States round up 511 resources

Eight states, from Alaska to Maine, are pooling resources and expertise to develop a 511 voice-enabled phone service for travelers.

Led by the Iowa Department of Transportation (www.dot.state.ia.us), the multistate consortium received $700,000 from the Federal Highway Administration to help pay for system design and software development. Each state also is providing a 20 percent matching fund that should boost total funds to nearly $900,000.

John Whited, the Iowa DOT's project manager of advanced transportation technology, said the participating states currently deliver traveler information in various forms, including via the Internet and telephone hot lines.

He said the states would use Voice XML (Extensible Markup Language) standards and technology to create a voice-enabled traveler service similar to what Utah unveiled in December. Once connected with that system, callers find information by speaking keywords instead of punching numbers.

Whited added that by outsourcing calls to call centers in participating states — thus spanning several time zones — high call volumes during peak times can be shifted throughout the system, reducing congestion and costs.

In addition to Iowa, the participating states are Alaska, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Vermont. Kentucky, which has established a 511 system in the northern part of the state — in the Cincinnati metropolitan region — joined the consortium most recently.

In 1999, Iowa was among four states — Minnesota, Missouri and Washington were the other — that formed a partnership to develop the Condition Acquisition and Reporting System. CARS gives access to data on road conditions, work zones and incident management information collected via the World Wide Web. He said the 511 consortium was built on that initial partnership and is always seeking new members.

Iowa, which currently offers a toll-free telephone number and a Web site for road conditions and construction, plans to unveil a 511 system next winter, Whited said. He added that the system also could provide information on special events, trip planning and local tourist sites. He said each state would deploy the 511 service in some form within a year. The Federal Communications Commission designated 511 as a traveler's information number in July 2000, but it allowed each state to develop its own system. The FCC plans to review the national progress of 511 in 2005.

In related news, Virginia recently launched 511 service in the western part of the state, providing traffic and road condition updates from both landline and wireless phones. The system eventually will be deployed statewide.

Virginia's system is built on an Internet-based telecommunications network by Tellme Networks Inc., which helped develop Utah's voice-enabled 511 system.

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