The Integration Highway

When it comes to transportation, the United States is No.1.

by / June 12, 2006
When it comes to transportation, the United States is No.1. We have more miles of highway and railroad, we drive more miles in our vehicles, and we fly more passengers in our airplanes than any other country in the world.

The transportation market is a $600 billion industry, according to, with the public sector contributing vast sums. For example, in 2005, the Census Bureau reported that federal, state and local governments spent $66 billion on roads. And according to the American Public Transportation Association, public transportation is a $27 billion industry.

Also in 2005, state and local governments spent $1.8 billion on transportation IT systems, according to INPUT. By 2009, IT spending will have increased to $2.5 billion. Meanwhile the federal government has proposed spending $2.7 billion on transportation-related IT projects in fiscal 2007.

While it's hard to envision the vast number of IT projects taking place in the transportation industry, it is even harder to imagine an overall strategy for sharing data between the various levels of government. Repeated requests to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of the CIO for an overview of its data sharing strategy were unanswered.

But in reality, a lot of sharing is going on. Many agencies at the federal, state and local levels are working on individual projects to integrate information at different levels of government, or across jurisdictions at the same level. They are also working to improve data sharing between transportation and law enforcement, as well as between environmental protection and other disciplines.

Data on Changing Conditions
As acting strategy manager for the government practice at SAS, a business analytics software firm, Alyssa Alexander works with many transportation departments. She observed that state departments of transportation (DOTs) are increasingly sharing data on road conditions through statewide geographic information councils and plotting the data into map displays. The GIS shop can code the maps to indicate where the roads are in the best and worst condition due to construction projects. The DOTs also analyze stretches of highway to predict which are likely to see more accidents because of construction.

"They're making sure public safety officers are aware of changes in road conditions so that they're able to respond quickly to traffic incidents if there's a higher likelihood," Alexander said, adding that the DOTs are trying to develop better mechanisms for routing this road condition data through their GIS departments and to the public safety departments.

Safety research -- particularly concerning incident tracking -- is one of the priorities in transportation data sharing, according to Alexander.

State departments of public safety normally collect incident-related data. "They must communicate the appropriate data points into the department of transportation, so that at a planning level, the department of transportation can improve the safety of a particular intersection or the speed along the roadway," she said.

SAS has been working with clients on systems for collecting incident data, as well as Web presentations, Alexander said. "The Web sites that provide this information through static reports or ad hoc queries are the ones we see a lot more of. They're in development, and there's some grant funding from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to support those types of programs."

Transportation's Umbrella
Efforts to share incident data, and many other data sharing initiatives, could get a major boost from a program to develop sets of extensible markup language (XML) schemas for transportation. Government and industry participants recently completed a project, funded by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, which is sponsored by state DOTs and the FHWA, to define TransXML data exchange formats for applications in four areas: survey/roadway design, transportation construction/materials, highway bridge structures and transportation safety.

Participants hope the TransXML framework will eventually cover many more disciplines. "They have planned interfaces for public safety, rail, local transit, ferries, accounting and aerospace applications," Alexander said.

TransXML is intended to be a one-stop shopping umbrella that covers the transportation industry, said Steve Brown, applications development manager at the Nebraska Department of Roads (NDOR)."But it's still in its infancy." A self-proclaimed "data sharing/XML evangelist," Brown serves on the technical applications architecture task force of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials -- a committee that played a major role in writing the project's proposal.

Like any XML framework, TransXML provides a way to exchange data among different software applications, even those not designed to be interoperable. With schemas already in place for exchanging data on transportation safety, local law enforcement agencies using a variety of systems to record data on highway crashes could easily submit that information to a state transportation department. "We can then keep it centrally, so we can do our hazardous location analysis, safety analysis, and then make that available -- all of our data -- back to the local law enforcement if they're interested in utilizing it," Brown said. The state could also send the collected data to federal agencies without worrying about data format requirements.

Hopefully, Brown said, officials at the NDOR will start using TransXML in the next 18 months.

Some other applications for TransXML will have to wait until more schemas are developed. Local governments could use it to store information about tax lots and landowners, and submit it to the states. "We can use it when we buy right of way, when we permit, when we do access control," Brown said. "Then all that information can be submitted nationally, hopefully, for census and other land management uses."

In long-haul trucking, TransXML could streamline the process of obtaining oversized/overweight permits. Today, if a truck needs to haul an oversized or overweight load across several states, the trucking company or its agent must apply separately to each state the load will cross. With TransXML formats, the company could apply once and then submit that one application to each state, paying the necessary fees and getting the permits in one transaction, Brown said.

TransXML could also help governments cooperating on cross-border highway facilities. When Nebraska works with Iowa or South Dakota on a road with a cross-border bridge, Brown said, road and bridge design is a collaborative and cooperative effort using their respective systems. Using TransXML, the states can create a single transportation system model, "even though it's designed with different software, with different teams, with different people."

The same principle applies when the state builds a highway that crosses city or county lines, he said.

While the group has achieved its goal of developing and demonstrating TransXML schemas in the four defined areas, as of March it had still not completed one important task -- finding an organization to take long-term ownership of TransXML and keep the initiative going. "If there is no long-term owner and keeper, it falls apart," Brown said.

Road Maps and GIS Intersect
Many data sharing arrangements that involve transportation focus on GIS. The Tucson, Ariz., DOT (TDOT) has been exchanging GIS files with Pima County and other members of the Pima Association of Governments since the 1990s.

Transportation agencies started by making a variety of digital maps on their Web sites available to anyone in the public or private sectors. Local governments also continue to share data via TDOT's maps and records server. "We pass orthophotography around like it was candy," said Ron Platt, IT manager of the TDOT. Since all the participants use GIS software from ESRI of Redlands, Calif., there are no compatibility issues, he said.

One county project that uses GIS data from TDOT is the Sonoran Desert Conservation plan, a land-use planning project to protect the desert's habitat. Many of the washes -- stream beds that contain no water -- have been digitized off the orthophotography and shared with the county, Platt said.

GIS is also the focus of a project in the state of Washington that will involve data integration with other departments. The effort comes as part of a project to replace many of the critical information management systems at the Washington State DOT (WSDOT). The plan is to tie the new systems -- for managing highway construction, finance and a host of other activities -- to the WSDOT's GIS tools, and add a geographic dimension to the information.

"When you're trying to make a decision on what investments have been made or need to be made in an area, you can call up everything from engineering drawings to financials" connected with any project on the map, said David Hamrick, WSDOT's CIO. The agency plans to include data layers provided by the state Department of Natural Resources and other departments that own assets across the state, he said.

In another sharing initiative, Washington state is working with Oregon and local governments within the two states on a Web-based trip planning system, which Hamrick described as almost like a MapQuest for public transportation. When the system is complete, "you can go in and say, 'I need to get from Spokane to this address in Portland,' and it will map all the possible public transportation methods you can use to get there," he said.

Each transportation authority will continue to maintain its own schedule data. Initially authorities will have to periodically upload fresh schedules to keep the integrated system up to date. "In a future phase, we'll start looking at connections to be able to just automatically update from local systems," Hamrick said.

Commercial Drivers, Problem Drivers
For years, state motor vehicle departments have shared data on commercial drivers through the Commercial Driver License Information System (CDLIS), operated by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. Each state maintains CDL data in its own management system, and the CDLIS operates as a "pointer system," said Barry Goleman, specialist leader for the transportation and motor vehicle practice at Deloitte Consulting in Sacramento, Calif. When an employee at a DMV in one state makes a query about a commercial driver, the system can see who has licensed that driver and route the request to that state.

If a truck driver from Florida applies for a CDL in New York, for example, the DMV will query the system to make sure the license is on record in Florida, and that the driver has only one license record, Goleman said. When New York issues the license, the record is electronically transferred to Florida. "And if that driver subsequently gets a traffic conviction in Illinois, after that conviction is processed, Illinois electronically routes that to New York for posting on his home state driver record," he said.

The U.S. DOT's National Highway Transportation Safety Administration operates a parallel system for noncommercial drivers' licenses. Called the National Driver Register (NDR), it allows motor vehicle officials in one state to check DMV databases in other states before issuing new licenses, Goleman said.

"That prevents somebody who has a Maryland license and gets suspended for drunken driving from going across the border to Virginia and saying, "'I've never had a license before; I want to get a license here; I've just moved here,'" Goleman said. Like the CDLIS, the NDR uses a federated data system; each state maintains its own data, but other states' DMVs can access the information as needed.

Other transportation agencies also query the NDR to obtain driver license data for activities that they regulate: the Federal Aviation Administration for airman medical certification; the Federal Railroad Administration for locomotive operators; the Coast Guard for merchant marines and servicemen; and the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for accident investigations.

Had the system been available in 1989, it might have averted the Exxon Valdez disaster, Goleman said. The oil tanker's captain, Joseph Hazelwood, had been arrested several times for drunken driving. "They check all their maritime certificates against this database to look for people who have a history of those kinds of convictions."
Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer