‘It’s government competition with private enterprise’
WASHINGTON – “Every time there’s a new wave of technology,” said MAPPS executive director John Palatiello with the air of someone who’s seen it all before, “you’ve got state DoTs that want to get into the business.”
So MAPPS was hardly surprised when a member alerted them to the fact that Iowa had published a solicitation for “a High-Speed Laser Scanner with Survey Grade Accuracy and Field-of-View Integrated Camera.” And they were ready, too, with a response.
“Our concern is based on the fact that such services are currently provided in the commercial market by professional surveying and mapping firms,” Palatiello wrote in a letter to Iowa Governor Terry Branstad and Iowa DoT director Paul Trombino. “There are numerous Scanner/Camera systems owned and operated by private surveying and mapping firms across the US. These firms have invested heavily in this technology not only in capital, but training and development of their personnel as well.”
Buying this system will result in unfair competition with the private sector, the letter goes on to argue, and may even be a violation of federal law, which encourages the use of the private sector for highway projects.
“We respectfully urge you to cancel the bid solicitation,” the letter concludes, “and contract to the private sector for services from qualified private practice professional firms.”
As of yet, MAPPS has not received a response from Iowa, but when reached by SPAR, Dean Gray-Fisher, director of the Iowa office of public affairs, said the purchase of the laser scanner is “just an upgrade to our existing equipment” and that the current equipment is already “an integral part of our design process. It’s the equipment they use … We’ve been doing this for some time.”
That doesn’t make it any better, Palatiello argued. “I would be fascinated to what analysis the Iowa DoT conducted to reach the conclusion” that it’s more cost-effective to own the equipment rather than contract the services, he said. “How many hours of utilization do they anticipate? What’s the ROI? What are they going to be doing with this piece of equipment when they’re not out in the field?”
He pointed to the federal government, entities like the US Army Corps of Engineers or the USGS. “They’ve been doing topographic mapping for years and years and neither agency owns an airplane or a camera,” he argued. “If they applied the same argument used by the Iowa DoT, they’d say they need a plane.”
And it’s not only MAPPS members who should be upset by such a solicitation, he said, it’s all taxpayers in general. It should be less expensive to contract for the data collection than it is to purchase and maintain the laser scanning equipment.
However, “we do a lot of contracting out for services and surveying,” Gray-Fisher said, “and some of the things we do in house. It all depends on what is and what isn’t the most cost-effective way of doing things. We do that evaluation of what kind of work will be outsourced all the time.
“The preliminary survey crew is just part of our regular operations and has been for years,” she said.
Regardless, Palatiello has some hope the state will see what he believes to be the error of their ways. He pointed to a similar solicitation for a mobile mapping system in 2009 that was scuttled after MAPPS raised objections. The organization has never resorted to litigation to argue its legal points.
He also noted that the organization sent a letter to all 50 governors in January hoping to educate them about the growing geospatial profession and the fact that, “Many state agencies operate in-house mapping and geospatial activities that are performed by state employees, despite a qualified, competent and efficient private sector, including small business.”
The letter offers a six-point suggestion for evaluating a state’s geospatial activities and whether there are opportunities for efficiencies to be created by utilizing the private sector.
At least one governor, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, responded in positive fashion. “Precisely because I rely on geospatial data and technology to help me understand and manage the state,” he wrote in part, “and because I share MAPPS’ enthusiasm for using locationbased services to efficiently improve service delivery, I created the MD iMap program and appointed a Geographic Information Officer (GIO).”
Of course, this current effort is just part of a larger continuum for MAPPS. There will always be new technologies that are attractive to government entities that want to acquire and understand them. “There’s mobile scanning, there’s UAVs, there’s BIM technology,” Palatiello ticked off as technologies to watch in the short term. “There’s any number of emerging technologies where we’re going to run into this kind of issue … and we’re going to be involved, both from an education standpoint and from a policy standpoint.”