State DOTs Collaborate and Save on Software Development

Since 1986, state departments of transportation have been saving money on shared software programs — kind of like Groupon.

by / January 25, 2011

Way before Groupon, a popular one-day discount website, state departments of transportation (DOT) have for years been taking advantage of group deals for customized software at a fraction of the cost.

“It’s really kind of simple — the philosophy and the way it works,” said Jan Edwards, project director for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that manages and offers the software deals. 

AASHTO informs all state DOTs of what software will be built, how much it will cost and how many states it needs to contribute to make the deal go through. “If we get enough people to say they want to, then we do it,” said Edwards.

The association, created almost a century ago, represents member highway and transportation departments in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The group fosters development in all five transportation modes — air, highways, public transportation, rail and water.

Since the software program, AASHTOWare, became official in 1986, it has grown to include 300 volunteers from various DOTs and six full-time staff in the association’s Washington, D.C.- based headquarters. Currently all 50 states use at least one product, which range from software that aids during a transportation project’s life cycle to a pavement design and analysis tool.

The process starts with the DOTs themselves, who collaborate and discuss what software is in demand. AASHTO hires a contractor and determines how many states need to sign up to tip the deal. The DOTs involved in the project oversee the development to make sure it’s being built to meet expectations.

“We like to call it software developed by DOTs for DOTs,” Edwards said.

The state departments are responsible for paying an annual licensing fee, determined by estimates of future maintenance and upgrades. The AASHTOWare catalog still includes some products developed 10 to 20 years ago that DOTs are still benefiting from, said Edwards.

AASHTOWare owns, copyrights and trademarks the software specifically for state DOTs, who are then able to customize it as they please, even though most don’t, Edwards said. She said that surprisingly 80 to 90 percent of departments have the same transportation software needs since they are doing such similar projects.

The idea for group deals started in the late 1970s when DOTs were hiring contractors to develop and maintain various engineering systems for roads and bridges. In many cases, there were duplicative efforts and dollars, as each state developed and separately maintained similar software applications. While states voluntarily exchanged software through the Highway Engineering Exchange Program, the problem of each donor state providing ongoing support and distribution services required additional resources that weren’t available. Ever-evolving computer systems tended to make many programs and systems obsolete over short periods of time — requiring periodic and major updates or total redevelopment of the systems.

“[The DOTs] had a brilliant idea that if they joined together and pooled their money and expertise, they could achieve great economies of scale through AASHTO and just have one contract,” Edwards said.

Most recently, AASHTO developed software to help “right-of-way” assessors automate their calculations, required by Congress, to determine how much a person should be reimbursed monetarily when he or she is forced to relocate when a new roadway is built. The system prompts employees to answer questions about the location and automatically calculates the relocation assistance benefits required by law. The total project cost was estimated at $10 million with 15 states contributing, reducing the cost to $500,000 each for the service.

“We’re not driven by the same motives that the private sector is in doing software development,” Edwards said. “Our motivation for doing this is strictly as a benefit and as a service for our members; we’re not in it for any profit-making.”

Lauren Katims Nadeau

Lauren Katims previously served as a staff writer and contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.