A new use for street smarts

Intelligent transportation systems, originally conceived of as a way to reduce traffic congestion in major metropolitan areas, are now being considered on Capitol Hill 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 in the process of 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.

The systems played a role in the response to last year's terrorist attacks and have "wide applicability in future efforts to anticipate, deter and respond to terrorist attacks and other disasters," said C. Michael Walton, chairman of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, testifying Sept. 10 before the subcommittee.

For example, 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, Walton said.

"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. "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.

"Altogether, ITS can help provide a transportation system that is more secure, better able to respond to crises of any kind, and well-equipped to aid and support the many agencies, both within and outside the transportation arena, involved in all aspects of security," Walton said.

"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.

Some at the congressional meeting criticized the lack of attention ITS has received from the public. In the past, the movement also has taken flak for progressing too slowly despite its multibillion-dollar federal budget.

That could change with the current emphasis on homeland security. "It is critical that cities have the resources needed to properly prepare for and respond to a wide variety of emergency situations," said Miguel d'Escoto, commissioner of Chicago's Transportation Department.

***

Thinking ahead about intelligent roads

Intelligent transportation systems have a slew of tools that can be used for homeland security, according to the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, including:

Preparedness — Training transportation officials for emergency situations.

Prevention — Continuous surveys of the road and rail infrastructure to detect tampering or misuse.

Protection — The ability to activate alternate routes during emergencies.

Response — Providing data about the status of vehicles carrying hazardous materials in the vicinity of a crisis scene.

Recovery — Making maximum use of available road capacity.

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