Massachusetts has some of the oldest natural gas main infrastructure in the nation, with pipes averaging 60 years old. To replace this pipe and other underground infrastructure, utilities need to navigate a patchwork of paper permits to dig up roads across the state. But they’re not the only crews working on our roads – the Departments of Public Works (DPWs) in our towns and cities repave and repair infrastructure as well. This work is as expensive as it is necessary – it costs about $1 million per mile to replace gas mains.
But what if utilities and DPWs could coordinate their repairs? There are millions of dollars in potential savings if our roads are torn up and repaved less often.
That’s why, earlier this year, MAPC worked with the towns of Ayer, Milton, North Reading, and Westborough to develop an online system to help coordinate infrastructure improvement plans. The project resulted in two separate parts: a common online permitting system for street openings, which reduces towns’ and gas companies’ administrative and time costs; and Roadworks, an online infrastructure coordination mapping tool that helps municipalities identify where permit requests overlap with planned gas line repairs and other projects.
The result? A streamlined digital platform for the four towns to manage, track, and standardize street openings. The platform helps public works departments coordinate internally (across highway, water, and sewer divisions) and externally (with gas companies, other utility providers, and local contractors).
In 2015, MAPC partnered with HEET to identify ways to help gas companies and municipalities replace pipes more efficiently. Our Clean Energy team’s research found that nearly half of municipalities interviewed expressed low satisfaction with communication and coordination with gas companies. In response, MAPC developed best practice recommendations for coordination and published them in “Fixing Our Pipes.”
The study found that cities and towns could save millions of dollars through coordination.
Last year, MAPC received funding through the Efficiency and Regionalization Grant Program to implement some of the recommendations made in Fix Our Pipes. Staff got to work conducting interviews with public works employees and reviewing permitting processes in the Ayer, Milton, North Reading, and Westborough. They discovered that many municipalities struggle to process street opening permits efficiently, relying on paper-based methods to track, manage, and process requests.
For gas companies, this meant devoting staff time to understanding different communities’ systems and filing and often hand-delivering permit applications - resources that could be used to repair gas leaks and replace leak-prone pipe.
MAPC also discovered a need for consistent, accessible permit data so municipalities could improve coordination, synchronize projects, and upgrade infrastructure before roads are repaved.
After thoroughly reviewing the existing permitting landscape and talking with municipal and gas company employees to understand their needs, MAPC’s Digital Services and Clean Energy teams decided on a two-step process to improve coordination.
While researching online permitting, staff realized that there’s already a saturated online permitting vendor ecosystem. Instead of taking the time and resources to build a new permitting system, they decided to purchase software from SeamlessDocs. To help municipalities see where their planned projects overlapped with approved permits, Digital Services staff build Roadworks.
In SeamlessDocs, once a utility company submits an application, the municipality receives an email notification and can review and approve it online. Gas companies can pay permitting fees online quickly, and users can search, filter, and download a database of permit applications.
Inspired by existing paper infrastructure plans from memos published by DPWs, Roadworks provides a familiar form for municipal and utility staff to enter their improvement plans using road names, cross streets, and addresses. Most importantly, the Roadworks map makes it easy to see where plans conflict.
The platform uses an API to pull in data from the SeamlessDocs permitting process. Once a permit is approved, the details feed into Roadworks. There, municipal staff can see where approved permits overlap with planned municipal projects and plan multiple projects for a single street opening.
With this phase of the project funded by an Efficiency and Regionalization Grant from the Commonwealth, MAPC is running a trial of the Roadworks and SeamlessDocs system in these four towns until next May. If you’d like to learn more and see if your town could participate in this trial, please contact us at email@example.com.