Smart roads could help homeland

Intelligent transportation systems, originally conceived of as a way to reduce traffic congestion in major metropolitan areas, are now being considered for roles in homeland security.

Such systems use a range of technologies, including cameras, telecommunications and sensors, to make commuting easier and safer. More than 384 public transit systems nationwide have implemented or are installing some of these devices.

Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, intelligent transportation system (ITS) applications "were thought to be limited in helping relieve congestion and improving safety," according to a recent report from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Highways and Transit Subcommittee. Now they "are finding a more broad, homeland security function."

Possible uses run the homeland security gamut, including monitoring critical infrastructure, evacuating cities and communicating with drivers. For example, telematics providers — which deliver information to drivers in vehicles — are working on sending "reverse 911" messages to cars, alerting them about emergencies.

One example of ITS helping emergency efforts occurred Sept. 11, 2001: The traffic management center in Arlington, Va., quarantined roads around the Pentagon, reversed High Occupancy Vehicle lane direction on Interstate 395 and optimized traffic signal times to help improve the flow of traffic as people left the area, said C. Michael Walton, chairman of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.

"The same ITS technologies in use today to manage traffic flows and mitigate congestion can be adapted to make the infrastructure and the traveler more secure," he said, testifying last week before the subcommittee. "Some of these technologies include smart cards, biometric identifiers, automatic vehicle location [and] map databases."

ITS America, a public/private venture that advises the Transportation Department, wants to link all those technologies and asked Congress to fund an integrated network of transportation information as part of its 10-year plan for smart travel, unveiled in January at the Transportation Research Board's annual meeting.

"We see first-hand the fragmented nature of the ITS...that are being built," David Jannetta, president of Mobility Technologies, an ITS data services company, said at the hearing. "A national, interoperable approach is needed to ensure [that] the public agencies have access to reliable information about homeland security and have the ability to communicate needed information to the public."

The project will require new software and hardware, national technical standards for that equipment and money, said Jeff Morales, director of California's Transportation Department.

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