Digital Builder Ep 88: How Embracing Tech is Revolutionizing State DOT Operations

When you think of government agencies and the public sector, the words "digital" and "innovation" might not be the first words that enter your mind. Many state and federal orgs have a reputation for lagging behind the private sector with tech advancements. 

But that has changed in recent years thanks to government initiatives that prioritize digital transformation. 

Case in point: the Advanced Digital Construction Management Systems (ADCMS) grant program. Established by the Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the program aims to accelerate the adoption of digital tools and promote data transparency and collaboration. 

In this latest episode of Digital Builder, we get an inside look at the digitization of one type of critical government agency: the Department of Transportation (DOT). We caught up with Andrew Pangallo, the Construction Digital Delivery Lead Engineer at the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT), and Kelly Barber, the Engineering Automation and Services Division Lead at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT). 

We discussed how the DOT's construction tech and processes have evolved and what's coming next. 

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On this episode

We discuss:

  • Core functions and goals of DOTs
  • How INDOT and PennDOT are using technology to build trust between field and office workers, enable faster decision-making, and empower onsite leaders
  • How INDOT and PennDOT are interfacing with the FHA’s Digital Construction Program
  • How they are maintaining strict regulatory compliance while adopting new technologies
  • How ongoing federal and industry partnerships are empowering innovation

An overview of the Department of Transportation (DOT)

What exactly does the Department of Transportation do?

For his part, Andrew sees the DOT primarily as a public servant. "We are responsible and expected to deliver a safe roadway for everybody, all the customers and the people that live in our communities. And we hold ourselves to that high expectation to ensure those roads and bridges are safe."

Kelly agrees and adds that the DOT is responsible for a vast infrastructure network. In Pennsylvania, the DOT looks after over 25,000 structures and 40,000 roadway miles. 

The critical part, she says, is ensuring that the public benefits from the DOT's infrastructure. 

"It really is to get people and goods safe from point A to point B," she says. "Whether it's rail freight, highways, bridges—whatever mode of transportation—the key is to make sure they get there safely."

How is the DOT keeping up with the latest construction innovations?

The Department of Transportation recognizes the limitations of legacy systems, which is why the agency is shifting towards more modern solutions. 

INDOT, for example, started embracing digital project management and collaboration tools.

"It used to be just common legacy processes using email and regular folders to organize our data. But we decided to do the things that were asked of us on this $2 billion corridor. We had to adapt; we had to innovate. We had to properly communicate and collaborate," shares Andrew.

It may also surprise you that government regulations didn't stifle the DOT's pivot toward innovation.

"Once we took a step back and looked at our current regulations. It really wasn't as complex as it looked. We made it complex by the legacy systems we used at the time," Andrew explains.

"It worked, and we saw that, 'Yeah, we can actually accomplish these steps with far less time.'"

Similarly, PennDOT has made considerable strides in digitalization. "We have a state transportation innovation council comprising department staff, our federal highway administration, and our business partners. They're all very supportive of moving innovation forward for our projects," says Kelly. 

She also discusses some of the technologies they're rolling out, such as e-ticketing, and mentions several pilot programs they run to explore new technologies. 

Positive outcomes through digitization

Digital transformation isn't just about putting cool tools in people's hands. At the end of the day, technology should drive positive and meaningful change. In construction, this can come in the form of improved collaboration, safer job sites, and more empowered teams. 

Andrew and Kelly have seen these outcomes come to life in their respective DOT offices.

Enhanced collaboration and better access to data

Kelly discusses the collaboration center at PennDOT, which fosters project management and communication.

"It allows the contractors and department staff to be in a collaborative environment and have those conversations."

Kelly continues, "We no longer say, 'I need to go back to the job trailer to look at something.' Everything is accessible at their fingertips. So, decisions can be made quicker and have those responses back a lot faster. And we document it so everyone's on the same page."

Improves trust between teams

Meanwhile, Andrew says that technology has paved the way for more confidence between the teams at INDOT.

"It creates trust. It's a lot harder to work on these bigger jobs when we have hundreds of people working on them. It's so easy to lose trust when a communication link fails. And so being able to facilitate collaboration from the office to the field is very powerful."

Andrew further explains that technology strengthens the link between field and office teams so everyone is on the same page. 

"It truly does empower your field people. We put a lot of trust in them, but [in the past] we didn't give them the tools to succeed. With digital tools, they can trust any decisions we make in the office—whether it be a construction or design change. They know that the most up-to-date plans are made in real-time. And you can't replicate that level of trust without technology."

Discussing the funds from FHWA's digital construction grant

Our conversation also touches on their experience with the digital construction program grant created by the Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration. 

Andrew and Kelly agree that the grant has been instrumental in advancing their digital initiatives.

"That support from them does mean a lot, knowing that they're not going away," says Andrew. "It's great to get those extra resources to help us deliver. This technology really makes a difference. It makes or breaks it."

Kelly offers a similar view, saying that the financial and organizational support from the Federal Highways accelerates innovation.

"It's nice to have those additional funds because then we can say, 'Hey, we want to try this. And by the way, Federal Highways is going to back us.'"

Kelly also appreciates that they can connect and swap notes with other DOTs.

She explains, "We're collaborating at the national level, which is great because we can do things in silos individually as a DOT. But it's not helping everybody else that may be interested in it and maybe not have the funding to do it. We can say, 'Hey, this is how it worked. These are our lessons learned.'"

Balancing continuous innovation with ongoing projects

It's clear that the DOT wants to foster innovation, but the agency must also balance its tech aspirations with existing projects and regulations.

According to Kelly, navigating these things requires open dialogue and collaboration.

"We meet with our industry partners regularly. We talk about technology, and they are at the table with us. We need to have their input and their feedback. That's how we keep things moving along. And they definitely keep us in check if we're going down the wrong path," she explains. 

"They may say, 'Hey, we're willing to test drive this with you, but can you not include X, Y, or Z?' And it is that compromise at the end of the day to get things started."

Andrew agrees and shares his thoughts on maintaining jobsite control. 

"At the end of the day, they really just want to make sure that we and our field staff have control over the jobsite. Do we have control over those regulations? They don't care what it looks like, really. They want us to demonstrate how we're doing things and why we have control. But they're very open to seeing how we want to accomplish those regulations."

He continues, "They are very supportive when we figure out ways to do these regulations with technology."

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Digital Builder is hosted by me, Eric Thomas. Remember, new episodes of Digital Builder go live every week. Listen to the Digital Builder Podcast on:

Eric Thomas

Eric is a Sr. Multimedia Content Marketing Manager at Autodesk and hosts the Digital Builder podcast. He has worked in the construction industry for over a decade at top ENR General Contractors and AEC technology companies. Eric has worked for Autodesk for nearly 5 years and joined the company via the PlanGrid acquisition. He has held numerous marketing roles at Autodesk including managing global industry research projects and other content marketing programs. Today Eric focuses on multimedia programs with an emphasis on video.