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Houston METRO Unifies Transit Management, Maximizes Funding

Local government agencies like Houston METRO look to make wise use of funding coming from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to strengthen existing assets while innovating for the future.

Houston METRO lightrail train
Shutterstock/Mark Taylor Cunningham
Across the country, states and communities are ready to rebuild, whether that means refurbishing aging roads, bridges or railways, expanding Internet access, enhancing water systems, upgrading power grids or even building more widespread electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is intended to be the vessel through which these changes are supported. The roughly $1.2 trillion bill contains an estimated $550 billion in new spending above baseline levels. In short, it’s poised to significantly revitalize and boost the United States’ aging infrastructure.

But this revitalization calls for a balance between new construction and the maintenance of existing assets. This is something the Metropolitan Authority of Harris County (also known as Houston METRO) is experiencing firsthand. With over a third of its 4,500 employees dedicated to maintenance-related activity, the agency sees infrastructure and asset management as key priorities. But how can you ensure you’re managing assets properly and efficiently along the way? That new construction and maintenance of existing assets is being prioritized properly? And that — most of all — you continue innovating into the future?

AN AGENCY-WIDE APPROACH TO ASSETS


State of Good Repair (SOGR), defined as the condition in which an asset can perform at its fullest level of performance, is a transit asset management approach rapidly gaining popularity among state and local agencies. Often, assets are required to be in a SOGR to provide their required service. However, having fragmented systems — with, for instance, siloed departments separately working on assets — makes operability and visibility across an organization difficult.

In Houston METRO’s case, the agency knew it simply could not afford such operational inefficiencies across its large fleet of more than 400 hybrid buses and 76 light rail vehicles. For that reason, Houston METRO decided to replace its legacy, custom-built solutions and unify its fragmented landscape onto one platform.

“We initially had multiple boutique MRO (maintenance, repair and operations) solutions that were with our user communities, both on the rail, the bus and our facilities maintenance side,” said David Penninger, Houston METRO’s IT program management director, during a recent panel discussion. “Those are all consolidated now into [a single] environment. That was the foundation for moving forward with our enterprise asset management solutions.”

The new system also broke down walls between previously siloed operations, allowing collaboration to greatly improve between teams that used to operate entirely independently — making sharing of asset data simpler, faster and more reliable overall.

STARING DOWN THE SHINY OBJECTS


Getting funding for a SOGR status is often another great challenge. Agencies have a tendency to prioritize new infrastructure when investment cycles arise, often forcing maintenance departments to have to fight for their fair share of the overall budget. In the past, Houston METRO also struggled with that issue. The lack of a central inventory and poor asset financial data made it almost impossible to accurately evaluate the investments that were needed.

“Without the necessary research and effort required for the quantification piece of your project, your request was always getting bumped for the shiny new object,” said Penninger.

Now, the agency can pair quantitative and qualitative asset data with financial information from its ERP system to come up with more reliable estimates. The system also provides insights into projected financial planning, forecasting and investment needs, including deprecation estimates for assets and their SOGR status.

“Now, we know what we have and what state it’s in, and we can capture other things like the expected useful life of that asset [and] the expected replacement cost of that asset,” said Alexi Miller, director of transit asset management at Houston METRO.

Simply put, the playing field has been leveled when it comes to funding, and maintenance departments are in a much better position to compete for their part of the budget.

TRAVELING INTO THE FUTURE OF TRANSPORTATION


Houston METRO is working to maintain a consistently innovative mindset, one focused on continuous improvement. The agency intends to build on the foundation it has created with a focus on three main areas:

  • Adopting mobile solutions that would allow both field and office workers to do their jobs more efficiently and increase their overall performance.
  • Embracing a geographically enabled system that allows for asset visualizations on maps of the agency’s over 2,000 bus stops.
  • Integrating sensor-generated data from assets and into the agency’s back-office system to ensure real-time monitoring.

This is just the beginning. For agencies like Houston METRO, the IIJA and — hopefully — other investments like it will offer opportunities to both improve aging infrastructure and implement new innovations.

As Miller put it, agencies have to do “the next best right thing” when deciding how to spend government funds.

“Pick up one piece of technology … and make a case for it,” he said. “You might just fail without it.”

Carlos Fernandez Scola works as a solutions expert for SAP, helping cities create safer, smarter and more sustainable communities. Senta Belay is a solution manager at SAP and leads emerging spaces of new mobility solutions in urban and rural settings.
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