Notes from the Field

"The way to solve the traffic problems of the country is to pass a law that only paid-for cars are allowed to use the highways." -- Will Rogers, 1949

by / May 31, 1998
Recently, Congress gutted funding for intelligent transportation systems (ITS), choosing concrete over street smarts.

The problem is evident in nearly every American city, as motorists lose 2 billion hours in traffic congestion at an annual cost to the economy of $51 billion -- and the problem is getting worse. In 10 years, traffic is predicted to increase by as much as 50 percent, while overall highway mileage will barely increase. Besides hurting the economy, our love affair with the automobile damages the environment, reduces quality of life and is detrimental to safety.

The solution is not more concrete and blacktop. Most transportation experts and public policy-makers agree that the days of building new roads is over. What's needed, they say, is a better, safer and more efficient way to use the roads and highways that already exist. The way to do that is with ITS.


ITS controls the flow of traffic with computerized signals, speeds vehicles through highway and bridge tolls with electronic collection systems, helps travelers navigate around congestion and accidents, and warns drivers of impending collisions.

ITS took off in 1991 with passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). During ISTEA's six-year run, the U.S. Department of Transportation was authorized to spend approximately $1.3 billion on a range of ITS research, development and testing programs.

ITS has proved itself and has delivered tangible benefits. For example, according to U.S. Department of Transportation figures, freeway management systems can reduce accidents by 17 percent while permitting highways to handle as much as 22-percent more traffic at greater speeds. Computerized traffic signals can decrease travel times by 14 percent, reduce delays by 37 percent and increase speeds by 22 percent. Incident management systems have reduced incident-related congestion and delays by as much as 60 percent. The list goes on.

Time to Act

With testing done and most systems demonstrating positive results, it's time for the country to deploy ITS nationally, urged federal, state and local transportation officials. As Richard Baum, member of the board of directors for the nonprofit ITS America, told Congress last January: "If the prime goals of ISTEA -- namely intermodalism and efficiency -- are to be realized, then ITS technologies need to be deployed in a systematic and interoperable manner across the nation."

What ITS also needs is funding that covers more than the capital cost of building complex information systems. As every state and local IT official knows, it takes lots of money to manage and maintain computer hardware, software and communications infrastructure. Information technology changes rapidly and, without adequate funds, it quickly becomes obsolete.

Concrete Overshoes

Unfortunately, Congress continues to prefer concrete to computers when it comes to improving surface transportation. When Congress drafted legislation for the recent ISTEA reauthorization bill, the Clinton administration -- with the backing of state and local governments -- proposed changing the definition of "operations and maintenance" as it applied to federal-aid highway dollars from the Highway Trust Fund. The change included ITS operations and maintenance as an eligible expense.

In other words, change the definition of what highway programs are eligible for ongoing support, and you increase the amount of federal money available for ITS operations and maintenance, in addition to capital costs.

While the Senate ISTEA reauthorization bill included this proposal, the House version did not. When the House/Senate conference committee met in April to reconcile the two ISTEA bills, it threw out the more flexible language in the Senate version.

Mark Johnson, legislative liaison for ITS America, called the action a significant defeat for expanding the funding eligibility of ITS operations. Without flexibility in the language, deploying ITS on a national scale will become more difficult.

In explaining their unwillingness to back the Senate's version, House committee staff members told Johnson that the reauthorization bill already contained sufficient language to support the funding of ITS operations and maintenance. What they didn't tell him and others is that the House, under pressure from the highway lobby, is unwilling to use highway funds for anything other than asphalt, concrete and bridges.

National deployment of ITS is backed by a broad spectrum of organizations, including representatives of state and local government. In 20 years, the ITS marketplace could reach a staggering $437 billion and create 590,000 jobs, in addition to reducing accidents, cutting commute time and improving the environment. But unless Congress stops viewing transportation through the rear-view mirror and starts looking up the road, we'll never find out.

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