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.

SIX PROGRAM AREAS

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.