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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.

On Sept. 19, 2007, Hatch wrote to DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel to “request a review of the funds and administration” of the program. On Jan. 29, 2008, the Office of the Inspector General announced that it was conducting a comprehensive audit of the program that would cover both the “pre-SAFETEA-LU” and “post-SAFETEA-LU” time periods.

Details of the agreements with state and local agencies signed by the DOT and Traffic.com have never been made publicly available on the department's Web site. However, as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request, the watchdog group Sunlight Foundation obtained many of the agreements. An analysis shows:

  • The “local agency cash match” requirement has changed. In all but three of the agreements (verified in one of the letters from Peters to Hatch), the DOT has waived the usual 20% local agency cash match that's normally a requirement to access department grants for ITS-earmarked programs. Instead, a new “non-Federal match” was substituted in which Traffic.com's investment in its business was considered a satisfactory match.
  • Public-sector partners are prevented from providing traveler information to the public. The agreements usually restrict agencies to using data internally, preventing them from, for example, providing travel times computed from the data on variable message signs or in “511” telephone traffic services.
  • Revenue-sharing returns to Traffic.com's coffers. Revenue sharing provisions generally don't involve unrestricted sharing with the state/local partner; shared funds must go back into the program.

In coming years, the widespread availability of accurate and comprehensive real-time traffic information will be vitally important to our nation's mobility, particularly because of shortfalls in the Highway Trust Fund, which has funded most new roadways.

While the DOT sees the building of new, privately financed toll roads and their variants as the primary solution to this conundrum, the ability to better use existing roadways must play a larger role in the solution. If travelers know which roadways are parking lots and which are free-flowing, they can decide which route will shorten their trip times and, ultimately, conserve fuel.

Accessible information about traffic conditions is the key.

—Jerry Werner (jerrycw@attglobal.net) is an ITS consultant and was editorial director of the National Transportation Operations Coalition from 1998 to 2005; Peter Samuel (editor@tollroadnews.com) is founder and editor of TOLLROADSnews.com.