By on January 12, 2010

What's the 511? (courtesy: Flickr/rllayman)

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will issue a final rule next month that will force states to spend an estimated $1.2 billion to implement the “511” traffic information hotline championed by former Vice President Al Gore. So far, thirty-two states have established telephone numbers that provide callers with pre-recorded traffic updates. The rule will standardize the data formats and required features that will apply to all the states, beginning with coverage in the top-fifty metropolitan areas.

Beyond 511, the new federal rule will force states to offer real-time traffic information already being provided by a number of companies including Google, Yahoo!, Clear Channel, Westwood One and Navteq. These firms distribute high-quality traffic information to the Internet, 2400 radio stations, 170 television stations and countless GPS units and mobile phones throughout the country.

In 1999, Gore envisioned the nationwide, government-funded telephone number that would provide traffic conditions under the theory that when motorists know about jams, excess traffic can divert to side streets and other routes. The proposal was enacted as part of the Clinton Administration’s “livable communities” initiative at a time before states began outlawing the use of cell phones while driving. A November investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined that full implementation of the traffic information plan is likely to cost a great deal of money.

“Most state and local government officials that we interviewed cited challenges in implementing the program within the specified time frames and said that the program would be difficult to implement without additional funds,” the GAO report explained. “Because some states and local governments are facing budget constraints, the implementation of a real-time information program may not be a priority.”

Some state and local highway agencies have complained that FHWA’s rule takes a one-size-fits-all approach. California’s transportation officials, for instance, are upset at being forced to provide “roadway weather information” in temperate regions where the weather is rarely, if ever, a factor in commutes. Kansas was likewise irritated by requirements to collect data on far-flung, sparsely traveled rural roads. GAO reviewed twenty studies advocating Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) programs that included a real-time information component. GAO found them highly biased, overstating “congestion reduction” benefits.

“Few of the studies we reviewed found negative impacts associated with these systems,” GAO concluded. “One study, however, found that traveler information systems that recommend alternative routes (such as dynamic message signs) may, in some cases, cause congestion on these alternative routes. As a result, a traveler may not experience the intended travel time reduction.”

Because the US Department of Transportation has made it a priority to spend gas tax money on programs unrelated to road construction, the real-time traffic information program is expected to receive significant subsidy from federal gas tax funds.

A copy of the GAO report is available in a 1.9mb PDF at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Efforts to Address Highway Congestion through Real-Time Traffic Information Systems (US Government Accountability Office, 11/30/2009)

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9 Comments on “FHWA To Spend $1.2b To Federalize Traffic Reports...”

  • avatar

    Private enterprise already provides too much traffic information. It’s difficult to find radio stations that don’t babble about road congestion.

  • avatar

    This is probably the system Georgia is using. It is a complete waste.

    To use it, you have to have a  passenger or be able and willing to pull off the shoulder to dial in all the propmpts. This is not talking on a cell phone, this is texting as you wind your way through all the choices. By the time you finish, you could have traveled several miles. It is not regionalized, you have to define the highway and go from there. Information about the Adel, GA stretch of I-75 does not help much to most Atlanta area drivers.

    The two times I experimented with it, it was at least 48 hours out of date. That is no help when trying to get accurate info on construction delays on the downtown connector. I guess it helps justify the state and county DOT employees watching traffic flows in their state of the art television centers, but it is useless to drivers. Cell phones and commercial radio is far better.

    Another hyped use is for bad/freezing weather information. This week once again GA DOT and most, not all, of the locals, were overwhelmed by some snow flurries and icing on the shaded hills. Lot of good 511  and the television centers with the employees getting paid overtime to watch them did.

  • avatar

    I have INRIX traffic reporting in my car which works far better than anything else I’ve seen in Boston. Nice color coded maps integrated with the GPS display. Very accurate – radio reports and even google traffic can’t touch it for accuracy.

  • avatar

    I can already get traffic info 5 ways: TV, radio, cellphone, web, and navigation. Multiple radio stations have their own helicopters out canvassing traffic in real-time and can switch from station to station to find a helicopter flying over my route.  Why do I need a new source? And from the feds, of all governmental entities the one farthest removed from my local conditions.

  • avatar

    «a priority to spend gas tax money on programs unrelated to road construction»
    37% of your federal gasoline tax goes straight to mass transit. Now some may think this isn’t much, but we are talking about $426 billion taxed to drivers from 1992 to 2006 in the name of the “highway trust fund”… of which $157 billion went to mass transit and unrelated projects:

    From the federal gas tax “highway trust fund” on each gallon…
    16% is immediately diverted to mass transit
    25% of the remainder of the “highway trust fund” is “flexed” away into programs such as STP and CMAQ which… fund stuff such as new bus engines for mass transportation, and parks built above highways.
    16% + (84% x 25%) = 37% not used in roads.  $157 billion diverted.

  • avatar
    Da Coyote

    Earth to the Goracle cretin: Google (if you know what that is) the following words:
    1)  Iphone
    2) GPS receivers
    The next thing that idiot will do is to believe he’s a climate scientist.

  • avatar

    Why not spend the same money on standardizing electronic alerts and distribution?
    While we’re at it, let’s turn the red-light/speed cameras as data collectors instead?
    (puts on his tinfoil hat and hides in the corner before the men in white coats come to take him away for talking nonsense)

  • avatar

    There’s definitely a role for gov’t to play here, but I’m not sure this is being well-executed.
    After all, the only reason that those private companies are able to deliver solutions today is that the U.S. gov’t/military invested in the GPS and Internet systems decades ago.
    Perhaps they should learn from those experiences and simply invest in the infrastructure, open up the interfaces and then step-back and watch private industry put together solutions that work.

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