funding, transportation agencies such as MPOs, DOTs, cities, counties and transit agencies should take stock of their current agency needs from a tools, team and infrastructure perspective to ensure they can successfully plan, track and execute a well-organized vision for investing DIJA’s new infrastructure spending. 

Of IIJA’s $550 billion increase in new investments across various programs (i.e., above what the federal government already spends today), the majority of new funds is directed towards transportation programs. Within transportation, a large portion of funds will be spent on roads & bridges, followed closely by rail and transit: 

There are a few noteworthy provisions for transportation planners at MPOs, states, counties and cities under changes from IIJA:

  • A new $40 billion Bridge Investment Program ($12 billion competitive direct to USDOT) that allows for the repair, replacement and rehab of off-system bridges as well. 50% federal share on large projects and 80% on any other project

  • A new competitive grant program for local governments to close, separate or upgrade at-grade rail crossings and reduce collisions

  • New population band within STBG for communities between 50K and 200K pop. for more equitable distribution of funds

  • $330 million increase to off-system, bridge set-aside annually

  • A new $2 billion Rural Surface Transportation Grant Program for highway and bridge projects in an area outside of urban areas with pop >200K. 80% federal share

  • MPOs are required to consider equity and proportional representation when designating representatives or officials

In addition, a slew of new programs – many of which are competitive and allow local governments to apply directly to USDOT – include significant funding for a wide range of projects (“*” indicates a program where local governments can apply directly to USDOT ):

  • Climate Change programs: $8.7 billion PROTECT Grant Program for infrastructure resiliency*,  $6.42 billion Carbon Reduction Formula Program, $2.5 billion for Charging and Fueling Infrastructure Grants*, $500 million Healthy Streets Program* for reducing urban heat via pavement improvement or tree covers, $250 million for reduction of truck emissions at port facilities

  • Rail programs: $10 billion for Mega projects*, $2.5 billion for eliminating at-grade rail-highway crossings*, $4 billion for new culvert removal, replacement and restoration*

  • Public Transit programs: 30% funding increase to $15 billion for the Capital Investment Grant (CIG) Program, 43.5% increase in contract authority for mass transit FY2022-FY2026, increases in rural set-asides for bus grants and requirements on purchasing low-to-zero emission vehicles, and new requirements for recipients of federal funding such as including agency safety plans

There is a ton to fully digest in the new IIJA bill, and with that – a wide range of opportunities for state, regional and local governments to take advantage of new funding programs, competitive grants and policy changes to make infrastructure upgrades and improve transportation planning in a way that most benefits their communities.

Staying in the Black

Kristen Z, Transportation Planner

[<5 Minute Read]

Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) have been in business close to 40 years now. During this time, they have grown or shrunk depending on the needs and interests of the region. MPOs and other regional planning organizations like Council of Governments and Regional Councils assist with a broad array of community needs, including everything from transportation infrastructure planning to helping fund water systems to – in some regions – even providing critical social service programs. 

These organizations have not only diversified their programming, they have also diversified their funding sources for operations and for funding infrastructure and non-infrastructure programs and plans. MPOs that serve regions larger than 200,000 people award federal transportation funding, and most organizations, regardless of size, are looking at grants and other supplemental funding opportunities. These opportunities stretch the formula federal, state, and local government dollars that are flowing into MPOs, and the competitive nature of these opportunities helps regions refine their strategic priorities. 

(Keeping your transportation infrastructure priorities front and center is important for funding conversations. EcoInteractive’s Project Tracker comes standard with a public facing website so the public, decision-makers, and grant reviewers can always access the region’s MTP and TIP projects.)

The federal government is currently evaluating legislation to replace the expired FAST Act; regardless of the decisions made in Washington, D.C., regional planning organizations have several funding opportunities and mechanisms at their disposal today.

We asked Greg Youell, Executive Director @ the Omaha-Council Bluffs Metropolitan Area Planning Agency (MAPA) to share some of the tools he’s used to diversify his agency’s funding. (Keep in mind, he’s worked with his DOT and FHWA Division Office to ensure these tools are appropriate for his agency.)

Greg Youell
Executive Director @ MAPA

‘Ensuring we remain healthy fiscally and positioned to deliver quality services is a constant focus. Using a number of tools over the past decade, MAPA has diversified our funding and grown our capacity as an agency. Here are a few options that have worked for our transportation program:

Advance Construction (AC) – Using this tool in coordination with your State DOT can make sure that your region doesn’t lose a penny. Essentially, local governments build a transportation project on their own dime, while following the Federal-Aid process. They then become eligible for reimbursement at a future date, when you convert the federal funds. Making sure that each year’s federal dollars get allocated as soon as possible prevents the risk of losing them and positions you to take advantage of other funding opportunities that may come along.

August Redistribution – Hundreds of millions of dollars get redistributed each year toward the end of the fiscal year to State DOTs. If your region has a project that is approved and ready to go, talk to your DOT about including it in the August Redistribution. It’s an excellent way to get funds spent quickly and can offer some additional flexibility to the program.

Swap Funding – Like several states, the State of Iowa provides our MPO with state funds to local governments in exchange for federal STBG dollars, which they utilize on a state project in our region selected mutually. Cities and counties can often deliver projects in a quicker and more inexpensive manner than is possible when utilizing the Federal-aid process, so the state dollars are welcome.

In-kind Match – Look for planning efforts underway by local or state partners that are funded without federal funds. This could include anything from traffic counting to aerial imagery. If the activity supports the regional planning process, then it is eligible to propose in your UPWP as in-kind match, saving you precious local dollars.

TIP Fee No this doesn’t mean putting out a jar at your receptionist desk! Our region needed to increase revenues urgently, and adopted this funding mechanism as a preferred alternative to increasing local dues. Interestingly, the idea was recommended during our Certification Review and had been utilized in a neighboring state. While there’s a lot to it, the basic idea is that local Federal-aid projects require that a 1% fee go to the MPO (e.g., $10,000 on a $1 million project). It has provided a great source of stability to our organization.’

Loved this post and want to learn more? Check out what we’ve done for some of our customers and see how transformative a modern database can be when it comes to managing transportation data!

How Will Buttigieg Impact Transportation Policy?

[10 minute read]

Former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg was nominated to be Secretary of Transportation on December 15, 2020. From recent public statements and prior policy vision expressed during his presidential campaign – there is much we can learn about Buttigieg’s expected policy directions should his confirmation be successful. 

As head of the USDOT, and Biden’s leading advocate for infrastructure spending bills on Capitol Hill – Buttigieg’s policy agenda can have a significant impact on future investment priorities for transportation improvement programs (TIP).

We conclude key takeaways for transportation planners at DOTs, MPOs and other transportation agencies on what policy changes may come under Buttigieg. 

Four Pillars of Transportation Infrastructure Policy

Since his nomination on December 15, Buttigieg has repeatedly stated four key pillars of transportation policy: jobs, climate change, equity and safety: 

  • Expand Transportation Infrastructure Spending to Support Job Creation

Buttigieg sees infrastructure spending as an economic enabler for immediate employment relief to millions of people facing distress from the pandemic. 

He has recently discussed with Senator Schumer an extensive $1 trillion transportation infrastructure proposal that includes aid for state and local governments, and federal relief to hard-hit aviation and public transit agencies. Just last year, he called for fortification of the underfunded Highway Trust Fund, which provides significant federal funding to transportation improvement programs across every state in the country. 

We expect the transportation secretary nominee to be a strong proponent of expanding federal infrastructure spending as an investment in job growth. 

  • Demonstrate Projects’ Role in Expanding Access to Jobs 

In his presidential campaign, Buttigieg advocated for requiring states, MPOs and other federal grant recipients to demonstrate how their transportation projects improve access to jobs and services. The former South Bend mayor previously led a Complete Streets project in downtown South Bend that combined infrastructure changes with economic development by introducing new anchor office tenants who’d bring new jobs to downtown South Bend. 

Public transportation improvement projects that can connect communities to new/existing centers of employment clusters may find greater priority or opportunities for federal funding. 

Planners may see an additional category of Performance Measures on promoting job access through infrastructure improvement projects if they seek federal funding. 

  • Green Infrastructure and Social Justice

If Buttigieg’s past comments are indications of what’s to come, social and environmental justice will feature highly as priorities of federally-sponsored projects under his leadership:

Buttigieg has been critical of transportation infrastructure examples that disproportionately disempowered minority communities. He championed greater investments in alternative transportation modal options such as public transit, bike and pedestrian paths to promote more equitable access to transportation and job opportunities, as well as tools for reducing carbon emissions. During his presidential campaign, Buttigieg proposed significantly increasing funding for the Federal Transit Administration to fund public transit projects. 

He also proposed switching to vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax vs. the current gas use tax as a means to fund the perennially troubled Highway Trust Fund account. Experts believe a VMT tax would be successful in disincentivizing driving if properly priced, and steer transportation choices towards greener options such as public transit vs. driving. 

In addition to the greater importance of meeting Title VI requirements, transportation improvement plans with projects seeking federal funding may be expected to demonstrate greater social justice commitments, greater public engagement with potentially impacted communities, and greater reductions in carbon emissions. 

  • Prioritize Maintenance Over New Roads

The former South Bend mayor publicly endorsed prioritizing infrastructure maintenance in transportation improvement program funding. In his presidential campaign, Buttigieg outlined a proposed requirement for states to demonstrate planning on preventative maintenance projects – before they’re allowed to build new or wider highways with federal funding. 

Expect greater federal emphasis and scrutiny on adequate planning for preventative maintenance projects in transportation improvement plans seeking federal funding.

  • Safety and Vision Zero 

Buttigieg has repeatedly stated a need to eliminate traffic deaths and pedestrian fatalities in the country. During the pandemic, rates of car crashes have unfortunately increased due to higher driving speeds on emptier roads. 

Buttigieg proposed a policy goal of Vision Zero during his presidential campaign – setting a goal of zero traffic fatalities. Currently, states are able to set fatality goals at a target that demonstrates progress – but not necessarily at zero. 

Through his ability to control allocations of discretionary grant funding as head of USDOT – Buttigieg may seek to implement more strict requirements on demonstrating progress on safety records or safer project designs in order to receive federal funding for certain federal programs. 

Safety is one of the federal Performance Measures that transportation planners are required to incorporate in transportation improvement plans. It is possible for FHWA to accelerate the timeline states have to achieve zero traffic deaths under Buttigieg. It is also possible that additional discretionary federal funding will be made available to specifically support projects prioritizing aggressive safety targets. 

Looking Ahead

While Buttigieg’s policy agenda will be shaped by viewpoints from the Biden-Harris administration – it is clear from his nomination illustrates that he shares similar beliefs with Biden in the role and direction of federal policy in advancing our critical infrastructure. 

Transportation planners would benefit from taking early notes on potential changes to future federal policies when evaluating how best to maximize federal funding for transportation improvement programs.

CARES ACT – Direct Federal Aid for New Digital Solutions Promoting Telework

[10 Minute Read]

Through the 2020 CARES Act, the federal government has set aside $150 billion in the Coronavirus Relief Fund for much-needed direct federal assistance to state and local governments to address challenges from COVID-19. Agencies looking to transition to digital solutions to support safe, effective telework and remote collaboration have been able to access the emergency relief funds for federal support to fund new technology solutions.

In this blog post, we’ll cover 1) a high-level overview of the Coronavirus Relief Fund, 2) examples of state governments successfully accessing funds for software expenditures that promote remote collaboration, and 3) individual states’ guidelines for directing relief fund allocations.

Coronavirus Relief Fund: High-Level Spending Guidelines

Each state receives a minimum allocation of $1.25 billion, with actual allocations varying by state and outlined in this Treasury document.

Three main principles qualify expenditures, which must be:

  • Directly related to COVID-19
  • Not accounted for in budget approved prior to March 27, 2020, and
  • Incurred between March 1, 2020 and December 30, 2020

At the time of this blog post, less than 3 months remain until expenditures can be incurred for emergency relief fund. As of August 24, 2020, the level of expenditure activity varied greatly across each state – ranging anywhere from only 0.2% of total allocations spent in Alabama to 74.5% spent by California. Click here to see how much your state has spent its share of allocated relief fund as of August 24, 2020.

Many states have not spent the majority of their relief fund allocations – providing both opportunity and urgency for state and local governments to quickly move forward identified expenditure needs before December 30, 2020.

We maintain the view that Congress will extend the last expenditure date beyond December 30, 2020. Many state governments have yet to spend most of their allocated funds, and states will continue to grapple with public health and fiscal fallout from COVID-19 well into 2021. However, it would be prudent for agencies to plan without expectations of an extension, and expedite requests for expenditure needs in the remaining months of 2020 to advance much needed projects.

Utilizing Relief Funds to Transition to Digital Solutions That Accelerate Telework and Remote Collaboration

One of the eligible expenses stated under the Coronavirus Relief Fund is “Expenses to improve telework capabilities for public employees to enable compliance with COVID-19 public health precautions”:

Many government agencies have accelerated plans to adopt new digital technology solutions that enable effective remote work for public employees to facilitate safe, social-distancing during the pandemic.

Software solutions that help agencies conduct workflows digitally, collaborate remotely with internal and external stakeholders on the cloud, and provide more information to the public digitally are helping agencies transform their workforce and workflows to better adapt to COVID-19 and evolving future needs.

With the Coronavirus Relief Funds, state and local agencies are able to access direct federal aid to help fund important digital transitions. Successful examples are:

Details on State-Level Implementation of Relief Funds

Every state is making relief funds accessible to any state and local agencies that meet federal guidelines for eligible expenditures, as well as its own state agenda if one exists.  

Each state has devised guidelines for how its relief funds will be disbursed, what authority will be approving, disbursing and overseeing payment of funds in which manner. A complete list of each state’s guidelines for relief funds allocation can be found here. Examples of these are:

For transportation planners looking to transition to new digital solutions that support remote collaboration and telework, we strongly urge you to act now to explore options within your state for accessing remaining federal relief funds to support these important transitions.  

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