Every year, nearly $100 billion are lost in the U.S. economy due to excavation damage and the inefficiencies in the system designed to prevent them. With systemic issues unaddressed, these costs are poised to keep rising year after year. What is even worse, Congress enacted a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package that will add fuel to this fire, provoking greater damage, higher costs, and further safety and environmental harms.
But much of this is avoidable, and only a handful of obvious solutions could eliminate the lion’s share overnight. Not without their own costs, two existing solutions are known, proven, and ready to deploy but nevertheless remain shelved.
There are no silver bullets capable of streamlining the entire damage prevention ecosystem, balancing diverse stakeholder interests, remedying liability concerns, or perfectly preventing damage. Yet two tools can be implemented right away that would disrupt the status quo definitively for the better by enhancing efficiency, promoting safety, adding value, and most importantly, reducing damage.
The first is white-lining (or pre-marking) a site before digging. This is traditionally done with white spray paint, stakes, or flags, but requires costly trips to the excavation site. Without white-lining, locators – who come to find and mark subsurface utilities on behalf of pipeline and other utility operators – can spend unnecessary time on site, misunderstand the scope of the excavation project, or commit another error.
With only 23 states requiring white-lining, there is great room for improvement. But further improvement can be found in upgrading this practice to a virtual one through electronic white-lining (EWL). This is an industry best practice, innovative technology, and major cost saver. It allows excavators to draw their white perimeter markings on a digital image and share it with One-Call centers, locators, facility operators, or any other relevant stakeholder. They can do this at lower cost without visiting the site, and it can offer locators more precision even before visiting the site themselves to screen tickets, prioritize work, and improve their timeliness and accuracy.
Available data indicates that pre-marking a site leads to fewer than half the damages of non white-lined sites and electronic white-lining builds on this record. Not only is this a known and proven technology, but it is identified by the stakeholder member organization as a threshold technology that should be used as the first step in every excavation project in the future.
The second tool all but certain to spare the nation its enormous excavation damage bill is known as enhanced positive response (EPR). This builds on two pre-existing practices: positive response and electronic positive response.
Basic positive response is the practice of closing the communications loop after calling 811. When the locator indicates his job is complete, he provides a positive response. That can be the spray paint itself or a response code, although stronger forms include a phone call or email to the excavator or One-Call center. Electronic positive response takes this process virtual by offering all stakeholders a digital platform for every proposed excavation. Excavators can login online and see all the implicated utilities at their dig site and see whether and how each locator responded before breaking ground.
This platform itself greatly improves communication, but it also offers the potential to host further information sharing such as enhanced positive response. Through EPR, excavators are not only provided a virtual response (e.g. if the site is marked or not) but a package of material like digital photographs, virtual manifests, enhanced ticket information, and even facility maps. This enhanced communication practice is demonstrated to reduce damage by up to 67 percent when used during the excavation process.
Unsurprisingly, EPR is another threshold technology identified by the Common Ground Alliance – highly documented in Technology Reports, Best Practice Guides, and other CGA reports – and the federal safety agency the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). According to CGA, the dig of the future employs EPR as the second step right after EWL.
These two best practice technologies are both available and supported by industry and government, but no systemic implementation has occurred. On the state level, 50 separate state governments are slow to update their laws to include technologies or raise standards. At the federal level, Congress tasked PHMSA in 2016 with studying the best tools for preventing excavation damage. Just a year later, PHMSA reported back to Congress a study that recommended EPR as its number one recommendation. The same report recommended that certain practices be implemented as national standards, and yet another recommendation explained the need to implement certain CGA best practices.
From there, Congress has taken little action. PHMSA has focused on enforcement of existing rules more than incorporating new technology standards. And industry has recommended voluntary use of technology year after year. But damages keep occurring and getting worse, and underlying root causes remain stubbornly persistent.
Seeing EWL and EPR implemented systemically would not solve every problem in the damage prevention ecosystem. But the mentality has long been that so many challenges exist and some are so deeply ingrained that any legitimate progress is nearly impossible. Rather than tackle challenges one at a time or take confident, yet simple steps forward, everything is left recommended, optional, or encouraged.
It is time for public policy to align itself with CGA’s ideal excavation project of the future. Rather than wait for 2030 as CGA projected, we can implement electronic white-lining and enhanced positive response as thresholds today to start every excavation project. With these communication and collaboration tools firmly established, many other reforms will likely fall into place.
America’s nearly $100 billion challenge is not advancing year after year because it cannot be solved. The tools exist and are ready for use. They simply must be adopted.
Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.