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5-1-1: Traffic Help May Soon Be Three Digits Away
by S. Lawrence Paulson
You're running late for a morning appointment all the way across town. It's rush hour, and you're afraid the freeway may be jammed again. There's not enough time to wait for the radio traffic report. Should you take an alternate route? Is it faster to take the subway? Is there someone you can call?
Soon, there will be. Travel information like this will someday be only three digits away - 5-1-1, to be exact.
On July 21, 2000, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted a request by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to provide a three-digit "N-1-1" number for states and local jurisdictions across the country to provide travel information. FCC chose 5-1-1. The FCC announcement noted that DOT "expects that the widespread use of the 5-1-1 dialing code will [reduce] congestion and pollution on our nation's roads, lower fuel consumption, provide superior traffic management, enhance roadway safety, and enable the public to make wise travel decisions."
On the same day, then-Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater announced a program that would provide grants of up to $50,000 for states and local jurisdictions to convert existing travel information numbers to 5-1-1. Slater called the FCC decision a "visionary, landmark action that will change the way America travels into the 21st century." He added that "5-1-1's delivery of travel information to virtually every American will provide choices in our professional and personal lives that will save lives, time, and money."
Better Than the Radio
Why a single three-digit number? Simply put, as evidenced by the near universal recognition of the 9-1-1 emergency number, three-digit numbers work. They're easy to remember. They can be dialed quickly. They don't change from region to region.
In presenting its request to FCC, DOT noted that during a three-month period in 1997 in which Kentucky residents dialed 2-1-1 to reach a traveler information service and Ohio residents dialed 333-3333 to access the same information, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet reported that 72 percent more calls were made to the three-digit number.
"There are at least 300 telephone numbers that are run by city and state transportation agencies across the country, both highway and public transit," said Bill Jones, technical director of DOT's ITS (Intelligent Transportation Systems) Joint Program Office. "At last count, there were 11 telephone numbers you have to know to find out what's going on in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York.
"And not only that, but in many cases, cities in a particular jurisdiction have one number, and the state has another number. Obviously, this is an impossible situation for the traveling public. I don't know any of those numbers in the D.C. area, and I doubt that you do, either," Jones said. "So the problem is: How do we allow the traveling public to access the information that transportation agencies have and want the public to have? We felt that a three-digit dialing code that you could call nationwide no matter where you were would be a way to make it easy for the traveling public to use that data - to get that information."
And telephone travel services can provide a menu of choices, even offering customized information and detailed data that would be impossible to present in a short radio spot. In fact, DOT has reported that, generally, there is substantially more traffic information available as can be reported during a 30-second radio report, even assuming that out-of-town travelers would be able to find out which local stations broadcast traffic information.
In the northern Kentucky-Cincinnati metropolitan area, where telephone traffic information has been made available by ARTIMIS (Advanced Regional Traffic Interactive Management and Information System) since 1995, 26 different menu choices are available to callers, 18 of them covering different highway segments or downtown areas. A private company actually implemented and operates the system for the state. The system is available from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday; however, if a significant problem remains at 7 p.m., the system is kept in operation until traffic is back to normal. ARTIMIS is also available during certain special events, and two supervisors are always on duty during the closed hours and can be paged, if necessary, by an emergency agency or dispatch center.
Information is gathered from highway devices (closed-circuit video cameras, radar detectors, video-imaging detectors, reference markers, and inductive loops), freeway service patrols, an aircraft, a network of drivers who serve as reporters, police, fire departments, emergency communicators, and construction personnel. All of that makes for a far more comprehensive traffic report than even the best-equipped radio station can hope to present using its own resources.
Not a Federal Mandate
Of course, simply designating 5-1-1 as the universal traveler information number is only a first step in actually establishing a national information system. Making this vision a reality will require a high level of cooperation among state and local governments, regulatory agencies, and private entities.
"It's really up to the state and local governments to come to the conclusion that they want to implement 5-1-1, and then sit down with one another and decide how it is to be done," said Jones. "We can't force them. This is not a federal mandate. This is not a federal program per se."
Nonetheless, DOT has been given primary responsibility for guiding the voluntary 5-1-1 effort. Key incentives are the $100,000 grants available for states wishing to embark on a 5-1-1 program. The funds are to support planning activities that are necessary to coordinate all state and local jurisdictions that may play a role in the deployment of 5-1-1. This program should help answer the question: "Who answers the call?" And the answer depends on where the caller is located. A total of $5 million will be made available over three fiscal years, and the states will be required to ante up at least $20,000 of their own money. The non-federal share can come from state or local governments or the private sector and can consist of cash, substantial equipment contributions that are entirely used for the conversion, or personnel services dedicated full-time to the conversion for a substantial period.
"The funds are not aimed at jurisdictions that don't have an existing traveler information system," Jones said. "They're aimed at those that have already established one and want to convert to a single number."
Noting that there are other federal-aid funds available to states and municipalities that have not yet established an information system, Jones added, "We want to encourage all cities and states to begin the process of developing that kind of information."
DOT is getting assistance in spreading the word about 5-1-1 from a national coalition led by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and including the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America), the American Public Transit Association, states, metropolitan areas, transit properties, associations, private-sector providers, and telecommunications interests. The 5-1-1 Deployment Coalition, supported by a working group, has been formed to spearhead 5-1-1 outreach, coordination, and assistance.
What does this outreach effort involve?
"One thing is trying to work with people to understand what 5-1-1 is and what it isn't," said Bob Rupert, a team leader in the Federal Highway Administration's Office of Travel Management. "It's not a way for people to report accidents. It's not a replacement for 9-1-1 or anything. It's just a means of allowing people to access information so they'll make better choices easier by using the telephone.
"The other thing that will be happening over the next few months is that we're working with some areas of the country that we're calling 'early implementers' or 'early adopters.' Hopefully, they'll be able to share some of their lessons learned so that it's not so brand new - not so mysterious - because dealing with telephone companies - dealing with telecommunications - is generally a little bit foreign for the [state and local] departments of transportation," Rupert said.
In addition to Kentucky, early adopters include Arizona, the San Francisco Bay area, Michigan, Minnesota, and Utah. Jones noted that representatives from many of these jurisdictions helped pave the way for FCC's decision to adopt 5-1-1. (See www.its.dot.gov for reports on the early adopters.)
"And because they were so active and really in the forefront, we asked if they would be early adopters," he said. "There's no money attached to this, but we felt that, because they're so far along, we could learn something from the process they're going through. We're tracking what they do and writing reports on what they're learning."
Besides spreading the word about 5-1-1, DOT and its partners must also make crucial decisions about how the system will operate. Jones noted that FCC called for uniform national standards and that an early task for the 5-1-1 coalition will be deciding just what this involves.
"We'd like to have a policy on what kind of consistency there should be from region to region and state to state," Jones said. "Is that consistency limited to the greeting you get when you dial the number? That's about as minimal as you can get. Or should there be more than that?
"We have also asked [the coalition], should the traveling public expect a certain minimum capability - a certain minimum quality of information - when they dial 5-1-1? Also, should there be consistency on who pays? Is this going to be something the state and local governments pay for, or do they want to charge the traveling public for a telephone call? Those are the kinds of questions that are being posed."
At the meeting of the Deployment Coalition on March 29, 2001, the coalition said, "Yes, we want guidelines for 5-1-1." And they charged the working group with drafting guidelines in these areas.
Some Key 5-1-1 Issues
The final decisions about the shape of 5-1-1 will be made by the state and local governments implementing the program. In an effort to help these jurisdictions begin the planning process, DOT's ITS Joint Program Office issued a paper outlining some key 5-1-1 issues. They include:
There's clearly a long way to go before the nation is blanketed by 5-1-1 service. But thanks in part to the early adopters, the three-digit traffic number will be making an early debut in several parts of the country.
"We'd like to see on the order of a half-dozen or so 5-1-1 systems in place around the country by the end of the calendar year," Rupert said. "Then there would be a gradual [increase], with two-thirds of the states having a system in place over the next three years. At the end of five years, which is when the FCC reviews the progress being made, I think we'll have the nation fairly well covered with some level of service."
Jim Wright, a program director for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, is on temporary assignment to AASHTO to manage the 5-1-1 effort for AASHTO. He is also upbeat about the pace of implementing the traffic information service even though he reports that planners recently heard a "sobering" presentation about the difficulties encountered in implementing 9-1-1 emergency service on a national basis.
"There's a lot of excitement surrounding 5-1-1," said Wright, who chairs the 5-1-1 working committee. "I'm optimistic, and I'm prepared to work on this for the duration."
S. Lawrence Paulson is a partner in Hoffman Paulson Associates, a writing/editing and public relations firm in Hyattsville, Md. He has written and edited numerous publications for the Federal Highway Administration, Federal Transit Administration, and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. He also spent seven years covering Congress as the Washington bureau chief of a national daily newspaper, The Oil Daily.
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