Managing sidewalk maintenance in the 21st Century

Jason Weis, P.E.
Municipal GIS/Database Applications Developer
OMNNI Associates, Inc.
Appleton, Wisconsin
Presenter, 2005 APWA Congress

Overview
The City of Fond du Lac, population 42,000, is located in east-central Wisconsin, on the south side of Lake Winnebago. Like most municipalities, the City inspects and maintains its sidewalks to minimize the risks of trips and falls. Managing this amount of sidewalk every year has the potential to generate significant quantities of paperwork, including field notes, inspection reports, condemnation letters, construction documentation, and assessment notices. The City has utilized database and geographic information system (GIS) technologies to reduce the amount of paperwork, minimize errors, and streamline the sidewalk management process in a cost-efficient manner.

Typical sidewalk management systems
Each year, most municipalities inspect the entire sidewalk system, or a designated portion of larger systems. In the inspection phase, the sidewalk inspector typically walks the sidewalk, marking defective panels with paint dots to indicate which panels need to be repaired or replaced.

During the inspection, the inspector completes an inspection form for each property, describing the location of the defective panels, the types of defects found, and the length and width of the anticipated repair. These field notes are then used to generate the inspection reports that are sent to the property owners. The inspection reports are often manually referenced to the tax records to determine the current owner and the mailing address, and the inspection reports and condemnation letters are mailed to the owners.

As repairs are completed, the final quantities of each bid item contained in the construction contract are recorded in the field. These quantities, along with the unit prices contained in the contract, are used to generate payment requests for the contractor and assessment notices for the property owners.

Step 1: Managing the data
To help manage the vast amount of data associated with the City's sidewalk program, OMNNI created a custom database application using Microsoft Access. This database application stores all of the sidewalk data in one central location, and automatically generates several reports, streamlining the sidewalk management process.

The database approach offers many advantages over the traditional paper approach, including:

  • Central storage location - All data relevant to a particular sidewalk defect, from inspection results to as-built quantities, are stored in a single file. Paper forms are no longer required—all of the information for a single year's inspection program can be archived on a single CD-ROM.

  • Current parcel information - By linking the sidewalk inspection records to the tax database, based on parcel number, the most current owner and mailing address for each parcel is available for inspection reports, condemnation letters, and assessment notices.

  • Automatic calculation of quantities - Estimated repair costs and estimated bid quantities are automatically calculated based on measurements taken during the inspection phase. Contractor payment totals and property owner assessments are automatically calculated based on as-built measurements entered for each defect. All quantities are automatically updated as data is entered or modified.

  • Custom reports - Lists of properties with repairs can be generated for the contractor to assist with traffic control, utility location, and project planning. Internal reports can be generated for various City departments, including a list of properties with defects caused by trees to be evaluated by the city arborist or sections of new sidewalk to be staked by the engineering department.

Step 2: Enhancing visual evidence
As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. When receiving traditional inspection reports, owners frequently question the results of the inspection. While the defective panels were traditionally marked with paint dots, and the inspection report gave a general description of the defects that were found on the property, it could be difficult to match the results on the report with the panels on the ground.

Sidewalk defects are highlighted with paint, and color photos are included on the inspection reports.

The City significantly reduced this problem by taking digital photographs of each segment of defective sidewalk panels during the initial inspection. To provide further detail, the condemnable defects on each panel were highlighted with pink marking paint. This technique makes the defects more noticeable, both on the photo and on the actual sidewalk panel. An added benefit of the pink paint is that it calls attention to the defect, warning pedestrians of a potential hazard.

The digital photos are stored with the appropriate defect in the sidewalk management database. When generating inspection reports, the color photographs are included for each defect on the report. Because a copy of the database is maintained at the Public Works office, the City can view the data, including the digital photos, in the office, minimizing the need to send inspectors on follow-up visits.

Step 3: Mobile GIS makes the process more efficient
While the database greatly improved the efficiency of the sidewalk management process, the data collection and subsequent entry into the database was still a lengthy process. This bottleneck was eliminated using mobile GIS technology. The mobile GIS application consists of a handheld computer with GIS software and a global positioning system (GPS), which was synchronized to ArcView GIS on a desktop computer and linked to the sidewalk database application.

OMNNI developed a custom ArcPad application for sidewalk inspection data collection. The application uses a GIS parcel map as the base map. As defective sidewalk segments are identified, the inspector creates a new defect point in the application. The point is created at the inspector's current GPS position, and the corresponding parcel number is recorded with the point.

The mobile application includes an electronic data entry form that is displayed as each defect point is created. The form has fields to enter the relevant measurements for the defective area, along with a checklist of condemnable defects, which are marked to show the reasons for condemning the sidewalk.

The mobile GIS concept offers several advantages to the sidewalk management process:

  • GPS locations for defects - The exact locations of the defects are recorded, to facilitate finding the points in the future and to allow mapping of the sidewalk defects.

  • Automatic assignment to parcel - The defects are automatically assigned to the adjacent parcel, and this parcel is automatically entered into the inspection data.

  • Electronic data entry forms - The impacts of rain and wind are reduced, and data accuracy is improved using calculated fields and data validation.

  • Database synchronization - The mobile GIS unit is synchronized to the GIS in the office, automatically transferring the inspection data to the database. This eliminates the time required to manually enter the data, as well as the potential for transcription errors.

  • Querying and mapping capabilities - GIS technology makes it simple to create custom maps, such as showing all defects caused by trees or all sections of missing sidewalk.

Results
Development costs for the new sidewalk management program were minimized by using standard database and GIS software packages. Using the electronic field forms, inspection data is entered into the system almost as quickly as defective sidewalk panels can be marked and measured. Inspection reports, condemnation letters and assessment notices are automatically generated by the database, resulting in a significant reduction in administrative time. The custom GIS maps and database reports provide tools that were not readily available to the City or contractors with traditional systems. Because as-built quantities are entered in the same database as the inspection results, the City can ensure that as-built information is recorded for each repair.

In the two years that the City has used the program, there has been a significant reduction in the number of inquiries and complaints by property owners. By including the color photographs of each defect on the inspection report, owners can see why the sidewalk was condemned. In addition, by having the database and photographs in the office, many inquiries can be answered without requiring a follow-up inspection. GIS and database technology has greatly streamlined a labor-intensive process that traditionally generated significant amounts of paperwork.

Jason Weis, P.E., will give a presentation on this topic at the 2005 APWA Congress in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The session, entitled "Managing Sidewalk Maintenance in the 21st Century," takes place on Tuesday, September 13, at 2:30 p.m. Jason can be reached at (920) 735-6900 or jason.weis@omnni.com.