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Intelligent transportation systems are supposed to eliminate this, but road departments can't fully utilize the most important key to the solution: the real-time data.

Intelligent transportation systems (ITS) combine information and communications technologies with vehicles and infrastructure to improve traffic routing and travel times, and trim fuel consumption. For years, supporters called for the technologies to be made part of the normal government funding process rather than being treated as something fit only for small pilot projects.

While that goal has been achieved, there's a downside.

The Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Transportation Technology Innovation has been used to steer taxpayer money to a company — Traffic.com Inc. — chosen not by competitive bids but by political deals. The program maintains the company's control over data by deploying federal grants improperly to sell its offerings to cities and states. Legislators from both sides of the aisle have charged the U.S. DOT with evading provisions intended to open the program to competition.

ITS is an attractive tool to help government agencies combat congestion, but most commercial traveler information providers and public-sector partners can't access the most valuable data. The program needs to be replaced with an initiative designed from the start to serve the public interest.

Traffic.com Inc. is a NAVTEQ company that provides personalized real-time traffic information. Its involvement in congestion-mitigation initiatives goes back to language inserted into the 1998 federal surface transportation program — the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century — that authorized an “intelligent transportation infrastructure program” for the “measurement of various transportation system activities” to aid in planning and analysis. The law specified that the program would:

  • Be initiated in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; Pennsylvania is home to Republican Bud Shuster, who was chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee at the time.
  • Provide data from an expanded “infrastructure of the measurement of various transportation system metrics” in more than 40 metropolitan areas at a cost of $2 million each.
  • Support private technology commercialization initiatives to generate revenues to be shared with transportation departments.
  • “Aggregate data into reports for multipoint data distribution techniques.”
  • “Utilize an advanced information system designed and monitored by an entity with experience with the DOT in the design and monitoring of high-reliability, mission-critical voice and data systems.”

Out of this early language grew a government-funded and -supported monopoly for traffic information data.

In a June 2001 Federal Register notice, the DOT announced that two other cities would be included and invited additional government entities to apply for grants to create a regional and national information-sharing system. State and local transportation agencies had to be willing to work with “a private partner preselected” by the DOT: Traffic.com.

In early 2001, control of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed from Shuster to Republican Don Young of Alaska. During Young's tenure, Traffic.com executives contributed to his reelection campaign and political action committee, particularly at the beginning of his tenure when the company was lobbying Congress to get funds appropriated for this program and surrounding the passage of TEA-21's successor, SAFETEA-LU, in 2005. The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, reported that the company spent more than $900,000 over the years.

Although TEA-21 authorized the program, funds needed to be appropriated to make it happen. Traffic.com supporters managed to get $50 million appropriated in the FY2001 Transportation Appropriations Bill by inserting language that the program would be instituted in 25 additional metropolitan areas, with a $2 million federal grant to each.

The DOT's position on the propriety and legality of this move has varied: At times it has been uneasy about it and once challenged it; other times it seemed to be a reluctant defender. In 2001, FHWA's deputy executive director resisted pressure from Shuster to direct $50 million in additional funds to the company without competition, saying that to do so “would significantly change the scope of the (prior) contract and require re-competition.”