Smart Highways

As states work to make highways less congested and costly, integrators find new profit opportunities

With the final miles on the U.S. Interstate system still under construction, U.S. government and a roster of integrators are tapping information technology to transform the nation's roadways into smart highways that are safer, faster, more environmentally friendly and less costly to maintain.

Under the Intelligent Transportation Systems program, several efforts are under way ranging from providing real-time traffic information on the Internet to establishing a fully automated highway. The program is a joint venture of the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, an organization mandated by Congress to spur development of advanced technologies in surface transportation.


While most technological advances are not ready for deployment, one key element of the ITS program ? electronic toll collection and traffic management ? is already speeding up the commute of drivers in several states. For instance, drivers can traverse Oklahoma's Turnpike, state Route 91 in Orange County, Calif., and the Dulles Toll Road in Northern Virginia without stopping or even slowing down to pay. Similar systems are already in the works or under consideration at more than 30 sites in 21 states.

Operated under the auspices of federal, state and local government agencies or private companies, these electronic toll and traffic management systems are offering opportunities to some of the nation's largest federal contractors.

Lockheed Martin Corp., Bethesda, Md., and Science Applications International Corp., San Diego, have launched electronic toll and traffic management efforts. "It's a major part of our business now," said Norman Mineta, senior vice president and director of Transportation Systems and Services for Lockheed Martin IMS, Teaneck, N.J. The unit's electronic toll-collection system revenues are expected to grow from $3 million to $6 million in 1996.

Overall, IMS' revenues are expected to reach $60 million in 1996 ? double last year's figure of $30 million. The IMS unit, which is working on projects on the East and West coasts, is also eyeing one of the bigger prizes planned in the near future ? a massive project in New Jersey.

SAIC's wholly owned subsidiary, Syntonic Technology Inc. of Harrisburg, Pa., is providing systems integration on the electronic system that opened recently on the Dulles Toll Road and Dulles Greenway.

With annual revenues of $78 million, Syntonic devotes about one-third of its business to systems integration and the rest to maintenance. Already considerable, its stake in the toll-collecting business increased in May when it acquired San Diego-based Cubic Corp.'s toll-collecting subsidiary. Cubic's customers included the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, Harris County Toll Road Authority and Texas Turnpike Authority.

The potential for technologies involved in the nation's smart highway systems are almost endless, said Mineta. In the future, a single smart card could be developed for roads, parking lots and mass transit. Drivers could use "a single smart card to go to a park and ride, and to get on a train," he added.

Electronic toll collection is popular in the United States and abroad "because it saves a lot of money and time," said Donna Nelson, director of safety and vehicle applications for the Washington-based ITS America. Preliminary data seems to back this up.

Since the PIKEPASS electronic toll collection system was introduced on the Oklahoma Turnpikes in January 1991, the number of users has grown steadily each year. PIKEPASS now collects more than one-third of all Oklahoma Turnpike Authority revenues from more than 280,000 active tags, and operating expenses have fallen dramatically, according to ITS America. The cost of managing a toll lane dropped from about $176,000 to $15,800 per year.

Mineta said IMS' experience working with the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority showed that electronic systems, even those where an automated arm moved up and down, were able to process 1,100 cars per lane in one hour, compared to 500 to 600 vehicles with manual processing.

Such benefits make it easier for the electronic toll collection and management programs to attract funding in the tight budget climate. With fewer state and federal funds available to build and maintain the nation's highways, "toll roads will be more and more what we'll see" in the future, said Mortimer Downey, U.S. deputy secretary of transportation. The traditional means of collection had been a deterrent to establishing tollways, Downey said, but electronic systems have made it a real option.

However, there are clear challenges. "The key issue is compatibility nationwide," Downey said.

The East Coast and West Coast operate under two different standards, with the West being Caltran and East being Interagency Group, said Bruce Rogers, Syntonic's program manager of the Dulles Toll Road. Despite the technology differences, there are a lot of similarities between the systems, said Rogers.

All systems include a vehicle-mounted transponder or tag, reading devices in the road infrastructure and computers to process and store data. There are three types of tags: read, read-write and read-write with some communications capability, said Rogers. The read-write version is the most popular, he said. The read-write with some communications represents the next generation of technology, which may become the versatile smart cards.

There are several vehicle-identification system providers including AT/COMM Inc., Marblehead, Mass.; Amtech Systems Corp. and Texas Instruments, Dallas; and Mark IV Industries Ltd., Mississauga, Ontario.

In addition, Amtech and Motorola Inc., Schaumburg, Ill., have introduced the so-called Intellitag system. Amtech provided the system for the PIKEPASS and managed the roadway for the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority until 1995 when Oklahoma Turnpike Authority exercised its option to take over administration of the system. Omaha, Neb.-based MFS Technologies Inc. and Texas Instruments supplied the automatic vehicle identification system for California's state Route 91. The express lanes opened on the private toll road in Orange County, Calif., in December 1995.

Describing the operation of the Mark IV system used on the Fastoll on the Dulles Toll Road and Dulles Greenway, Rogers said that as a car approaches the entrance, an antenna in the toll lane transmits a message to the tag mounted on the vehicle, which sends a message back to the antenna forming a kind of "communication handshake." A reader on the antenna then reads the tag information, which is sent electronically to the central database. In the interchange, an account, which has been established in advance by the driver, is debited for the toll amount.

Completed this spring, the Dulles Toll Road electronic toll project had a long uneasy history. The Virginia Department of Transportation issued three separate requests for proposals over four or five years, Rogers said. Syntonics took over the project in December 1995 and it opened in April, said Rogers, who also said the company installed the same Mark IV-based Fastoll system on Dulles Greenway from start to finish in 12 months.

Also slated for installation on the George P. Colman Bridge in Virginia Beach, Va., the Mark IV system allows motorists to operate a single account and use a single transponder to pay tolls at the three locations, said Robert Lewis, president of Syntonic.

Lockheed Martin IMS has several projects in the New York and New Jersey area, where about two-thirds of the nation's toll facilities are concentrated, said Mineta. The company is also preparing bids for two of the largest smart highway projects planned in the next several years ? in New Jersey and Florida.

Mineta called the New Jersey competition, for which bids are due in July, "the mother of all [electronic toll-collecting] programs." Covering 500 lanes, the project calls for providing systems for the New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway and the Atlantic City Expressway.

The Florida Department of Transportation has called for proposals in late August for its effort. Together, the projects are valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars, a ten-fold leap over most other projects.

Lockheed Martin IMS is installing the E-ZPass system using Mark IV technology on the Tappan Zee Bridge and portions of New York State Thruway. As of last year, almost 100,000 motorists had signed up for the E-ZPass. And during peak traffic hours, 80 percent of all vehicles crossing the Tappan Zee were equipped with the tags, the company said. The system is also in place or coming on-line, under contract to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, on several bridges in the New York City metropolitan area including the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which connects Staten Island with Brooklyn.

With MFS Technologies, the company also is developing a new automated toll-collection and accounting system, called ATCAS, for nine bridges in the San Francisco Bay area and Southern California. Scheduled to be completed by late 1997 under a multimillion dollar contract, IMS is providing the customer service centers.

IMS also designed, developed and installed the FasTrak toll-collection system for the so-called Corridors project in Orange, Calif. MFS and Texas Instruments served as subcontractors on the project.

The first phase of the project ? the Foothill Corridor ? was opened in fall 1993, and since that time users of the system have grown steadily, until 1995 about 60 percent of the drivers were using the system during peak traffic hours, according to the company. Currently, the system has 12 automated vehicle identification lanes for eight miles of highway now open.

Once completed, the Corridors will include about 230 lanes.


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