Data Gaps Could Hinder a Nationwide Traffic Information System, GAO Study Finds

Funding shortfalls and inconsistent data quality could challenge the implementation of a nationwide real-time traffic information system.

by / December 7, 2009

Although federal, state and local agencies in the public and private sectors are operating smart traffic systems to help travelers combat traffic congestion, there are still gaps in coverage and quality of data collection that could hinder the creation of a connected nationwide system, according to a recently released federal report.

In a Nov. 30 report titled Efforts to Address Highway Congestion through Real-Time Traffic Information Systems Are Expanding but Face Implementation Challenges from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), most transportation experts who were interviewed by the GAO agreed that a nationwide real-time traffic information system is needed to help address gaps in information coverage and inconsistencies in data quality. State and local transportation departments also are facing limitations in data collection.

"The cost of deploying and maintaining technologies that collect traffic data, such as fixed sensors, is a major factor limiting the roadway mileage public agencies can cover," said the report. This also means that highways get first priority when it comes to data collection, leaving arterial and rural roads with significantly less coverage.

According to the report, a majority of states have operational 511 traveler information systems or plan to make them operational by 2010. However, states such as Texas and Michigan don't have a 511 system in place, nor do they have plans to implement such a program. This may be due to a lack in traffic data and proper funding, and it creates a gap in a potential nationwide system.

State and local governments are bridging these gaps in a variety of ways, including partnering with the private sector. "For example, the Alabama DOT [Department of Transportation] purchases real-time traffic information from INRIX," said a GAO analyst in an interview with Government Technology.

"INRIX uses newer technologies that state and local governments don't typically use, such as vehicle probes," she said about the vendor. "Also, one of the benefits of partnering with the private sector is that the technologies they use are able to collect more data on arterial roads, which can be difficult because of so many cars stopping periodically and entering and exiting the roads." Sometimes purchasing traffic information from the private sector can be more cost-effective than paying for a government fleet to do the same job.

Others states are finding that partnering with neighboring states can be beneficial for sharing and disseminating traffic information. "There is a group of eight states called the Northwest Passage Corridor Coalition around Wisconsin and Minnesota, and they coordinate on the dissemination of real-time traffic information," said the analyst.

According to the GAO, the Federal Highway Administration will soon release requirements for states that would make traffic information available and set standards for data quality and timeliness. The proposed rule establishes minimum data quality requirements. Specifically, the rule establishes minimum requirements for timeliness, availability and accuracy. But local municipalities fear that lack of time and not enough funding will cause them to fall short of federal deadlines.

"State and local officials told the GAO that the proposed time frames to develop the program are too short and would be difficult to implement without additional funds," said the report. "DOT expects to issue the final rule in February 2010 and is currently considering options to address such concerns."

The Federal Highway Administration would help states fund intelligent transportation system projects using the Highway Trust Fund, and states would then have to adhere to the agency's requirements.