ITS: The New Road Rage

It's a phrase born in Hollywood, but one that accurately sums up the dilemma of state and urban transportation officials who are dealing with traffic and population patterns in the late 20th century: If you build it, they will come.

"We add one highway to accommodate the cars in a given area, and by the time we're done, so many people have moved in that we're right back to Square One with as much-if not more-congestion than we had when we started the project," said Peter M. Briglia Jr., project manager with the Advanced Technology Branch at Washington's Department of Transportation.

"More and bigger highways are no longer the answer to our congestion problems. And it's hard for a lot of us who built [our] careers laying concrete and asphalt to just sort of give up and not believe that we can still build our way out of these problems. But the evidence shows otherwise."

Briglia, who works in the Puget Sound region, grapples daily with a staggering increase in traffic jams, accidents and road rage. And with the area's population projected to increase by 50 percent over the next 20 years, there appears to be no end in sight.

The solution, he and others believe, lies in the maintenance of the current highway system and applying better management practices through the use of electronic, communications and information processing technologies, what's known collectively as Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS).

"We've got a good road system; now we've got to concentrate on finding ways to make it more efficient," said Mark Johnson, a staff attorney with ITS America, a public/private partnership tasked with coordinating the development and deployment of ITS.

Since 1991, when Congress first gave the green light to begin funding research for a variety of traffic-related technologies, the number of believers in ITS has been growing, especially in the past few years when the deployment of a variety of federally funded pilot programs began to reach a fever pitch-with sometimes eye-opening results.

For example, a recent study of San Antonio found that an advanced traffic management center and integrated communications with other city and state agencies produced a 20 percent reduction in accidents and a 20 percent reduction in emergency management response time within a 26-mile area. Likewise, the Road Commission of Oakland County, Mich., reported a 60 percent decrease in the number of turn-related accidents after deploying an adaptive traffic signal management system in the city of Troy in the early 1990s.

ITS Enters the Mainstream

Such positive benefits certainly have helped change the minds of former cynics, especially on Capitol Hill. After some speculation that ITS funding would not be renewed, Congress late this spring acted to bring ITS into the mainstream of American life by passing a massive $700 billion highway bill, better known as the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, or TEA 21.

Besides new funding for highway and bridge repair and maintenance, the bill provided for specific funding of $1.28 billion for ITS research and deployment integration. Most importantly for states and localities, however, the new appropriation specifically clarifies the eligibility of ITS as a funding category under four major federal aid sources: the National Highway System program, the Surface Transportation program, the Congestion Mitigation Air Quality (CMAQ) program and the Federal Transit Administration program.

"You find ITS spread across the whole bill and a real push to move more heavily toward deployment, which is ultimately what we've been hoping for," said Jeff Paniati, director of the Joint ITS Program Office at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which sets overall strategy and has budget authority over ITS-specific monies. "It's a recognition that ITS is, in fact, a legitimate part of transportation."

ITS Battleground Shifts

For local ITS proponents, the biggest impact of TEA 21 is that its supporters no longer have to put all their efforts into convincing Congress of the virtues of ramp meters, electronic toll systems and global positioning satellites. Instead, they'll have to take the fight to their own back yards and engage in the traditional scratch-and-claw struggle for a fair share of the local transportation funding pie. The good news is that thanks to increases laid out in TEA 21, that pie is bigger than ever.

"It's a level playing field now," said Joel Markowitz, manager of the Advanced Systems Application Section for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a metropolitan planning organization in Northern California. "Now ITS projects will have to compete with demands to fill potholes, repair bridges and buy new buses, not to mention the backlog of old projects that have been waiting for money to come along. It's all mixed together, and there's a lot of competition. Each project has to prove its worth relative to competitors."

And that it's not always easy to make the case for sensors and video cameras when dealing with an institutional base that has historically thought in terms of cranes and bulldozers. Breaching this culture and getting the various branches of transportation management to talk to each other represents the first and perhaps the biggest hurdle to implementing a successful ITS program. "It's a cultural change, plain and simple," Johnson said.

The good news, though, is that ITS, once it is deployed, will sell itself. "For us, [competing for funds] is less of a problem than it could be," said Dan Powell, chief administrator of the AZTech Model Deployment Initiative, a Phoenix ITS project put together in 1995 with FHWA funds. "People are beginning to recognize that the effort does help improve traffic flow and makes better use of our current capacity. They're always asking for statistics, though, and we're still trying to come up with some good definitive measurements that will do this."

Where ITS Wins

Despite the upcoming battle, the high-tech road warriors said ITS has a definite edge over some other popular transportation projects. For example, any locality that can show marked improvements in traffic flow through the use of ITS technologies qualifies for funding under the CMAQ program, which is reserved only for projects that improve air quality. Proponents of beautification projects, on the other hand, are automatically locked out of that particular funding bonanza, which is set at $8 billion by TEA 21 (a 35 percent jump over the 1991 appropriations bill).

Localities that have yet to test the ITS waters can now wade in at their leisure, thanks to a TEA 21 program called the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Infrastructure Act of 1998. This act allows the federal Transportation Department to provide state and local agencies with direct loans, loan guarantees and lines of credit for just about any type of transportation project. There is a catch, of course: The project scope must be worth at least $100 million. But ITS projects need only cost $30 million to qualify. The reason? The "substantial capacity enhancements" that ITS offers with limited investments, according to the Conference Committee.

For those already in the thick of the ITS market, the new bill offers redemption and a chance to build on what's already considered a strong start. "We're extremely happy with it," says Brent Bair, director of the Road Commission in Oakland County, which, thanks to a federal demonstration grant of more than $50 million, runs one of the largest local agency ITS projects in the country. "We're not sure exactly how it's going to affect us yet, but just peripherally we'll benefit by the entire industry continuing and growing."

No Project Is an Island

Like the Interstate Highway System, which was begun 40 years ago under then-President Dwight Eisenhower and only recently completed, ITS is viewed as a nationwide project. Congress reinforced that view by attaching a string to any ITS project financed with federal funds: consistency with the national ITS architecture, which is a master blueprint that defines the key elements required for ITS function and data that must be exchanged between subsystems. "It's really designed to be a planning tool to help people when they begin designing and evolving their system. "It's kind of a living document that will change over time as we begin deploying ITS en masse and as the boundaries of ITS change," Paniati said. "Right now, there's work going on to add new user services and definitions that weren't even envisioned when the architecture was first created."

Several other federal actions should help motivate local officials to think of the Big Picture when implementing ITS projects. To begin with, projects that receive ITS-specific funds under TEA 21 must involve some type of integration effort, whether it's between agencies, modalities or jurisdictions.

Secondly, DOT within the past few years gave early deployment grants to several metropolitan planning agencies to help them study ITS and determine how it might fit into the overall transportation environment in the region. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which oversees the planning and implementation of transportation projects over a nine-county area in Northern California, including San Francisco and San Jose, was one of them.

"We already had several individual ITS projects going on in the region, so now we're trying to build on that interest and try to reinforce the point that we can get better bang for our buck by dealing with an integrated framework," Markowitz said. "At this point, though, it's enough just to keep those projects alive and make sure that they're successful and dependable."

We've Only Just Begun

ITS proponents said funds and help are available from a number of other sources, including states universities and the private sector. States have already shown strong commitment by providing matching funds on almost all current federal projects. "There are a lot of people who have an interest in seeing this work," Briglia said.

The key, however, is just to get started. The Joint ITS Program Office offers a variety of assistance including training courses, seminars on the national ITS architecture, funding advice and a booklet, titled ITS Real World Benefits, to any locality that asks.

"Many of these things are done by patching together pieces of a system and pulling things together and then doing the best you can to use that as a lever to show benefits and hopefully get more funding to do the next piece," Powell said. "Start with some infrastructure or a traveler information program, but don't wait, because there's not going to be a better time to get started than right now."

Heather Hayes is a free-lance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va.

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Hitting the Pavement

Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) pledge to make life on the road a lot more carefree in the future, promising to solve everything from morning commuting headaches to road rage. But traveling from the promise to the reality requires choosing the right tool for the job.

"ITS will make things possible that we can't foresee now," Wayne Shackelford, board chairman for ITS America, recently said at a press conference. "Anybody who thinks he understands ITS has lost his vision."

The following represent a few of the most popular tools on the market today, along with a few "gee whiz" items that are likely to come down the pike later.

* Electronic Toll Systems. Pop a transponder, which contains a radio transmitter and computerized account information, on your windshield, charge a upfront deposit to your credit card, and you'll never get waylaid at a toll booth again. Toll-heavy New York and New Jersey have already put this technology to the test with the E-Z Pass System, and the results have been fabulous, according to the states.

Already more than 2 million drivers have subscribed and, according to Cynthia Munk, spokeswoman for the New York State Thruway Authority, electronic "collectors" can process 700 more vehicles per hour than their human counterparts.

* Traffic management centers. These control facilities use video cameras, ramp meters, loop detectors, signal control technology and other tools to monitor congestion and accidents and manage traffic flow.

Many centers are integrated with police departments, transit authorities, highway helpers and emergency management crews and centers to keep on top of anything that might affect vehicle movement and to address the problem as quickly as possible.

* Traffic information systems. Drivers are alerted of upcoming problems through any number of media, including variable message signs, the Internet, cable TV, radio and e-mail.

* Telemedicine. In San Antonio, the Emergency Medical Services Management System uses two-way videoconferencing so hospital staff can see accident victims in the ambulance and determine the types of injuries involved.

In addition, LifeLink, a networked computer system, transfers vital statistics directly to the hospital. Overall, the application is expected to help significantly decrease traffic fatalities, especially in rural areas.

* In-vehicle navigation systems. A computerized map-and-guide display located inside the car, combined with a global positioning satellite, provides drivers with maps of the area and real-time traffic and incident data. When a driver provides a destination-in some cases, by voice prompt-the system calculates the fastest and best route to take. This technology has been especially popular in Japan but is only just getting started in the United States.

* Intelligent vehicles. Although much of ITS seems to center on easing congestion problems, the ultimate goal has always been reducing vehicle-related injuries and deaths.

Because human error is always a problem, the federal Transportation Department recently launched the Intelligent Vehicle Initiative to research, develop and deploy effective technologies.

Among the possibilities are crash avoidance systems, adaptive cruise control and Mayday systems.

- Heather Hayes

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The Human Factor

In Seattle, officials believe that if travelers are given enough information and choices, they'll do their part to help ease traffic congestion.

Smart Trek, a Model Deployment Initiative demonstration project put together largely with funds from the Federal Highway Administration, has developed nearly 30 Intelligent Transportation Systems projects, most of which deal with helping residents plan and alter their trips according to the real-time traffic situation.

And many of their efforts have not only been extremely innovative but cooperative, using the assistance of corporations and universities. Among its projects:

* TrafficView. Microsoft Corp.'s highly popular Internet-based entertainment guide, Sidewalk, provides real-time views of Seattle highways, reports on traffic speeds and incident locations as well as suggests an alternate route. What's more, the software will e-mail customized traffic reports to a user's home or office computer at pre-determined times.

* Ferry Traveler Information. Seattle not only has major highway delays, but commuters who rely on the area's busy waterway system often queue up for hours waiting for a ferry.

Now, Smart Trek can track the location of ferries using Global Positioning Systems, calculate the average wait time at each terminal using vehicle detectors and transmit that information to a variety of outlets, including the Smart Trek home page, variable message signs and highway advisory radio. Travelers can then decide to bypass a congested terminal in favor of one with a shorter wait time.

* Seiko Traffic Reports. It's hard to log onto the Internet when you're in your car, but everybody can check their watch. Seiko Message Watches, which are actually miniature radio receivers, now offer up-to-the-minute customized traffic reports, including traffic congestion and accident location information.

Those who think sitting in traffic is a waste of money probably won't mind ponying up the $30 per month that Seiko plans to charge for this service.

n Transit Watch. Similar to what airline passengers already enjoy at airports, this service lets bus riders at major transit centers and employer offices (including Boeing Co.) know exactly when their bus will arrive and depart, thanks to Metro Transit's Automatic Vehicle Location System and electronic message signs.

- Heather Hayes

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