Smart traffic plan faces local hurdles

Major cities are reluctant to give info on congestion to private firm

The federal government is hoping to play traffic cop in a new program that would add information technology to traffic systems. But some cities are balking because the program would force local agencies to share data, equipment and revenues with a private company.

The Intelligent Transportation Infrastructure Program (ITIP) will likely encounter resistance, especially after its developers announced an addition to the project that would involve commercial service provider Traffic.com.

Federal Highway Administration officials posted a Federal Register notice Oct. 19 that asks certain state and local governments to enroll in a continuation of the 1999 ITIP transportation surveillance program.

According to the government, a nationwide, integrated intelligent transportation system (ITS) based on public/private cooperation is crucial for saving lives on the roads. Under this new partnership, federal officials hope to aid local planning efforts and monitor national traffic congestion levels. The program will help as many as 11 cities enhance traffic analysis and data management.

Las Vegas, Miami, New York City, Orlando and Salt Lake City will have first priority to join the program's existing participants, which include Chicago, Tampa, Boston and Los Angeles.

Miami, Orlando and New York City opted not to participate in the 1999 federal program because it would have hampered their current intelligent transportation initiatives. The cities in Florida plan to decline the new opportunity, too.

Miami and Orlando officials fear Traffic.com may drive out their existing business partners or make individuals pay for information. Under federal rules, cities participating in the program must sign on with Traffic.com.

The New York City Department of Transportation shares those concerns about upsetting potential business partners and charging users. However, New York officials have not made a final decision about whether to take part in the new program.

New York City's DOT and Transcom, a 16-member coalition of transportation agencies, already post free, real-time traffic data at www.trips123.com.

In addition, New York City transportation officials said they opted out of the 1999 program because the federal government already contributes $20 million annually for the maintenance and operation of all ITS devices, including 6,000 computer- controlled traffic signals. The new federal program would grant each city no more than $2 million.

"With ITIP as a stand-alone, we would be effectively competing against ourselves," said John Tipaldo, director of systems engineering and communications at New York City's DOT. "In addition, the amount of coverage for the proposed money would not be enough for a stand-alone regional system, not even close."

Robert Bamford, project manager of the Trips123 Web site, said the project's team is investigating opportunities to provide personalized traffic information for free or at a cost. It could decide not to offer any customized data at all. Either way, Traffic.com would be a rival to the site.

New York City officials said they are also concerned about losing traffic data and equipment if the private partner ever goes out of business. The city prefers to own its equipment and data. The state and the city share a publicly funded traffic management center in Long Island City, N.Y. The center analyzes data collected from E-ZPass readers, microwave and acoustic sensors, and traffic surveillance cameras.

Meanwhile, local Florida transportation officials say the federal program would undermine their successful technology projects.

Right now, the Miami and Orlando transportation systems record vehicle speed, volume and lane occupancy with microwave detectors embedded in roadside pavement. Closed-circuit television cameras confirm traffic incidents and disabled vehicles.

The two cities already pay a service provider for their 511 traffic information phone system. Officials said adding another provider could limit business opportunities for the existing traveler information provider, SmartRoute Systems. Traffic.com would essentially mimic Florida's existing Web site, www.511southflorida.com, which is a joint venture with SmartRoute Systems.

Jesus Martinez, ITS administrator at the Miami-Dade County district office, said that although the federal program's business model provides certain information for free, Traffic.com would demand a fee for more detailed information.

"For me, it would be a public relations nightmare," Martinez said. "They have a business model where they need several years of revenue to be able to justify the investment. That's part of the fine print."

Martinez said the Miami-Dade ITS program helps support evacuations, dispatch service vehicles to accidents and get commuters to work on time. The county has invested more than $60 million in its ongoing ITS projects. Within the next nine months, Miami-Dade will post online travel times from interchange to interchange for free.

Martinez said Traffic. com would charge for such value-added information.

"Any revenue opportunities they can pursue, they will," he said. Like any private company, Traffic.com will want to make profits for its investors, he said.

"Our view on this is we don't in any way try to limit competition in the market," said John Collins, vice president of ITS and telematics at Traffic.com. "We would hope that the role of public agencies is to foster ideas rather than to pick winners."

One advantage that Traffic.com offers is information specifically for interstate travelers, he said.

"As good a job as the folks in New York City can do, they are limited by their geographic boundaries," Collins said. Someone driving from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia to New York to Boston would want long-distance traveler information. A partnership among multiple cities and Traffic.com would be able to offer a widespread report, he said.

The argument that the city needs to own its traffic data and equipment falls flat, Collins said. "New York City might need to own their own fire equipment, but when you think about it, they rely on a cell phone system that they don't own," he said. "In terms of the archive data, we give them that data, real time in a feed, so they can store it themselves."

There are other cities, now part of the federal program, that are happy working with Traffic.com, he said. He acknowledged that the company would charge users for some value-added information.

Utah government officials say they are in talks with Traffic.com to get help with archiving and reporting data collection in Salt Lake City.

Richard Manser, ITS deployment engineer at Utah's Traffic Operations Center, said he is not concerned about a private company acquiring his data.

The alliance will entail sharing data with Traffic.com, which would then provide off-site data archival and analysis systems via the Internet. The new technologies will troubleshoot defective detectors and improve data quality, Manser said. Utah's data is currently available to the public through its Web site, www.CommuterLink.utah.gov, and through a telephone number, 511.

"We're basically going to give them a Web site where they can download that data and repackage that and do whatever they want with that," he said.

The partnership is not an exclusive agreement that would prohibit other companies from doing business with Salt Lake City, he added.

Feds crown Traffic.com king of the road

Here is how the Intelligent Transportation Infrastructure Program, a public/private partnership for gathering information on traffic and congestion, works.

  • The federal government invests up to $2 million in each metropolitan area.
  • The local government matches 20 percent of the federal government's investment and gives all its traveler data to Traffic.com.
  • Traffic.com pays for installing sensors, video cameras and other equipment to manage traveler information. The company then shares its analyses with local agencies and the federal government.
  • All traveler information is available to the public at www.traffic.com.
  • The company brings in revenues by selling this information in the form of enhanced or customized traffic reports.

-- Aliya Sternstein

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