Street smart

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

it.

"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

transit.

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

more quickly.

"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

way."

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

jurisdictions.

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

scanned.

"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

number.

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

useful information.

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,"

he said.

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

begins.

"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

naught?

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.

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