As departments of transportation deploy technologies to better manage traffic and reduce congestion, they continue defining the roles that the public and private sectors should play.

The federal Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) program -- which improves transportation safety and mobility, and enhances productivity through use of advanced communications technologies, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation -- has long encouraged public-private partnerships.

Under one of its recent initiatives, the Intelligent Transportation Infrastructure Program (ITIP), 16 cities formed partnerships with Traffic.com -- the firm selected by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) as the private-sector entity in the new ITS initiative.

But as state and local governments create their own traffic information systems or work with other vendors to build such systems, participating in the federal ITS programs could cause trouble -- some cities fear that by participating in this program, local agencies will have to share their equipment, data and revenues with a private entity.

Other Options

A firm called Traffic.com has installed traffic detectors at various roadsides in those 16 cities. The company will process data from those and other sources; provide the processed data to state and local departments of transportation; and deliver traffic information to the public via the Web, radio, television and other media.

Over the next 10 years, ITIP will provide $2 million to each of those cities to fund work with Traffic.com. But DOTs in some metropolitan areas said they would rather not partner with Traffic.com, or have tried and failed to reach an agreement with the company.

"[ITIP] was a good program for an area that was fairly young in its development, or had very little ITS and didn't have an incumbent information service provider," said Jesus Martinez, ITS administrator for District 6 of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), where officials decided not to do business with Traffic.com. "But for one that already had a vibrant program and was well on its way, the terms were too onerous."

Another disagreement is cities participating in ITIP must, under federal rules, sign on with Traffic.com.

Soon, another 11 cities may receive the same federal support under a new initiative, the two-part Transportation Technology Innovation and Demonstration (TTID) Program. Part II of the TTID offers funding for similar projects, but with one major difference: Instead of requiring DOTs to work with Traffic.com, the FHWA will choose one or more private partners through a competitive process with appropriate input and consent from the selected metropolitan areas, according to an Oct. 19, 2005 notice in the Federal Register.

Traffic.com will compete to participate in Part II, said John Collins, vice president of ITS and telematics at Traffic.com. But this new initiative also leaves the field open to other vendors.

According to the FHWA, its two programs have the same primary goal -- to enhance deployment of ITS infrastructure to aid in transportation planning and analysis. Many cities and states already have networks of traffic sensors, but some don't, or their deployments may be incomplete, said Nancy Singer, an FHWA spokeswoman.

Benefits of the program, Singer said, include improved data management and accessibility, real-time and archived performance data, additional surveillance in areas with gaps in coverage, and free public access to basic traveler information.

DOTs in eligible metropolitan areas had until Feb. 6, 2006, to tell the FHWA they wanted to enter into negotiations to take part in TTID.

More Flexible

The new rules for Part II came as good news to FDOT officials in District 6, which includes Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

"We may put in an application for Phase II," said Martinez. "Our understanding of Phase II is that it's a lot more flexible."

FDOT spent several years negotiating with Traffic.com about a possible relationship under ITIP. In the meantime, the department installed its own network of radar-based traffic detectors and closed-circuit TV cameras on major expressways. With much of that deployment complete, South Florida no longer needs sensors from Traffic.com, Martinez said.

District 6 also shied away from the relationship because it already supplies its data to another commercial provider of traffic information, SmartRoute Systems, based in Cambridge, Mass., and Houston. The FDOT pays SmartRoute to run a traveler information Web site, which the public uses free of charge.

Traffic.com would have provided some traffic information to the public for free and then charged for premium services, Martinez said. If both vendors competed in South Florida, residents could still get traffic information -- gained through the FDOT-owned sensors -- from SmartRoute at no cost.

But residents would have to pay Traffic.com for data taken from the company's sensors, Martinez said.

"You can imagine how well liked or perceived we're going to be in the press," he said of that scenario.

"We made a large investment in our partnership with SmartRoute," he continued, adding that if the FDOT also did business with Traffic.com, as a condition of accepting the federal funds, "we would be essentially introducing competition or cannibalizing potential revenue opportunities."

Traffic.com, however, recently announced it would stop charging individual users for premium services provided through its Web site, such as the ability to register for traffic alerts delivered via e-mail or phone. Instead, these would be "subsidized by advertising," Collins said.

Along with running ads, Traffic.com also earns revenues by repackaging its information for media outlets such as local TV and radio stations, the Weather Channel, and XM Satellite Radio.

Besides giving more choices about a private-sector partner, Part II of TTID might also allow the FDOT to implement traffic detectors on its arterial highways, where microwave-based sensors like Traffic.com's aren't effective, Martinez said. One potential technology, he said, derives traffic speed by collecting signals from cell phones.

But Traffic.com might provide exactly that kind of detection technology to another DOT.

The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) has signed an agreement to accept FHWA funding to work with Traffic.com in Salt Lake City. Like South Florida, UDOT has all the traffic sensors it needs on freeways.

"We don't have the type of detection we would like on our arterials," says Richard Manser, ITD deployment engineer with the UDOT's Traffic Operations Center in Salt Lake City. So officials there are talking with Traffic.com about alternative technologies for those secondary roads.

"We've entered into a contract with a company called AirSage [of Marietta, Ga.]," said Collins. "We're using them as a subcontractor to anonymously use cell phone data to get travel times, and derivatively, travel speeds on the arterial road network."

Quality Control and Reports

Using software developed by the California Department of Transportation, Traffic.com will analyze data from UDOT's freeway sensors to check their performance and spot possible problems. The software will also help the company create an archive of traffic data, which UDOT can use to obtain reports.

"We could go in and pull up reports on what the traffic congestion looks like on a particular day, time of day or a particular event historically -- say the Fourth of July," Manser said.

This kind of information helps DOTs figure out what roads they can close for construction on particular days, based on the expected demand for those roads, Collins said. The system also helps policymakers understand how well roads are performing and helps planners discern future performance, he said.

Traffic.com is subsidizing the $500,000 in non-federal matching funds that DOTs must provide to receive the FHWA's $2 million grant, Manser said.

"We're not putting in anything out of pocket other than staff time," Manser said of the 10-year contract.

At the same time it's providing these services to UDOT, Traffic.com will use data from traffic sensors in the area to provide commercial traffic information services. And that's fine with UDOT.

"We have an open policy with our data, and we share it pretty much with anyone who's willing to sign an agreement," said Manser. "We want our information out to as many customers as we can get it to."

The department already provides data to other information service providers, and maintains its own traffic information site, he said.

Finding the Balance

It's no surprise that different DOTs have different ideas about working the private sector into their plans to provide traffic information, said Jim Wright, an executive from the Minnesota DOT on loan to the American Association of State Transportation and Highway Executives (AASHTO).

Working closely with other national transportation organizations, AASHTO leads a coalition to develop and deploy 511 services, which provide traffic information via phone and the Web.

"There are varying levels of sophistication across the states right now, and there are varying levels of interest," said Wright, who manages the 511 program for AASHTO. Right now, 511 services are available in about 24 states across the country, and members of the coalition hope these programs will appear statewide over the next couple of years, he said.

If that's accomplished, he explained, it might be easier to find private-sector partners to provide high-quality services that would require a lesser financial investment for some of the states.

"I'd hope the private sector can play a bigger, more significant role in premium services and [provide] a revenue source that would sustain these traveler information services," Wright said.

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer