Government Technology

Washington State GIS Transportation Repository Takes Long Road

December 16, 2009 By

A small GIS team at the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) seems to like a good challenge. After all, it's not every day a state DOT tries to create a single, seamless repository of transportation information covering the entire state -- from the small private road to the primary arterials -- and does it successfully.

But that's exactly what WSDOT is doing, in collaboration with Washington state, in building the Washington Statewide Transportation Framework (WA-Trans). It's the data-heavy system Tami Griffin, WA-Trans project manager, and her advisory team envisioned it would be six years ago when WSDOT decided to create a comprehensive, statewide transportation GIS. As she suspected, the development and implementation of WA-Trans has become one of the most complex and progressive GIS transportation initiatives ever undertaken. The project is a massive Web-enabled GIS transportation system -- a huge product of data integration and conversion, software integration and application development.

"Across the states there are some DOTs that are implementing some of the smaller-scale pieces of what WA-Trans has, but I am not aware of any agency that is implementing a system on the same scale as WA-Trans -- and only a few are thinking of something even close to this," said Griffin, WSDOT's IT and GIS project manager.

With the primary goal of creating a single-lane "highway" to one transportation data repository for the entire state, WA-Trans incorporates the information management strength of GIS software with the real-time data transformation and distribution capabilities of Web-based GIS and spatial extract, transform, load (ETL) tools. The combination eventually will provide users with a standardized, seamless and holistic view of Washington's transportation network. Initially connecting the state's and counties' road-related data, WA-Trans' final destination will be multimodal -- including continuous and connected data sets for light rail, heavy rail, ferries, ports, airports and nonmotorized transportation infrastructure.

By defying the odds -- there was no precedent for such complexity -- WA-Trans is moving toward better efficiency, collaboration and fiscal responsibility for local and state authorities. It's also a testament to what a small group with limited resources can achieve when committed to a common goal.

"Our transportation network is one of the backbones of our society," said Griffin. "Fragmented backbones don't operate very efficiently. We wanted WA-Trans to connect our data divides to foster better collaboration and improve operations and services, and ultimately our bottom lines. Though we've really only begun with WA-Trans, we've already conservatively estimated that the [return on investment] to the state will reach $26 million over 20 years."

A Transportation U-Turn

WSDOT is charged with monitoring more than 18,300 miles of state highways and 3,600 bridges -- including the four longest floating bridges in the U.S. In addition to building, maintaining and operating the state highway system, WSDOT is responsible for the state ferry system -- the largest vehicle-ferry system in the world - by ensuring its 23 vessels safely and efficiently carry 24 million passengers annually. The agency is also in its fifth year of a 20-year capital construction program that will deliver more than $15 billion in projects, including $11 billion for 390 highway projects.

In parallel with the robust growth of its state roadway network, WSDOT geospatial personnel have become avid users of advanced GIS technology. It helps them collect, create, inventory and maintain their detailed transport data stores, and leverages that information to enhance other business analyses and processes.

Many of the state's 39 counties have mirrored WSDOT's spatial data management initiatives to help them acquire and maintain the most up-to-date and comprehensive view of their countywide transportation information. Many counties have been mapped extensively, and county authorities have benefitted greatly from the rich data sets.

However, this parallel approach among the state and local counties also has been problematic. Although each has

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