Targeting Traffic

Transportation agencies around the metropolitan region are turning to smart electronics to cut congestion

Washingtonians expect to sit in traffic. That's why so many commuters talk on car phones (1 in 10 cars in the metro area carry a cellular telephone), skim the newspaper, munch on bagels, or do all three while driving around the city. But though congestion on local highways may be invigorating cell-phone and bagel sales, experts say Washington's traffic snarls could stall the region's economic growth.

"Technology services are increasingly becoming the economic base for the region and we have to make sure this industry grows and continues to do well," said Roger Stough, a George Mason University professor who tracks the region's economy. Better transportation is essential to ensuring the health of the technology-based economy and all Washington businesses, he said.

Executives and sales people in Northern Virginia companies must be able to travel quickly around the 64-mile Capital Beltway to do business with Maryland and District firms. Currently, it can take more than an hour to travel from Fairfax, Va., to Silver Spring, Md., two of Washington's growing business centers.

But the solution to speeding up Washington's traffic is not to build more roads; first, there isn't much space left to construct them and second, it costs an extraordinary amount to build a new highway. Instead of additional roads, federal and local transportation officials say the answer is to make existing transit systems smarter. The idea is to take advanced electronics and information technologies, many of which were designed for the military, and apply them to cars and highways, resulting in an intelligent transportation system, known as ITS.

"When construction costs regularly exceed $40 million a mile, and indeed, the new Century Freeway in Los Angeles cost $127 million a mile, ITS -- in its many forms -- offers a cost-effective way to safely handle growing traffic volumes and to keep America moving," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena at a recent Washington event.

Smarter highways and cars have been discussed for years, but now there are actually dozens of tests and demonstration studies putting transportation technologies to work around the United States. The Washington region has become a hotbed for intelligent transportation activities, and that means good things for Washington's business growth, Stough said.

its embraces Washington

Washington is a natural match for smart transit projects because many of the companies implementing and developing the technologies have a major presence here, such as SAIC, Parsons Brinkerhoff, Boeing Information Services, Rockwell International and BDM International.

In addition to a wealth of companies, the Washington region has an extraordinarily high number of university resources, including GMU's ITS policy research programs, George Washington University, which houses the National Crash Analysis Center, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, which operates a federally funded Center of Excellence in ITS research and the Virginia Transportation Research Council at the University of Virginia.

Finally, the most obvious reason that Washington and ITS are a good fit is because the region is second only to Los Angeles as the most congested area in the country. Washington's leaders want to improve its transportation problems so that it doesn't lose business opportunities.

"ITS can help the region reduce congestion and increase mobility, which will make it easier for companies to do business face to face," Stough said.

Faster toll collection in Northern Virginia

One way to speed up traffic is to automate collection of tolls. By next year, the Dulles corridor will be one of the first highways in the nation where cars will buzz through toll plazas that electronically subtract a toll from a tag on the car's dashboard.

The current Dulles toll road, which runs from the Beltway through Fairfax to Dulles International Airport, will be retrofitted to collect tolls electronically. The 14-mile extension of the Dulles toll road past the airport out to Leesburg, Va., called the Dulles Greenway, is supposed to be finished by the end of this year.

The $310 million construction project, which is the first private toll road in Virginia since 1816, will be built to use automatic vehicle identification systems and other advanced technologies that provide electronic toll collection. The two systems will be compatible, so that drivers traveling from the Beltway to Leesburg can have their tolls subtracted from the same tag in their car.

The addition of electronic toll collection is expected to trigger increased economic growth along the Dulles corridor. According to a report by the GMU Institute of Public Policy, installation of an electronic toll system improves the profitability of toll roads by:

  • Handling more cars in a short amount of time

  • Luring cars from other congested routes

  • Reducing the number of violations to current toll collection systems

  • Lowering operation and maintenance costs

  • Improving management and auditing

With automated toll collection, the trip from Leesburg, Va., to Washington is expected to be cut from more than one hour to about 32 minutes. In addition, land owners along the route will benefit from increased land values due to better accessibility provided by FAST-TOLL, the name of the electronic tolling system. The entire region, in fact, is expected to gain from the Dulles project.

"The economy of the whole metropolitan region will benefit from FAST-TOLL, with increased employment, increased gross regional product, increased income, and increased regional competitiveness," the GMU report concludes.

There has also been preliminary discussion of bringing electronic toll collection to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge where traffic is exceptionally slow. The goal is to increase the 23-miles-per-hour speed that Beltway commuters average today when crossing the bridge.

Montgomery County integrates traffic and transit information

Another component of intelligent transportation systems focuses on improving the amount and accuracy of travel information. Maryland's Montgomery County is creating what is reportedly the first fully integrated transit and traffic management system in the nation -- and it's just in time. Traffic in Montgomery County is expected to double by the year 2010.

The new transportation center, being built in the executive office building in Rockville, Md., is a joint project of the United States, Maryland and Montgomery County departments of transportation. The program uses the Pentagon's Global Positioning System of satellites, the same satellites that the U.S. military used in Desert Storm, to track its buses as they move through the county.

Montgomery County will combine this information with its traffic signal control system to help keep buses on schedule. The signal system will be able to provide priority treatment to buses by keeping a light green for an extra few seconds when needed. "Our prime interest is to make things flow easier, so that the alternatives to automobiles are more attractive," said Marc Atz of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation.

Currently, about 10 to 15 percent of trips in Montgomery County use buses and other methods of public transportation. Officials think they can increase that amount to 20 percent with this new system. "Even if we only improve a couple percent, it will have a significant impact on our traffic problems," Atz said.

Within a year, Montgomery County expects to have all 220 of its buses fitted with positioning technologies, and in the long term, the county will provide real time information for commuters regarding the status of bus schedules, as well as data on the traffic situation overall. This information might be provided by kiosks at bus stops.

There are several other on-going intelligent transportation projects in the capital region, including one being tested by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority that allows subway riders to pay for their rides with a "smart card." This same electronic tag can be used for local buses and to pay for parking at subway station parking lots.

Another project is taking advantage of the large number of cellular phone users in the Washington region. This initiative is tracking the speed of traffic by measuring how long it takes certain cars to progress along certain roads, including parts of I-270, I-495 and I-66. The system, which was put into place by Engineering Research Associates, Farradyne, Bell Atlantic Mobile and the Maryland State Highway Administration, among others, monitors the location of cars using their cellular phones.

Officials hope that by being one of the first to deploy these smart transportation technologies, Washington will be among the first to feel the relief from congestion.

Selling ITS to America

"It's cool, but I can't imagine it will ever make it to my town," said a recent visitor to Washington's American History Museum while using a new kiosk that describes what intelligent transportation systems could do for America's highways. Although the North Carolina man's reaction was rather pessimistic, it's exactly what Transportation Secretary Federico Pena wants to hear.

The goal of the new display at the Information Age exhibit is to familiarize people with advanced transportation technologies. The idea is to raise the awareness level so that more communities are willing to deploy intelligent transportation systems, such as electronic toll collection, vehicle identification systems and others.

"The exhibit is a way to educate millions of people about the reality of intelligent transportation systems," said Pena last month at the unveiling of the 3-foot kiosk.

Using a touch screen, the computer engages visitors in a series of questions about different transportation methods. It walks them through the evolution of ITS and uses a route guidance system to provide travel information on how to get to 20 points of interest within the Washington, D.C., region.

The interactive multimedia show, which incorporates scanned images, full-motion digitized video and computer animation, was a collaboration of effort from EDS of Herndon, Va., Navigation Technologies of Sunnyvale, Calif., the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. Department of Transportation and others.

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