That’s what we’re often told when something we are anticipating takes time to materialize. If the saying is true, the Iowa Department of Transportation’s e-Construction process just broke the tape on its 26.219-mile journey to eliminate the need for paper documentation from initial design through construction of our roadways.
Over the past few years, pieces of a paperless process have been added to the Iowa DOT’s standard procedures. Designing our transportation system electronically, providing specifications online, and conducting online project bidding have been used for several years. Over the last two years, documenting the actual construction process has been done electronically. The lone holdout in the electronic documentation stream was the contracts to hire contractors to construct our transportation system.
When the Iowa DOT asks contractors to give their best price on a job, it is done on a monthly basis through a process referred to as a bid letting. Contractors bid on jobs electronically, and then the company with the winning bid and the Iowa DOT sign contracts agreeing to specific terms. “July was the last bid letting where we physically signed paper contracts,” explained Wes Musgrove, director of the Iowa DOT’s Office of Contracts. “It was a big day when we were able to digitally sign the first contracts from the August bid letting. At a minimum, this process will shave a week off the time a construction company has to wait to get started on a project.”
It might not seem like a big deal to sign contracts electronically – but it is.
The Iowa Legislature paved the way in 2004 by legalizing the process of signing legal documents online. Many of us have signed real estate deals or accomplished banking transactions on our phones or laptops using a digital signature. But there are many parts to a construction contract, making it difficult to incorporate a digital signature and the Iowa DOT was forging the way, as no other state has created a process to incorporate digital signatures into the contracting process.
“As the first state DOT to be able to execute a contract electronically, including all supporting documents, there were no best practices to follow. On the flip side, we were able to design the process to get exactly what we needed because we were the first,” said Musgrove. “We worked with the vendor used for electronic bidding and construction documentation to develop this piece of the process as a model that other states can now follow.”
Some of the pieces that had to come together were the contract itself, the performance bond and insurance certificate from the contractor, tax exempt certificates for project-related materials, as well as storm water permits and railroad insurance for projects with railroad impacts. “These pieces each had their own challenges,” said Musgrove. “Resolving all the issues and weaving the pieces together took time and perseverance, but in the end we’re very happy with the result.”
Musgrove credits part of the success of the new process to the contracting community the Iowa DOT works with. “We started doing pilot projects a few years ago and had great response from our contractors. They worked with us every step of the way to come up with a process that worked for everyone,” he said.
Chuck Covell, of Reilly Construction, was one of the industry partners who worked on detailed instructions for the system. He said, “The instructions the vendor provided weren’t very clear. I worked with Miriam Long, with the Iowa DOT’s Office of Contracts, to develop a set of instructions that were easier to follow. I was happy to help because in the end, it makes things easier for everyone.”
Changing the signature from pen and ink to electronic wasn’t the only update Musgrove and his team made to the way the Iowa DOT gets projects under contract. “Going through this process allowed us to reinvent what we do and how we do it,” he said. “In taking a look at every step, we’ve become more efficient, found better and more cost-effective ways to do things, and improved our customer service.”
Flexibility is an added benefit to an electronic system. “I could be anywhere in the world, view all the required documents, and digitally sign any contract on my mobile device,” said Musgrove. “We’re not tied to a literal paper trail any longer. The electronic system helps us reduce errors, improves tracking, and we won’t miss a beat if there is bad weather and someone can’t get into the office. We can simply log on wherever we are and get the work done.”
Accessibility of the documents is another advantage of an electronic system. “We have many partners,” said Musgrove. “Whether that’s the Federal Highway Administration, contractors, or other Iowa DOT offices, now everyone with access can track the status of a contract from wherever they are.”
Now that the Iowa DOT’s marathon to a complete electronic process is finished, what’s next? Musgrove explained that the next step would be to assist cities and counties in their quest to complete an electronic process. He said, “Many of the smaller cities and counties only do a project every few years so it’s not feasible for them to develop their own system. But now that we’ve paved the way, they can utilize the electronic systems as well. They will have to figure out exactly how that can work for them, but the majority of the development has been done.”