COBOL is one of the oldest computer languages. It was first discussed and developed toward the end of the Eisenhower Administration, and perhaps the nicest thing one can say about it today is that it has had staying power. This fact, however, has been of no comfort to the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), whose COBOL-based payment system is running out of steam as the baby-boomer experts of the computer language enter retirement en masse.
“The existing system was developed and implemented in the 1960s,” says Mark Leja, the chief of Caltrans’s construction division, “and while it served us well for many years, we recognized that we need more functionality from it, but there wasn’t anyone left to modify it.” So, heading off technological disaster at the pass, Caltrans is currently wrapping up a $15 million, three-year program to implement a new construction-management system, which it calls CMS.
Caltrans has been active for more than 100 years, and today it manages more than 50,000 miles of California highway, provides intercity rail services, and permits more than 400 airports and hospital heliports. The Caltrans construction division administers the construction of these state-run projects. It advertises and awards contracts, administers changes, documents labor and material used, and makes payments.
In revamping the payment system, Caltrans realized it could improve its broader business processes, too. “We have a record level of work under contract right now, with more than 600 projects worth more than $12 billion spread over the state—and with hundreds of different contractors,” Leja says. “So, there’s a lot of documentation required, and through history, we’ve done that documentation on paper. We have metal file cabinets full of manila folders. That’s time consuming, and in construction, time is money.”
“There’s a lot of documentation required, and through history, we’ve done that documentation on paper. That’s time consuming, and in construction, time is money.”
Mark Leja, Chief of the Construction Division
Caltrans is thus seeking to bring its CMS online and program it to automate paper-based workflows and produce a digital record of the work the organization does from start to finish.
“With Internet access, Caltrans and its contractors will be able to connect to the system,” Leja says. To illustrate how critical this is, he points to the “daily diaries” engineers and field inspectors create to document the progress made on projects. The logs detail equipment used, material incorporated, etc. “Historically, employees would come in from the field, sit at their desk, and do that on paper,” Leja says. “With CMS, this diary can be created and submitted remotely on the jobsite using smart forms, and any user can easily research project records.”
Another important feature of CMS is the ability to create and track change orders electronically. “Changes inevitably occur on projects, and we need to secure the approvals for those changes in a timely manner,” Leja says. “CMS will also allow us to prepare change orders, submit them to contractors, and get an electronic approval on both ends. At any given time, we’ll know where the approval is.”
Caltrans hired information technology provider CGI Group Inc. to replace its outdated computer systems, and the switch to CMS is scheduled for completion at the end of 2013. The swap has been costly, but the result will be worth it, Leja says, adding, “The change will increase system agility and lower both integration and maintenance costs.”