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Transportation Agencies Shed Paper for Mobile Devices

After decades of relying on paper processes, California's Contra Costa Transportation Authority is discovering the power of online information and digital devices to manage road projects and inspections in real time.

A plan to reduce paper use at a California Bay Area transportation agency has ushered in new processes and procedures while allowing for “e-inspections” of highway projects. The plan has also allowed the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA) to migrate more information to the cloud for easy access by all parties.

As a result, CCTA has reduced its paper use by 70 percent, according to Randy Iwasaki, CCTA's executive director.

“We used to buy pallets of paper and we had this copy machine the size of a Volvo, and it would shake the whole office as it was trying to churn out these agenda packets,” he recalled. 

For decades, engineers would shoot photos of a construction site, manually mark their location and project, then type up any related data. “It was time-consuming,” said Iwasaki.

Today, CCTA uses iPads that can attach date, time and location data to photos, and allow for voice transcribing by inspectors. “It’s helping us, not only with our inspections, but any protests or issues that we may have,” he added.

The move by transportation departments to mobile technology as well as cloud computing to cut the use of paper documents is growing steadily, according to Chad Schafer, director of account management and technical sales at Info Tech, a provider of e-inspection technologies.

“All of these technologies promote standardization across the infrastructure construction industry by ensuring people are working off the same and most recent set of data, all while allowing your field personnel to have a single point of data entry directly from the job site where the work is actually being done,” Schafer explained in an email.

Other DOTs have also jumped on the digital bandwagon. The Tennessee Department of Transportation is using PlanGrid technology, which allows changes to construction drawings to be pushed out and shared with relevant project partners. The plans are loaded onto mobile devices.

“There are a vast number of requirements that must be tracked in granular detail on DOT projects,” said Ralph Gootee, PlanGrid's chief technology officer, in a statement. “Those responsible for reporting on these requirements and overseeing infrastructure need simple and robust technology to plan, build and maintain heavy construction projects in a wide variety of environments.”

CCTA's Iwasaki said the shift from paper to digital devices and the cloud wasn't just about saving money, but bringing in new innovation. “It kind of sets the stage for some of these other innovations,” he said. “It started out small, but it ended up snowballing to these other programs that we have.”

This led to other developments like digital signatures, online bidding and bid-opening in the agency’s road construction program, according to Iwasaki. Changes like these come after decades of paper-based processes and procedures, and not all agencies welcome this form of electronic project management.

Resistance is sometimes generational, said Schafer. “With the retirement of the baby boomers and a generational shift entering the construction industry there will be less resistance and an expectation that these tools are available,” he added.

“It’s a change,” admitted Iwasaki. “It’s a different way of doing business. And a lot of times your manuals and your procedures and your procedure manuals are all set up to do it the old way. And so to do something new requires, probably somebody at the top, pushing it.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.