How to Tap the Nextea Funding Pool

Travelers to the 1996 Olympic Games were able to click on the World Wide Web to get real-time traffic information to help navigate the unprecedented congestion at the games, thereby tapping just one of five Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) projects the city of Atlanta used to help manage logistics at the mammoth event.

Funding for the Web project was provided in part by federal transportation agencies, which this year are looking for other innovative, high-tech projects to support at the state, county and city government levels. Indeed, this year the federal funding pot may get considerably bigger, as Congress' appropriations committees take up the National Economic Crossroads Transportation Efficiency Act (Nextea).

Nextea is expected to widen the transportation funding pool available to state and local governments in three areas: $100 million annually would be made available to state and local applicants to help integrate intelligent infrastructure programs.

Another $100 million annually would be disbursed to help the intelligent vehicle and associated standards.

Finally, the legislation seeks to make explicit state and local governments' ability to use general transportation and transit funds for ITS. By "mainstreaming" ITS funding, projects such as computerized traffic signals and traveler information systems could tap pools once reserved for infrastructure improvements such as street paving or pothole patching.

Eligibility

But establishing the pool is one thing; accessing it is another. In order to become eligible for federal matching grants for ITS projects, federal ITS funding officials suggest state and local transportation planners put an accent on collaboration and partnerships among jurisdictions and between government and the private sector.

"We are looking for projects or programs that would provide for integration at the institutional and technological level," said an official from the Federal Highway Administration's Traffic Management and ITS Application Office, who asked not to be identified. "One of the key things this program will try to foster is cross-jurisdictional efforts."

In other words, state and local transportation planners should think in terms of regional needs and clearly identify the transportation players to be involved in a proposed ITS program. Federal officials also want to see the private sector shoulder a fair share of the funding burden. "These funds are a sweetener to encourage integrated deployment as well as innovative finance and public/private partnerships," according to an FHWA backgrounder on ITS, available at www.fhwa.dot.gov/.

The key to a successful matching grant application is the demonstration of a "mindset" that is cross-jurisdictional, just like the interstate highway system itself. "Think about when you are traveling from one part of the country to another; it doesn't matter to you who owns the road," the FHWA official said. Nor does it matter which agency would be administering the ITS effort. What matters is that the wealth is spread. And widespread use of a system equates to widespread funding. State and local officials should create a 'who's who' of potential users," the official said, and "always ask, 'How can we play together?' "

If properly planned, an ITS can benefit not just the traveling public but emergency service providers, interstate commerce interests and public transit players, all of whom are interested in the same traffic information. "In either of two [adjacent] counties, school bus drivers could be the eyes and ears" of an ITS, the FHWA official said. Information these drivers report could feed the ITS, and "each of several different agencies could react in real time."

City, County Access

But a grass-roots approach to ITS funding can be tricky, especially for governments further down the food chain. "Cities and counties have a lot of trouble getting money from the states," said Robert Hicks, business director of transportation programs for Public Technology Inc., a nonprofit organization that has worked to promote ITS. "It is one thing to say you want to deploy a system across a metropolitan area. But local needs are often different than regional needs. Those needs do overlap," but they are not necessarily identical.

When it comes ITS, "the technology is the easy part," Hicks said. It is the cooperation that is a challenge. "There is a high degree of competition for transportation dollars," he added. And those funds are usually first directed at ailing transportation infrastructure.

On the other hand, Nextea's provision to make ITS money available from infrastructure improvement funds may give ITS a much-needed boost. "This will encourage states to make ITS more a part of the thinking and philosophy behind state highways," said Mark Johnson, staff attorney at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.

Certainly that's one of the keys to the legislation, the FHWA official said. "State and local officials have got to make some hard choices in regard to their annual transportation planning process," she said. "We hope that Nextea will encourage the use of ITS both within projects or on its own."

Jennifer Jones is a free-lance writer based in Falls Church, Va. She can be reached at jjones@fcw.com.

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