Getting smarter about transportation
To accommodate increasing transportation demands and provide safe and efficient travel in U.S. communities, it is estimated the nation’s highways and bridges will need $290 billion in investments, transit systems $18 billion and airports $50 billion over the next five years.
That is a big problem for local governments since county governments own over 1.7 million miles of roads, 219,000 bridges and one-third of the transit systems and airports in the United States. Additionally, funds for maintenance of these systems are increasingly limited.
But help is available.
ISTEA gives states, cities and localities what they need to create successful transportation systems — power over their own transportation destinies. The act gives local decision-makers the flexibility to decide what kind of transportation, maintenance or capital investment is necessary for their communities. This flexibility is crucial because no two cities or counties are alike.
An extra lane on a highway might be the right prescription for Clark County, Nev., while an electronic toll system might be the answer to congestion problems in Loudoun County, Va. Flexibility with federal transportation dollars, therefore, is key to transportation and economic success in each county, city and state and to the nation as a whole.
Intelligent transportation systems (ITS) provide one important component of this flexibility. ITS includes computer, communications and information technologies designed to ease traffic congestion, improve roadway safety and streamline the movement of freight. ITS uses developed technology to solve transportation problems by making better use of physical infrastructure.
A number of cities and counties have used ITS as a solution to their transportation-related problems. In Abilene, Texas, for example, an outdated traffic signal system contributed to terrible congestion in a growing city of more than 100,000 residents. Replacement parts for the outdated system were hard to come by. Not only were consumers wasting fuel and time when caught in traffic, but the idling of cars caused carbon monoxide emissions to escalate, creating concern about air quality.
Abilene’s solution: Modernize traffic signals using a closed-loop, computerized system allowing centralized control. After the system was installed, city officials reported a 37 percent reduction in delays, a 22 percent increase in travel speed, a 14 percent reduction in travel time and a 12 percent reduction in carbon monoxide in one year. Subsequent projects yielded between $8 and $11 worth of benefits in reduced stops and delays, as well as fuel savings, for every $1 spent.
Other communities, including Houston, Tex.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Oakland County, Mich.; have also used ITS to tackle transportation problems. Officials in these areas and others like them realized that their options for relieving congestion, coordinating travel services and meeting air quality standards went beyond building more roads.
The problems these communities faced are shared by many others. Currently, more than 400 ITS projects are underway throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. In each case, the goal of the project is to provide safer, more economical, more efficient transportation.
Planning ahead when investing in infrastructure and its accompanying equipment is critical. According to Federico Peña, who formerly served as mayor of Denver and Secretary of Transportation, most cities and rural communities already have in place many of the elements necessary for ITS deployment. Connecting them in a useful way is the hard step. Additionally, local officials must be conscious of buying smarter when replacing or upgrading equipment so new equipment will not become outdated quickly. Transportation policymakers and implementers need to be more strategic in their investments.
A new joint market study by the Electronic Industries Association and the Intelligent Transportation Society of America emphasized that a significant market exists for deploying public transportation infrastructure.
However, only 30 percent of the $28.8 billion projected to be spent for public ITS traffic, transit and toll collection systems by 2005 will come from the federal government; states and local governments will have to make up the rest.
According to the study, the areas that will be most successful with deployment of ITS projects will be those that work cooperatively to pool available dollars and share resources (infrastructure and information) to meet regional transportation needs. Managers of these projects, however, will need to consider the lifecycle cost of the system and should recognize that typical low-bid procurement practices will not necessarily provide the most effective long-term solution to their regional needs.
The study also suggests that there will be significant additional transportation activity through private sector investment in products and services, leveraged off the public ITS infrastructure. But to gain the greatest private commitment early, public agencies must plan ahead since the long gestation time typically required for transportation projects does not foster rapid market development.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties have called for the deployment of basic ITS services by the year 2005. City and county officials understand that they need to stay ahead of the curve in order to provide the best transportation system for their constituencies at the lowest cost. Embracing ITS as an option shows their dedication to safe, quick and efficient travel.
This article was written by Dawn Levy, Manager of State and Local Government Relations for the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a non-profit educational and technical society mandated by Congress to coordinate the development and deployment of the country’s ITS technology. For more information, call (202) 484-4847.