Transportation Takes the NEXTEA Plunge

NEXTEA, the National Economic Crossroads Transportation Efficiency Act, is ramping up for intelligent transportation.

by / April 30, 1997
NEXTEA, the National Economic Crossroads Transportation Efficiency Act -- a 1997 reauthorization and update of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) -- has a greater potential impact on state and local government information technology than any other federal legislation.

In addition to demonstrating the federal government still dominates the acronym competition, NEXTEA is designed to build on ISTEA's pioneering work to incorporate technology into transportation. While the bulk of the funding on proposed and prior transportation bills is earmarked for bridges, highways, transit systems and other traditional transportation infrastructure, this bill devotes significant funding for automated travel technologies, known as intelligent transportation systems (ITS).

ISTEA first authorized $645 million for ITS projects for the fiscal years 1992 through 1997. These funds were later supplemented by an additional $459.3 million. Of this total of just over $1.1 billion, $991 million was allocated by the end of fiscal year 1996.

Of the allocated funds, 57 percent was devoted to operational tests and ITS corridor projects, with the balance for research and development, system architecture and other specific programs. For fiscal years 1998-2002, NEXTEA authorizes $1.3 billion for ITS projects.

The new legislation includes a $100 million-per-year incentive program to encourage ITS technology integration. The Intelligent Transportation Infrastructure Deployment Incentives Program provides funding to state and local governments to "support integration [not components] of metropolitan area travel management intelligent infrastructure, intelligent infrastructure elements in rural areas, and commercial vehicle information structure and networks (CVISN)," according to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). In addition to integrating ITS systems, the goal of the legislation is "to balance deployment, research and testing," said Jeff Lindley, deputy director of FHWA's ITS Joint Project Office.


The ITS program has funded research, technology development and testing and deployment of first-generation ITS applications. It is designed to address six program areas. These include:

Enabling Research, which promotes a comprehensive system architecture and standards for ITS;
Advanced Metropolitan Travel Management, which addresses traffic management, traveler information and transit management;
Advanced Rural Transportation Systems, which applies ITS to address safety and mobility problems in rural areas;
Commercial Vehicle Operations, to increase safety, productivity and efficiency in commercial vehicles;
Advanced Collision Avoidance and Vehicle Safety Systems; and
Automated Highway Systems, to promote communications between "smart" vehicles and the transportation infrastructure.
Chief among the benefits of ITS are improved efficiency and enhanced use of the existing transportation network, according to FHWA. Already, traffic incident management systems have reduced accidents and other related delays by up to 60 percent; electronic toll collection has dramatically reduced delays at toll collection facilities; and automated traffic signal systems have reduced travel times and delays.

Other benefits include accident prevention, more rapid response to accidents and a reduction in operating costs. Reduced air pollution is a side benefit to the ITS program because of reduced delays and increased travel efficiency.

The challenge of NEXTEA is to promote a more integrated system. The existing legislation promoted the development, testing and implementation of ITS in selected areas around the country. Just as "stove-pipe" information systems in state and local government inhibit information sharing and its related efficiencies, stove-pipe ITS solutions do not take advantage of potential efficiencies gained through integrated systems.

In addition to increasing ITS integration through funding incentives and establishing standards, NEXTEA will invest in what could be called the second generation of ITS: smart vehicles that can communicate with what FHWA calls the "intelligent transportation infrastructure."

While most of the money in the new highway bill will fund traditional transportation projects, the experience gained in the last five years has clearly established ITS as an integral part of the transportation system.

This view was underscored by Christine Johnson, director of the ITS Joint Project Office of FHWA, in a recent speech to the Transportation Research Board. According to Johnson, "ITS should begin to be understood as the very enabler of the vision of ISTEA. It is the infrastructure -- both in the ground and in the vehicle -- that will enable the new mission of management. It will enable the breakthroughs of efficiency and safety that we need to remain competitive as we enter the 21st century."

Additional information on ITS can be found in the following FHWA reports: Key Findings from the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Program (September 1996. Publication No. FHWA-JPO-96-0036); Review of ITS Benefits: Emerging Successes, (September 1996. Publication No. FHWA-JPO-97-001); Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Projects Book (January 1997. Publication No. FHWA-JPO-97- 007).

Milford Sprecher is a program director for IDC Government of Falls Church, Va., where he tracks technology use in the public sector.



Electronic Tolls Make Change
Road and bridge tolls are a curse and a blessing for travelers -- cursed for delays, the need to have correct change and the increased cost of commuting. With funding for roads increasingly scarce, tolls are also a blessing -- they help state and local governments build and maintain transportation networks.

Federal, state and local governments are seeking ways to increase the efficiency of the transportation system, and electronic toll collection is a solution that can reduce costs and delays, and improve convenience for drivers. As these systems begin to appear around the country, electronic toll collection has already passed its most severe test in New York City.

The Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority has a large and lucrative electronic toll collection system -- known as E-Z Pass -- which has been running on the authority's seven bridges and two tunnels since January.

The agency had projected that about 170,000 commuters would install transponders -- the devices used to signal the system -- by the end of 1997. The authority, however, has already issued 570,00 in the first three months of this year and is adding an estimated 3,000 more per day.

Normally skeptical and impatient, New Yorkers have signed on in droves because of the convenience and dramatic reduction in wait time -- over 90 percent in some cases -- at toll plazas.

To enroll in the system, drivers establish an account with the authority via credit card, check or cash payment, and are then issued a transponder to mount in their cars. When a toll-lane transmitter bounces a signal off the transponder and receives the proper return signal, the gate goes up and the driver continues. The driver's account is then debited for the cost of the trip.

A report issued by the authority indicates average wait times at the Throgs Neck Bridge have been shortened from 5.2 minutes, with a cash payment, to 12 seconds with E-Z Pass. While not all facilities have witnessed such a dramatic decrease in waits, reductions from 20 percent to 50 percent are the norm for the system. According to the authority, about 40 percent of commuters are using the new system, and it's collecting about 27 percent of the authority's $800 million in revenues.

Electronic toll collection has also made it easier to change pricing during the day to try and manage demand, and has reduced labor costs because fewer toll collectors and money handlers are needed. If New York's experience is typical of electronic toll collection systems, they will become an integral part of many highways.



County Integrates ITS
In 1980, when "intelligent transportation systems" were found only in science fiction, Montgomery County, Md., computerized 10 traffic signals. That first small system grew into one of the country's most sophisticated traffic management systems, said Gene Donaldson, director and architect of the county's advanced traffic management system (ATMS).

Today, Montgomery's ATMS includes almost all of the technologies that are used in today's ITS, and then some: 700 computerized traffic signals, reversible lane signs, electronic signs, over 40 remote video cameras (with plans to increase the number to 200), airplane traffic surveillance, roadway detection devices and radio stations -- all operated out of a control center in the county's Executive Office Building.

"The county knew it had to do something to better manage its transportation system," said Donaldson. "We can't build the facilities that we used to, due to environmental constraints, citizen objections, lack of suitable land and the high cost of construction."

After experience with the first 10 computerized signals, the county wanted a computerized traffic signal network it could easily upgrade. In 1990, the county released an RFP for implementation of the new system.

Around the same time, the county Police Department was looking to implement a geographic information system. The police teamed up with the Department of Transportation and developed a prototype that would integrate automatic vehicle location into a centralized command system. The result: a map-based system that locates all traffic signals and, when completed, will show the location of buses, snow plows and emergency equipment throughout the county. Coupled with remote video, the county's aircraft, and connections to police and county bus drivers, the department can make sophisticated adjustments to the system. For example, if congestion, weather, or other factors cause delays on a particular bus route, the traffic management center will be able to change signal timing to allow the bus to make up lost time. Remote cameras can also allow the department to quickly deploy resources to trouble spots.

Other technologies also help monitor traffic. Hookups to the National Weather Service help the county maintain a constant flow of traffic, even in bad weather. Sensors in the road can monitor pavement temperatures and determine the concentration of chemicals needed to melt ice and snow.

Traffic information and videos appear on local television and radio, and the county's cable channel. Residents with Internet access can contact the department's Web site to get up-to-date information for their morning and evening commutes. The county also operates two small AM radio stations to broadcast traffic alerts, and has entered into negotiations to purchase a more powerful station to broadcast countywide. Donaldson's other plans include links to cellular phones and pagers.

The county has spent just under $10 million on this system in the last 17 years -- a fraction of the cost of new roads and transit systems. Is the investment worth it? Donaldson said yes -- citing an 8 percent to 10 percent increase in the system's efficiency. Computerized traffic signals create the greatest return -- up to a 25 percent improvement in traffic flows after implementation. According to Donaldson, "ATMS has improved efficiency and reduced travel time. The traffic system's capacity is not there and it's not going to be there. ATMS is an integral part of our transportation strategy."


National Economic
Efficiency Act,
is ramping up
for intelligent


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