Pe&ntilde;a plan proposes to transform <BR>roadways into high-tech highways

Lee Geistlinger / December 28, 2000

Forty years after President Eisenhower launched the interstate era, connecting America's major cities through a network of superhighways, Secretary of Transportation Federico Peña has called for the nation to begin a new era in surface transportation built around a high-tech version of those same highways.

Peña proposed that the nation build an "Intelligent Transportation Infrastructure" (ITI) using various types of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) technology to reduce congestion on existing highways, which is said to cost American businesses $40 billion a year.

The secretary coined the term Intelligent Transportation Infrastructure while introducing "Operation Timesaver," a plan of action for the deployment of ITS in 75 of the largest urban areas in the U.S. in 10 years. In addition, a commitment is to be made to upgrade technology in 450 other communities, rural roads and interstates, as the need warrants.

The initiative was introduced before an audience of transportation professionals at the 75th Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C., Jan. 10. "I am calling this initiative Operation TimeSaver because it will reduce the travel time of Americans by 15%, whether they drive a car; or ride a bus, train or subway," said Peña. "For Americans who commute one hour a day, that's an extra week of vacation saved every year."

In addressing the issue of cost of implementation, Peña said the cost compared favorably versus that of building additional lane miles. "If you had a brand new metropolitan area the size of Washington, D.C., with no component of the infrastructure at all, the cost to install it would be about $300 million," he said. "That's roughly the cost of six or eight miles of urban freeway, or a large bridge."

According to estimates, to stay even with the growth of vehicle miles traveled, 34% more highway capacity will be needed to be built. "Over the next decade, for 50 cities, that would cost $150 billion," said Peña. "Currently, we're building less than 60% of this. For the same 50 cities, implementing an ITI, from virtual scratch, would cost $10 billion. But, it would buy two-thirds of the capacity needed. Ten billion dollars versus $150 billion. I'd say the choice is clear, if you think about it.

"Fortunately, the reality is that most cities and rural communities already have many of the [ITI] elements in place. It's really a matter of connecting them. And it's a matter of buying smarter when we replace or upgrade equipment. I'm calling on transportation policy makers and implementers to be more strategic in their investments.

According to Peña, states may divert federal funds from surface infrastructure to pay for ITI implementation. "There are federal dollars to help pay for this strategic investment," Peña said. "The federal aid that states receive can be used to build 100% of the infrastructure. Many states are already tapping this, and I encourage everyone to do the same."

Does this mean that we won't need to build new roads, or that our potholes should go unfilled? Peña told ROADS & BRIDGES that it does not. "No we shouldn't stop building new roads," he said, following his announcement. "We need both. We need new roads along with an intelligent infrastructure."

Peña said he believes roadbuilders will support the ITI effort, citing the budget conscious mood in Washington as a major reason that ITI is needed. "We've got to look for investments that will give us more bang for the buck," he said. "You don't abandon investment in infrastructure."

The need to increase the ability of our highway system to support vastly increased traffic volumes, while economically being able to produce only a limited amount of additional lane miles, was compared to a similar situation faced in aviation. Only one major airport has been built in the U.S. in a generation; that in Denver. According to Peña, during this time, the industry learned to manage airspace and landing tolerances to squeeze more capacity out of its existing infrastructure. Technology, such as Global Positioning Systems, doppler weather radar and airport surface detection systems, was implemented.

While many communities have traffic control components, such as street lights, toll booths and operators who dispatch buses, they are, for the most part, unconnected. An ITI will control the entire system, enabling the components to communicate with each other. Dr. Christine Johnson, director of the Federal Highway Administration's Joint Program Office for ITS, has headed up a U.S. DOT team that, working together with industry groups, has identified nine components that should comprise the ITI in the 75 targeted metropolitan areas. According to Peña, no city in the country has all nine components, although Atlanta comes closest as it prepares for the summer Olympics. "Many cities have some components, but the components aren't linked," said Peña.

This month, the U.S. DOT is expected to announce a solicitation to select two or three model sites, for full deployment of the ITI. The metropolitan area model sites will serve as examples for the rest of the country, according to Peña. A federal requirement of each of the model sites will be that private sector dollars be brought to the table to help finance the infrastructure implementation. Federal funding for model site implementation will account for only 50% of implementation costs, instead of the standard 80% for such projects.

The U.S. DOT has awarded five contracts to standards developing organizations, including AASHTO, ASTM and SAE. Also, the FHWA has pledged to make a significant investment in training and retraining its field personnel to expand their technical capacity, enabling civil engineers to become electronic and communication experts.

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