The Federal Highway Administration said a mobile device software application it recently began using on a large scale is helping speed up on-the-ground damage assessments by state departments of transportation to federal-aid roads and bridges, which allows the FHWA to reimburse them more quickly from its emergency relief account.
In a March 14 post on the USDOT's "Connections" blog, Acting FHWA Administrator Brandye Hendrickson said the agency's "Mobile Solution for Assessment and Reporting" or MSAR app is helping states and federal land management agencies repair damaged infrastructure sooner and saving taxpayers money.
"When disaster strikes, time is of the essence," she wrote. "Every minute, hour and day matters when making damage assessments in the aftermath of a powerful hurricane, flood or storm. Technology saves time and can be critical to efforts to get roads and bridges open to traffic again after a natural disaster, especially when the damage is widespread and difficult to access."
She said the MSAR app shortens a data gathering and reporting system that used to take about 18 hours to a process lasting as little as 20 minutes, "and saving taxpayers an estimated $1.2 million per disaster."
Traditional survey and inspection reporting, Hendrickson explained, "requires cumbersome paper forms and maps, tedious spreadsheets and the use and storage of paper maps, cameras and other outdated tools – including tiresome data entry.
"The MSAR system makes the process much easier – and faster – for trained professionals. It allows photos of the damage to be easily pinpointed on a map, often with estimated locations and identified by an inventory number. The estimates, photos or videos and location maps are later compiled by state offices to be sent to FHWA emergency relief coordinators. The data is verified and, if need be, updated and sent via email back and forth. While still a complex data gathering effort, MSAR makes it much faster and more cost-effective."
The agency rolled out its MSAR app as a pilot in 2016, Hendrickson noted, "but it was not until Hurricane Harvey in Texas [in 2017] that its real benefits were realized. Sixty counties in the state were affected, with much of the devastation centered on the Houston metro area – one of the nation's most heavily populated areas."
Immediately after the water receded, she said, the FHWA's Texas division office, the Texas DOT and local public agency engineers used the app to make damage assessments. "On average, site inspections took 30 minutes with MSAR – making possible the completion of damage assessments for more 500 sites . . . within three weeks. By mid-December, more than 900 were completed with the MSAR system, including data for assessments by Federal Emergency Management Agency."
She added that just during the Hurricane Harvey response, the FHWA and TXDOT saved an estimated 17,000 hours of staff time "and time saved means roads and bridges get repaired more quickly."
And after the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were ravaged by Hurricanes Maria and Irma, she said, "MSAR made it possible for FHWA engineers to make damage assessments in real time from division offices throughout the U.S. using data uploaded on mobile devices from the field. Data-sharing made it possible to assess most of the damage on St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John – the most heavily damaged of the U.S. Virgin Islands – within a week!"
That meant the FHWA's "quick release" emergency relief funds got to those areas sooner than using traditional methods, allowing highway damage to be repaired more quickly.
"Getting vital transportation links back up and running again after a natural disaster or catastrophic event is our goal, but tools like the MSAR can speed the healing," Hendrickson said.
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