- By Harvey Meyer
- Mar 04, 2001
When a suicidal person threatened to jump off the Woodrow Wilson Bridge
on the Beltway outside Washington, D.C., in 1998, authorities closed the
span for hours, sparking a massive, miles-long traffic jam and stranding
commuters across the region.
If D.C. area motorists had had access to one easy-to-remember, three-digit
phone number for traveler information, more drivers could have been clued
into the mounting congestion. More importantly, they could have avoided
"That incident, which just paralyzed the area transportation system,
presented a good case for the need for better traveler information," said
Jeff Paniati, deputy director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems
Joint Program Office at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
It's because of such traffic tie-ups that Paniati and scores of others
are eagerly awaiting the national rollout of 511, a three-digit phone number
that will enable travelers to retrieve accurate, current information on
a variety of conditions — highway construction, inclement weather, crashes
and other incidents — on specific routes. Armed with that information, travelers
can postpone or cancel their drives, take alternate roadways or use mass
The expected result: improved traffic flow, an important factor considering
that congestion on the nation's roadways is only expected to escalate. Supporters
say 511 should also enhance safety and even improve productivity because
drivers — particularly commercial truckers — will get to their destinations
"Whenever I go to the northern Kentucky-Cincinnati area," where a three-digit
traveler information number already exists, "I always call to find out what
the traffic conditions are," said Leon Walden, Kentucky Transportation Cabinet
(KYTC) transportation engineer specialist, whose state is a pioneer in using
511. "I've been able to avoid major accidents and a lot of aggravation that
Paving the Way for a National System
Although preliminary reviews of 511 are encouraging, numerous issues
have yet to be resolved in developing and implementing the system, sometimes
referred to as the 911 for traveler information. Highway officials and groups
such as the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials
(AASHTO) and the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America)
are working to establish 511 standards and policies across vastly different
Equally daunting to officials such as Walden is the relatively high
profile 511 will offer, something the self-deprecating government engineer
isn't used to. "We want the system to work well from the get-go," Walden
said. "We don't want to have egg on our face."
The 511 system has its roots in the area around Cincinnati and northern
Kentucky. In the early 1990s, when confronted with massive highway reconstruction
that was expected to tie up traffic for years, KYTC officials and others
figured one measure that could reduce congestion was a phone number travelers
could call for information on traffic, road conditions and construction.
The Kentucky Public Service Commission agreed in June 1995, and 211 was
established as the number to call; it was later changed to 511.
After witnessing the system's traffic-management and public-service
impact, state and federal highway officials — along with ITS America, AASHTO
and other organizations — began lobbying for a national number. The federal
Department of Transportation petitioned the Federal Communications Commission
to adopt a new nationwide three-digit number in March 1999. To the surprise
of many, on July 21, 2000, the FCC designated 511 as the single traffic
information number for state and local jurisdictions nationwide.
"I don't think people in the industry handicapped this as much better
than an even bet the FCC would come through," said Larry Yermack, vice chairman
of the ITS America board of directors and president of a Rockville, Md.,
telecommunications company. "The fact [the FCC] was willing to step back
and see a public purpose in this project is a tribute to its foresight."
Kentucky Expands 511 Statewide
The potential of 511 is evident upon closer inspection of the northern
Kentucky- Cincinnati area, home to 1.9 million people and one of several
areas whose leaders volunteered to share their 511 experience with federal
and state highway officials.
The northern Kentucky system uses many intelligent transportation system
(ITS) devices and sources to provide current traffic information from 6
a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. ITS devices include closed-circuit
video cameras, radar and video-imaging detectors, distance reference markers
and inductive loops, which are magnetic mechanisms that estimate the speed
and number of vehicles on a road. Other sources of information include freeway
service patrols and aircraft, police and fire departments, emergency communicators
and construction personnel.
This information is assembled in a Cincinnati control center, where
a private contractor produces interactive voice recordings that are updated
about every 20 minutes. Walden said it is an ongoing challenge to gather
accurate and complete information, given the many roadways that must be
"Any 511 system must have good, credible information or the public won't
call back," he said.
Callers to the region's 511 system reach an automated menu that enables
them to check traffic conditions on major roadways. For example, travelers
may be advised to watch for an accident and emergency vehicles along a certain
stretch; in some cases, they will be offered alternate routes. Or drivers
may be informed that traffic is running smoothly and given an estimated
driving time from point A to point B. They also have the option of retrieving
mass transit and highway construction information.
About 1 million calls, averaging 75 seconds each, are made each year
to the 511 system. About 60 percent are calls from landline phones; the
rest are made from wireless phones. The Ohio Department of Transportation
and KYTC pay for local landline calls — a cost of about $135,000 annually
— but wireless calls to 511 are paid for by the wireless phone company.
The popularity of the Kentucky system is evident in a three-month study
that compared northern Kentucky travelers, who had access to a three-digit
number, to Ohio motorists, who had access to a seven-digit number (333-3333).
Although more Cincinnati-area travelers called during the study period — not surprising given its larger population center — on a per-capita basis
far more Kentucky motorists dialed the easy-to- remember traveler-information
Further, a March 1999 University of Kentucky survey of 579 people who
had called 511 found that 99 percent benefited by avoiding traffic problems,
saving time, reducing frustration or arriving at their destinations on time.
Survey respondents said they most often took another route or changed their
departure time after learning of traffic problems. Sixty-five percent of
those surveyed said they'd be willing to pay for 511 calls, while the most
common suggestion was extending the service hours and routes covered.
Kentucky will implement a statewide 511 system by May 1, becoming the
first to do so. "We're saying we're kind of like Daniel Boone blazing the
wilderness trail across the Cumberland Gap and opening up the West," Walden
said. "We're blazing a trail for everybody else with 511."
However, trying to reach an agreement between state transportation officials
and telephone carriers may slow progress. The state's 31 landline and cellular
telephone carriers are critical to making a 511 system viable. If all the
carriers can't reach an agreement with state transportation officials, callers
in certain areas won't be able to access 511.
Walden is trying to convince landline carriers that they should provide
511 access free to callers and only be reimbursed for start-up costs. But
Kentucky and Ohio have already been paying a landline carrier for 511 calls
in the Cincinnati-northern Kentucky region, and not surprisingly, that carrier
is reluctant to give up the subsidy.
Assuming carrier agreements are reached, Kentucky's plan is for 511
to initially be available to interstate and parkway travelers across the
state. These heavily traveled roadways already have numerous ITS features
and traffic-monitoring sources that can be tapped to provide travelers with
Additionally, an existing toll-free line — from which travelers can
access information on delays caused by construction, weather and major accidents
on major roads — is expected to be converted to 511 in a few months. Perhaps
in a couple of years, motorists in Louisville, Lexington and the Cumberland
Gap area near Williamsburg will have access to the same level of information
travelers now have in northern Kentucky, Walden said.
As Walden reflects on his 511 experience, he recognizes the value of
diplomacy — something he wasn't taught in engineering school. For Walden,
diplomatic skills have proven invaluable when recommending policy to federal
highway officials, when encouraging the state fire marshal to contribute
helpful traveler information to the system or when dealing with 911 operators
who mistakenly fear 511 will mean more work for them.
Walden's experience has also required him to become fairly proficient
in telecommunications infrastructure, equipment and jargon. And although
that has meant a steep learning curve at times, he's not complaining.
"It's worth it if we can provide more useful information to more travelers,"
Finding Common Ground
At the national level, Pani-ati is enthused about the prospect of switching
some 300 existing traveler information numbers to 511. He said up to $50,000
in federal grants is available to aid in the conversion process.
"We think 511 will increase safety and productivity, and save time and
money. And it will offer more peace of mind because people will know what
they're facing on the roads," he said.
Although the 511 system has generated considerable enthusiasm, it is
tempered with uncertainty: What sort of standard traveler information should
be available in 511 systems nationwide? Should state and local governments
charge for the service or subsidize it? Should governments partner with
private firms to operate 511 or go it alone?
"The FCC did a wonderful thing when it allocated 511, but it did it
with a set of vague and general policies," said Yermack of ITS America.
"We still need to translate those gabillion issues into a viable system."
AASHTO, an organization representing thousands of government transportation
executives and workers in 50 states and elsewhere, is a lead agency in developing
policy for and deploying 511, said Jim Wright, a Minnesota Department of
Transportation executive representing AASHTO in the 511 national rollout.
The Washington, D.C.-based organization is receiving input from other groups,
including the American Public Transportation Association, the National Association
of Counties, the National Association of County Engineers, local telephone
carriers and others.
AASHTO's contract with the federal Transportation Department calls for
the group to forge policy recommendations on, among other things, the consistency
and quality of 511 information and access. Wright said AASHTO is also studying
511's developmental and operational costs, and is examining cost-recovery
methods — for example, accepting advertising or fees. AASHTO must file its
policy recommendations by April 1, when the nationwide 511 rollout officially
"We're trying to learn what we can from the early deployers while also
looking at the system broadly," Wright said. "We're also learning from how
911 was rolled out."
A primary issue still up in the air as of late January was what sort
of basic traveler information should be available from any 511 system. Many
believe travelers on a cross-country trek, for example, should feel confident
that they're getting consistent, accurate, current information as they cross
state lines. To ensure that consistency, some — perhaps many — states and
local jurisdictions will be discussing 511 plans with their neighbors.
But even when there is agreement on standard traveler information, 511
systems are bound to differ on the level and type of detail. For instance,
although some 511 systems may only offer a portal to mass transit information,
others may present menu options on tourism and a host of travel-oriented
commercial enterprises, such as gas stations, restaurants and motels.
"There are a world of services 511 could lead you to," Yermack said.
"The question is, how far down the menu will you have uniform traveler information
before it changes?"
As for government involvement, at this time there doesn't appear to
be consensus on whether jurisdictions should operate the service themselves
or form public/ private partnerships. Kentucky plans to operate 511 by itself,
while Minnesota intends to engage in a partnership, believing its private-sector
associate could adapt more quickly to changing technology and other circumstances.
Those who eagerly anticipate states' 511 deployment realize it will
take a while. The federal Transportation Department hopes that 511 systems
will be operating in most cities and states within five years — when the
FCC plans to review the systems' progress. But even with extensive implementation,
officials fully expect some "dead spots," areas where travelers won't be
able to access 511 possibly because of terrain, tower location or lack of
a carrier agreement.
Even if the five-year timeline is met, Walden said he wouldn't be surprised
if government isn't the primary agent for delivering 511 services within
a decade. He believes private firms might well receive government approval
to offer in-vehicle "telematics" devices that could collect and supply directions
to destinations, information on upcoming road conditions and other useful
traveler reports. Advertising income could make the information available
to travelers for free or at a reduced cost.
If that happens, would Walden be depressed that all his work was for
Not at all, he answered matter-of-factly. "For the time being, the government
is playing an important role in communicating useful information to drivers."
Meyer is a St. Louis Park, Minn., freelancer who writes for a variety of
national business, consumer and general interest magazines.