October 2023 Vol. 78 No.10


Inside infrastructure: GIS offers best way to improve underground facility maps

EDITOR'S NOTE: Eben Wyman is a veteran advocate for key underground utility and pipeline associations. He points out that maintaining an effective advocacy program is fundamental to the success of any organization interested in the happenings of the federal government. He can be contacted at eben@wymanassociates.net. 

In April 2021, President Biden signed into law the largest infrastructure package in American history after months of bipartisan negotiations and intense political infighting during a global pandemic. 

The final Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) provided $1.2 trillion in funds, including $550 billion in new investments for the nation’s roads and bridges, airports, public transit and a wide range of subsurface infrastructure. Specifically, IIJA addressed challenges facing our underground infrastructure networks in a multi-tiered way, sector by sector. 

Broadband: The infrastructure bill included $65 billion to bolster the country’s broadband infrastructure, including $42 billion provided straight to the states for broadband deployment projects. 

Clean water: Following decades of insufficient funding for dilapidated water and sewer systems, IIJA included $55 billion to replace lead pipes and service lines, and for the general refurbishment of America’s water and wastewater infrastructure. 

Electric grid improvements: IIJA provided close to $100-billion investment to help upgrade the nation’s electricity grid, adding thousands of miles of new transmission lines and funds for environmentally friendly grid technology. This includes both subsurface and overhead infrastructure improvements. 

Carbon capture and storage; hydrogen: While no favors were given to (nor expected from) the natural gas industry, $8.5 billion was provided for carbon capture and storage. Much of the money will be split between funding infrastructure for transporting carbon dioxide and finding a final destination for it. Another $8 billion is provided to set up at least four clean “hydrogen hubs” across the country. Both initiatives are expected to require significant pipeline infrastructure. 

Prior to IIJA, America was already in the midst of the biggest infrastructure build-out in its history. Adding more than a half trillion dollars in new spending for infrastructure improvements, while a sound investment, will mean a significantly higher level of excavation for the foreseeable future. That means damage prevention is more important now than ever. 

Importance of GIS mapping 

At a time when America is making these huge investments in underground infrastructure markets, damage prevention to underground facilities is fundamental and all stakeholders must ensure that their responsibilities are met. Distribution Contractors Association (DCA) and other construction organizations agree that geographic information system (GIS) mapping offers the best way to document and digitally update underground facilities, from natural gas pipelines to broadband and electric systems, to water and wastewater infrastructure. 

The underground has truly become a web of underground utility networks, and the lack of accurate mapping is now a major challenge to excavators working in all underground markets. GIS allows users to create, manage, analyze and map all types of data related to underground facilities, integrating location data related to underground facilities in that area, and allowing for layering of data tied to geographic points. Rather than restricting the user to limited features on a static map, GIS mapping allows for viewing customizable combinations of data layers in a single tool. 

This year’s pipeline safety debate has generated considerable conversation about GIS. In fact, DCA and a range of organizations representing construction contractors, engineers, manufacturers, distributors and other service providers, pipeline operators, labor unions and others engaged in construction of underground facilities, have banded together to encourage Congress to include incentives to encourage increased use of GIS in this year’s pipeline safety legislation, commonly referred to as the “PIPES Act.” 

PIPES Act of 2023 

The PIPES Act of 2020 included language that would require operators of gas distribution pipelines to identify and manage traceable, reliable and complete records, including maps and other drawings. This year, DCA is building on that mandate by elevating the importance of GIS as a criterion for securing federal grant dollars. 

Specifically, PHMSA’s Technical Assistance Grants (TAG) program provides funding for a broad range of activities, including improvement of safe digging programs. Also, these groups are supporting language in the next PIPES Act that would promote use of GIS mapping by distinguishing GIS as a priority in appropriate PHMSA grant programs. 

In letters to oversight committees in the House and Senate, these groups made the case for increased use of GIS. 

“Efficient GIS houses asset information, construction, inspection, integrity management, regulatory compliance, risk analysis, history and operational data that many pipeline companies have deemed mission-critical to successfully managing natural gas, hazardous liquids, renewables and water pipelines,” the letter stated. 

“Knowing where pipelines are and what’s around them is critical to pipeline safety, and GIS mapping offers the most effective way to document and update important data associated with the location of pipeline and other underground facilities.” 

Groups signing on these letters were the American Society of Civil Engineers, Laborers International Union of North America, Pipeline Open Data Standard Association, United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry, and DCA. 

While there is interest in the pipeline construction industry in requiring use of GIS mapping, most understand that a federal mandate would be problematic for certain facility operators, particularly small operators and operators of municipal or other public infrastructure. 

However, PHMSA offers funding opportunities that focus on a range of pipeline safety issues, including those that encourage the development of new technologies and help municipal and community-owned utilities improve and maintain safe pipeline infrastructure. Use of GIS is consistent with this goal. 

Addressing security concerns 

A leading, and legitimate, concern with use of GIS and sharing sensitive data regarding the exact location of pipeline infrastructure, has been raised as the conversation about GIS has gained interest, and there is one pilot program underway that is directly addressing this issue. 

In fact, the Common Ground Alliance (CGA) released an innovative case study last year as part of its “Next Practices Initiative” aimed at providing real-time, mapped images of underground utilities to qualified stakeholders, such as designers, locators and excavators, to improve efficiency, as well as the overall process of accurately locating and marking underground facilities. 

The case study involves an ambitious project known as the Minnesota Utilities Mapping Project (MUMP), which is using state-of-the-art technology to create a new tool to revolutionize viewing of underground utility maps for important stakeholder groups. 

Led by the 811 center (Gopher State One Call), with input from other organizations, it addressed the ongoing challenges of inaccurate or incomplete maps, which are known to contribute to a significant number of damages to buried utilities. The project uses software that captures 811 ticket information, including precise location, and creates a digital report of all buried infrastructure in a given area (established by the 811 ticket). 

The software dynamically connects to facility owners’ mapping data as 811 tickets are initiated and receives maps as individual data layers. Facility owners control their own data on their own servers and share only the visualizations of mapping data and attributes that they select with the system. Mapping data visualizations are then expunged from the system as tickets expire. 

The digital report can be accessed by key stakeholders such as designers, locators and excavators. Importantly, all sharing of data is left to the discretion of the operator to ensure that only those who need this data are able to access it, and only for a limited period of time. In the MUMP pilot, this is usually only for the life of the 811 ticket. 

This case study was documented by CGA’s Next Practices Initiative, which was established to encourage innovation and best practices to address the most critical challenges facing the damage prevention process. CGA identified “pursuing an accurate, accessible GIS-based mapping system/database,” as one of the biggest opportunities for improvement with the greatest potential return on investment. 

As described in CGA’s case study, MUMP “dynamically displays comprehensive utility map visualizations for the geographic area indicated on an 811 ticket, allowing engineers to plan new projects more effectively, locators to perform their duties more efficiently and contractors to excavate more safely – all while facility owner/operators maintain security and control over their mapping data.” 

Proponents of the MUMP approach envision the pilot program as a scalable model for major, future improvements in the North American damage prevention process. 

Expansion needed to other markets 

Recognizing the effectiveness and increasing attention being paid to this superior mapping technology, GIS advocates are now looking to promote its use in other underground infrastructure markets. For example, mapping of water and sewer systems, often owned and/or operated by municipal entities, is also in bad need of improvement. Municipal exemptions from 811 membership are an enduring problem, and one that removes incentive to improve municipal water/wastewater infrastructure maps. 

Water assets are largely regulated by states and not the federal government, and there is no standard data model for water and wastewater pipes, similar to gas and oil pipelines. Many contend that visibility and optimization of in-ground water assets are more vital now than ever to safe operations – especially with the influx of $55 billion into water/sewer markets. 

Broadband and electric power systems are also in dire need of improved mapping, as are a range of other subsurface facilities. Efforts to expand use of GIS are intended to address issues such as rising costs of infrastructure failures, the public’s attention on America’s energy future and the role pipelines will play in it, water quality issues, the need for data transparency and accuracy to meet new and pending regulations, and reduction of methane emissions. 

DCA continues to support damage prevention policy that reflects shared responsibility among all stakeholders in the process and promotes four principal pillars to damage prevention: 

  1. membership of all owners/operators of underground facilities to the state one-call center
  2. accurate and timely locating
  3. potholing of underground facilities
  4. full and balanced enforcement of state damage prevention statutes

Accurate mapping of underground facilities is a fundamental part of accurate and timely locating and incentivizing the use of GIS should be considered as damage prevention policy is developed and considered at both the federal and state level.

WYMAN ASSOCIATES offers strategic consulting with its clients and direct advocacy before the United States Congress and executive branch agencies. Working with several allies in Washington and around the country, provides clients a constant voice in the national debate. 

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