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Interview: 'Smart' transport bill imminent

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News   |   May 25, 2002 at 8:41 PM
WASHINGTON, May 25 (UPI) -- Intelligent transportation systems -- which can be as simple as traffic advisory signs -- cannot replace the need for new roads and mass transit, but they do enhance the effectiveness of what is built, the leader of a congressional group devoted to the subject told United Press International.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., represents the San Francisco Bay area, a heavy user of ITS. She co-chairs the Intelligent Transportation Caucus with Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., which is working to secure continued financial for Intelligent transportation systems, or ITS. The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, or TEA-21, which helps support ITS, expires in 2003.

ITS programs include "no-stop" electronic toll booths, computer-aided dispatch of emergency vehicles and automatic vehicle locator systems for public transportation. Future systems could include front-end collision warning systems for trucks.

Department of Transportation officials have said current ITS applications already help ease traffic on clogged transit corridors. For example, if today's systems had not been deployed on Virginia's infamous Interstate 66, traffic there would be 25 percent worse than it already is, officials said in Senate testimony.

Industry supporters suggest, however, the best possible gains will not be seen until many systems are connected, in much the same way computers' usefulness became obvious as soon as the Internet arrived on the scene.

Tauscher said the caucus is laying the groundwork for a follow-up to TEA-21 called TEA-3. The legislation that should be introduced early next year. The congresswoman recently spoke with UPI about the promise of ITS:

UPI: When the Intelligent Transportation Caucus discusses the topic, how do you tend to define ITS?

REP. TAUSCHER: ITS is the opportunity to use various types of technology: GPS information, boards that provide timely information about traffic ahead, scanning equipment that lets you pay tolls automatically through a device in your windshield. There are hundreds of ways that transportation connectivity and intermodality are enhanced by the use of technology. Part of (our job) is to make sure we have communities, counties and regional transportation authorities understanding what those opportunities are.

People in the Bay Area would like to get out of their cars if they could and use public transportation more, but they need reliability. They need affordability, they need parking, they need to know they're going to get there on time and not have to walk the last mile and a half in the rain. It's important to provide them with timely information so they can make good choices. ITS isn't just information technology, but it is the ability to enhance existing infrastructure and the opportunity for people to use it so we get the most out of the investments we've made.

UPI: If I've got my timeline straight, we're in the fifth year of the six-year TEA-21 process.

REP. TAUSCHER: We open TEA-3 in January.

UPI: TEA-21 has made a start at introducing these technologies to local transportation departments, as you said. What would you say the main thrust of TEA-3 is going to be? Are we going to expand the introduction efforts even more, or providing more concrete incentives for people to start implementing ITS?

REP. TAUSCHER: The real important part of the caucus is to inform members the Federal government partners with local authorities. They can enhance their opportunities, with partner investments, to deliver transportation projects in a more timely, more cost-effective way. One of the ways to do this is to include ITS regimes and technologies to do more, and do it better, faster and smarter. This is more about information, and about highlighting the different success stories everyone's got around the country. We can't pave our way out of our problems, but we still have to maintain the investments we're making to build roads, create intermodalities and connect people in safer and more cost-effective ways. ITS enhances the ability to do that, so we're going to be making sure everyone's focusing on that, because we know there's great success in it.

UPI: Where do things stand in terms of TEA-3?

REP. TAUSCHER: We're just beginning to look at opening the bill up in January. We've had some preliminary hearings, but in a very macro sense -- flying at 35,000 feet and looking down to say, "these are the successful pieces of TEA-21." Everyone agrees that TEA-21 was enormously successful; we want to build on those successes. This is not about increasing the funding for ITS, by the way. This is about making sure we have more information and that we are making sure the different jurisdictions know how you can get a better bang for your buck if you include ITS technologies and modalities in your planning.

UPI: TEA-21 includes authorization levels for certain types of projects. Would it be fair to say that going forward, TEA-3 will look to, if not increase funding, at least provide a similar level of support?

REP. TAUSCHER: Yes, we're looking to replicate and continue the successes of TEA-21 in TEA-3 with ITS.

UPI: And TEA-3 would be another six-year program?

REP. TAUSCHER: Yes.

UPI: Based on the information that you've been gathering, the information that's come out of the hearings and such, would there be a particular flavor of ITS that's proven particularly useful?

REP. TAUSCHER: The nice thing about this is the Federal government is a partner, by and large, in many of these projects. These are choices made by local governments; we don't put our thumb on the scale and say "This one, not that one." We've all had experience in our own jurisdictions that coupling ITS technologies with existing intermodalities provides consumers with more timely information to make better choices.

When people have a sense of predictability and have a sense of being able to make choices for themselves, they are more likely to use components of mass transportation in their commute. They feel safer, they feel their investment dollars are making sense for them, they tend to make plans better for themselves in their work and family time. It also helps business; people who are able to plan their commutes with more predictability and safety are better employees. They're less stressed, they're not as worried about picking their child up at day care or whether they can get home to take an elderly family member to the doctor. It's an ancillary benefit that goods and services move in a more responsible, cost-effective way if you can move people the same way.

Some of the successful programs in the Bay Area include the Livermore Amador Valley Transit Authority, which has a GPS system (to track) their buses. Obviously, (the electronic toll booth) FasTrak is something that's a good success. Different kiosks at (Bay Area Rapid Transit) stations tell you when the train's coming and how quick it will be there. These amplify and enhance existing systems. On the roadway, and you can see traffic's ahead, you can make a decision to take (Interstate) 680 or 780 instead of staying on I-80; you can choose which bridge to take (over the bay).

(ITS systems) also make it much safer for everybody. If you've got an accident or some other kind of slowdown you need to get emergency equipment to, people stuck in traffic because they can't see two miles up the road hinder the ability of first responders to get there. ITS is a way to get people to know there's a problem up ahead and to take an alternate route; in many cases, it can tell you what the alternates are. People feel informed and they can go about their business and get out of the way.

UPI: Auto transportation is one of the chief areas where ITS can have an impact, as you've said. There are other modes -- rail, and you mentioned BART -- but going even larger, talking about national rail or national roadway systems, what sorts of discussions have there been to see if TEA-3 might be able to tie into the RAIL-21 program and other transportation initiatives to increase the synergies?

REP. TAUSCHER: That's the intermodality part of it. People want accurate, timely information across the board so they can make informed decisions. It's not just whether or not this parking lot is full, or knowing the BART train is in 3 minutes, or getting off the train and knowing your bus is in three minutes at platform three. These things create a sense of peace of mind, a sense of predictability. That tremendously enhances safety; people aren't running, they're not stressed. That's really the bedrock of what ITS is about.

UPI: Obviously, ITS has had a number of successes. There has, however, been some anecdotal evidence, for instance at a Senate hearing last year, that suggests that when it comes to trying to get the local transportation authorities to buy into it, there's a mindset along the lines of, "Well, I'm not going to get as much funding if I choose ITS, so maybe I better stick to pouring concrete." How might the caucus and TEA-3 go about alleviating that frame of mind?

REP. TAUSCHER: That's the point of the caucus with my colleague, Mike Rogers and I. In the Bay Area, we're the epicenter of technology, we're much more conversant, better able to integrate new types of technology because they're created down the street. We're the leading edge -- no great surprise -- in the use of ITS technologies. What we're trying to do is to get our colleagues in less technology-driven areas to understand that the enhancements of ITS don't mean you're not going to pour concrete or asphalt. But if you are smart about your planning, you're going to get better use and more users out of it, because you're going to have better-informed people making better choices. You'll increase the financial payoff by the investor -- the taxpayer.

We make sure people understand the concept. There's a lot of "gee-whiz" about all this. When we talk to our colleagues and they see it, they kind of view it as "Star Wars" stuff, but it's stuff we do everyday in the Bay Area. We need people voting with us and people that are going to support this, and we're happy to show them how it works and how interesting it is. I think we're getting converts every day.

UPI: Is there anything else about the subject that we need to discuss?

REP. TAUSCHER: The most important is that people understand we're not suggesting ITS technologies are a replacement for building roads, trains and mass transit. These are enhancements that really pay off in attracting and keeping informed, happy riders and drivers. In the Bay Area, where we have to have a thriving economy, a good, clean environment and a quality lifestyle all balanced, we've found that ITS technologies provide the kind of information needed and people are very supportive.

Topics: Mike Rogers
© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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