Skip to contentUnited States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration FHWA Home
Research Home
Public Roads
Featuring developments in Federal highway policies, programs, and research and technology.
This magazine is an archived publication and may contain dated technical, contact, and link information.
Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 61· No. 5 > Partners In Motion: D.C. Congestion Busters

March/April 1998
Vol. 61· No. 5

Partners In Motion: D.C. Congestion Busters

The Washington, D.C., metropolitan region is the nation's second most congested area. The region also has the second longest commute time, and area residents spend a cumulative 552,900 hours per day stuck in traffic. Over the next 25 years, traffic in the region is expected to increase by 70 percent while currently planned projects will only increase highway capacity by 20 percent.

Clearly, immediate action is required to prevent the deterioration of an already bad situation. Alleviating congestion is a top priority of every public and private highway-related organization in the Washington metropolitan area. To bust congestion in the national capital region, 26 public agencies and 13 private organizations are working together to bring a state-of-the-art traveler information network to the area.

The Capitol Beltway. This unique partnership, called Partners In Motion, is dedicated to assisting motorists in making informed decisions on the most efficient means of reaching their destinations, thereby reducing travel time and traffic-related stress. The traveler information network provides on-demand, real-time, route-specific information on all modes of travel - highway, bus, rail, and air - in the Washington, D.C., area. Users of this network are able to access up-to-the-minute information regarding highway and transit conditions, as well as construction, weather, and special event information that could affect travel in the metropolitan area. This information is disseminated through a variety of existing and evolving technologies, including telephone, Internet, personal pagers, cable television, kiosks, and in-vehicle navigational devices.

The development of this advanced traveler information system (ATIS) is an opening salvo in the "war" against congestion. This approach reflects two great truths, which Maryland Transportation Secretary David L. Winstead recently summarized:

"This initiative is regional in scope, and only by working together as a region will we successfully combat congestion."

"Realistically, we cannot build our way out of congestion, but we can be smart in our investments and innovative in our thinking."

Currently, 15 large-scale ATIS projects are under way in the United States. With 39 partners, Partners In Motion is the largest public-private partnership. But size alone is not what makes this such a challenging effort. The partnership encompasses government transportation jurisdictions in two states - Maryland and Virginia - and the District of Columbia, five counties, and several cities, as well as the federal government and regional authorities. In this respect, deployment of ATIS in an area as governmentally complex as the Washington metropolitan area is without parallel.

Within the 15 ATIS projects, there are varying degrees of public and private sector involvement. Partners In Motion has one of the most privately oriented projects with the private sector contributing both financial resources and information. Partners In Motion has also identified a three-year limit for the private sector to identify independent nongovernmental funding.

Background

The name Partners In Motion was formally announced on July 1, 1997, as part of the launch of the SmarTraveler® Information System, a free telephone and Internet traveler information service. However, the partnership on which this coalition is based has a much longer history.

It started in 1995 with a group of public sector transportation agencies that decided to join forces and address the need for improved mobility for travelers in the region. Other similar groups had formed in the past, but only some of their recommendations had been brought to fruition.

This time, the agencies had the added incentive of $7.5 million for intelligent transportation systems (ITS). This money was earmarked for the region in the 1996 and 1997 federal budgets as a result of the efforts of Rep. Frank R. Wolf of Virginia. Wolf was concerned about traffic congestion in the region and hoped that the funds would be used to mitigate these problems. The decision was made to focus the funding on implementation of an information system that would not only help travelers make better decisions but would also help the agencies coordinate their operations to manage congestion.

The partnership expanded to encompass private sector firms with the award of a contract to a team led by Battelle Memorial Institute.

Greater Washington D.C. Metropolitan area. Partners In Motion is not one of the four model deployment sites selected by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) to showcase the benefits and cost-effectiveness of a metropolitan ITS infrastructure although it was started about the same time. The model deployment sites are, for the most part, using the public sector as the entity to integrate regional systems for traveler information. For Partners In Motion, the integration of information is being accomplished by the private sector. Although current integration in the Washington, D.C., region is being focused on traveler information, this project can also assist in traffic management integration.

The Partners In Motion Approach

Partners In Motion merges public and private resources in three ways: finance, data, and operations. Public funds make up approximately two-thirds of the project's $12.2 million, three-year budget, and the rest is from private funds that match the federal contribution to the project.

An essential feature of the Partners In Motion approach is the combination of public and private sources of traveler information. At the outset, the transportation agencies knew they had a wealth of traffic and transit information already being collected, but it was not easily accessed. It was not in one place, and it was collected in many different formats. There were also gaps in coverage and information. As part of the Partners In Motion project, these problems were addressed by instituting private data collection to enhance and complete public sector surveillance and by establishing centralized data servers for receiving, processing, and disseminating information.

Public and private sector members collaborate through the interaction of their operations personnel, who exchange information on the transportation system. The members also have been working together for joint marketing of the service to the public.

Traffic Management Center.

Public Sector Partners
  • Arlington County (Va.) Department of Public Works
  • City of Alexandria (Va.) Department of Transportation & Environmental Services
  • City of Fairfax (Va.)
  • District of Columbia Department of Public Works
  • Dulles Area (Va.) Transportation Association
  • Fairfax County (Va.) Office of Transportation
  • Federal Highway Administration
  • Federal Transit Administration
  • Loudoun County (Va.) Department of Planning
  • Maryland Department of Transportation
  • Maryland Mass Transit Administration
  • Maryland-National Capital Parks & Planning Commission
  • Maryland State Highway Administration
  • Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority
  • Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments
  • Montgomery County (Md.) Department of Public Works & Transportation
  • National Park Service
  • Northern Virginia Transportation Commission
  • Potomac Rappahannock Transportation Commission
  • Prince Georges County (Md.) Department of Public Works & Transportation
  • Prince William County (Va.) Department of Public Works & Transportation
  • Tysons (Va.) Transportation Association
  • Virginia Department of Rail & Public Transportation
  • Virginia Department of Transportation
  • Virginia Railway Express
  • Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority

Institutional Elements The public partners are a coalition of agencies within the Washington metropolitan region whose participation is strictly voluntary. Since the project began, a few have left, and others have been added. The overall size of the coalition has remained about the same; however, agencies vary enormously in scope and size. Both traffic and transit are represented, as are all levels of government - federal, state, and local. Some have operational responsibility, such as the Maryland State Highway Administration and the Virginia Railway Express, while others are primarily planning organizations, such as the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. The coalition hopes to expand as more agencies discover Partners In Motion.

Partners in Motion conference speakers.

No regional entity existed nor was formed to undertake the project on behalf of all agencies. Instead, the leadership role was filled by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), who volunteered to act in a contractual capacity for the project on behalf of the region. VDOT issued the request for proposal (RFP), managed the competitive bidding process, and negotiated the contract.

Private Sector Partners

Battelle - Serves as project manager and systems integrator for all aspects of the project.

Castle Rock Consultants - Supports the evaluation of the project and helps to market traveler information to electronic toll patrons in Virginia.

Etak Inc. - Uses Etak databases and software products to disseminate traveler information to wireless and wireline service providers throughout the D.C. area.

Global Exchange Inc. - Responsible for the marketing and public relations of Partners In Motion.

Navigation Technologies Corp. - Provides the NavTechT Database used in the project's agency data server.

Parsons Transportation Group Inc. - Helps to define participating agency needs and systems requirements and executes testing of the agency data server.

The Scientex Corp. - Provides human factors for the information systems and training for public agencies on the use of the agency data server.

SmartRoute Systems Inc. - Operates the SmarTraveler® Information Center in Washington, D.C.; collects and processes area traffic, transit, and other travel data; and delivers information to consumers through a variety of channels, including the SmarTraveler&174; telephone and Internet services.

Street Smarts - Responsible for definition of the traveler information needs of commercial vehicle operators for the project.

System Resources Corp. - Defines, designs, and implements the Partners In Motion communications system.

TransCore, an SAIC company - Assists with data collection; system definition, design, and development; initial deployment; and agency interface.

Transportation Research Services Inc. - Assists with liaison between all public and private team members for marketing and public relations efforts.

TRW - Provides the software engineering expertise to develop the agency data server that each public agency uses to send and receive data.

The specific features of the project resulted from the interplay of two factors: (1) a procurement, which presented prospective bidders with functional requirements, not technical specifications; and (2) the particulars of the proposals selected by the agencies. In the RFP, the agencies sought a system that would provide the most traveler information to the broadest audience while allowing information on the transportation system to be shared among the participating agencies. The system was to accomplish these things while minimizing the need for public funding on an ongoing basis. The details of how these objectives were to be accomplished were left up to the creativity of the bidders.

The Battelle team offered a strategy for a self-supporting business, but the business needed a certain level of commitment from the agencies to have a reasonable chance at success. Previous attempts at a binding memorandum of understanding between the agencies failed because of the time and effort required to get the general counsels from 25 agencies to agree to one document.

It was agreed that each agency would provide to VDOT a nonbinding letter of commitment with two provisions: (1) The public agency will not give away nor sell to another party the "enhanced data" they receive from the traveler information center, and (2) the public agency recognizes VDOT as the contracting agent for this project. In this case, the enhanced data consists of public sector and private sector information that has been combined and processed. The public agencies can and are encouraged to use the enhanced information for their own operations. All parties agree that public sector distribution of the enhanced information to others would undermine the commercial operation of the Battelle team.

Not surprisingly, during the RFP development process, the 25 public agencies had a difficult time agreeing on the specifics of the traveler information system. Many of the contentious issues were technical, but some were also institutional. The participants finally realized that by providing a functional specification instead of a detailed technical specification, the innovation and creativity of the private sector could be used to solve some of the issues. In general, the procurement approach used by VDOT and other participating agencies was very effective for it avoided the pitfalls of technical specifications that have been justifiably criticized in the ITS industry.

Experience has shown that government agencies that attempt to develop detailed technical specifications for a computer system as the basis for a request for proposal do not end up with the best solution. Quite often, specifications need to be prepared so far in advance that the system is based on obsolete technology by the time it is actually procured and deployed.

Procurement based on the lowest bid can compound problems because this often eliminates the most experienced firms with the necessary expertise to integrate complex computer systems successfully.

Partners In Motion avoided both pitfalls by using broad functional requirements, not technical specifications. For example, the partners wanted to combine information from the public agencies in the region to create a real-time, multimodal traveler information system and deliver the information to all travelers. How those functions were to be implemented was left to the competing bidders to determine. Thus, the Battelle team could develop a solution using the most current and cost-effective technology that fit within the budget of the coalition.

The downside was that it was sometimes difficult to know when the functional requirements were satisfied. For example, agencies sometimes wanted more coverage of travel conditions in their own jurisdictions than the private partners considered feasible. Similarly, the private partners' need for public data had to be tempered by the agencies' staff limitations.

Defining requirements and managing expectations were challenges for all partners. Multiple documents dealing with system definition and design and many meetings of the public and private members were needed to establish how the system would work. Even with all that effort, there were still many misunderstandings that required modifications to early versions of the software to ensure that the system met expectations.

The size of the partnership was another challenge. The large number of agencies and their wide geographic distribution placed a heavy burden on project management to keep parties actively involved in the creation of the system. The governmental complexity of the national capital region made the large size of the partnership unavoidable. While the number on the private side is more controllable, the end result was that 39 partners generated a great deal of overhead. Creating and processing so many letters of agreement and subcontracts was time-consuming. As ITS deployments become ever more regional and multijurisdictional, better methods for streamlining and reducing procurement and overhead need to be devised.

While the size of the partnership presented many challenges, the lack of participation by local police and fire departments presented some limitations in the ability to collect the necessary data. In many instances, the cooperation of local public service agencies would be helpful, if not critical, in collecting incident information. However, these organizations were rarely partners in the program. Established partners had little or no influence over these organizations. At the time of this writing, methods for educating and bringing police and fire departments into the program are being investigated. It is clear that future partnering on similar projects should consider the value of law enforcement and fire and rescue agencies as data sources.

Financial Elements

The financing of Partners In Motion - built on the principle of shared risk and shared reward - is the most unique element of the partnership. Most of the public funds come from federal earmarks, which will be supplemented with state federal-aid funds. The private funds are used for the 20-percent-match requirement for the federal funds. The sources of the private investment used in the project are cash, the commercial value of licenses for software and databases contributed to the project, and other in-kind contributions approved by the Federal Accounting Regulations.

The traveler information service is designed to become self-supporting at the end of three years, after which time it will operate in a totally privatized mode. The purpose of the public funding is to provide "seed money" during the start-up phase, enabling the market to form and grow. The public funds are also used to provide basic service free to travelers of all income groups, as required by the agencies. In the privatized phase, the basic telephone and web services currently provided will remain available without charge to travelers.

Not only will the public funding end after three years, but agencies will also begin to recoup their investment through a revenue-sharing component of the project. Starting at the beginning of the fourth year, 10 percent of gross revenues generated through the sale of information to independent service providers will be returned to the participating agencies via an escrow account. The participating agencies as a whole will decide how to best use the funds. Current plans call for the funds to be reinvested in ITS improvements that will benefit the project.

Arriving at this approach was not easy for the public agencies. While the opportunity to receive revenue was an attractive proposition, some agencies looked on their own data as a potential source of revenue, and they sought compensation for contributing data to the project. Payment for public sector data had not been factored into the bid price, and allowing such payment would have been a divisive step. In this era of tight government budgets, public agencies come under increasing pressures to operate more efficiently and to become more business-like, and thus, some might feel this notion of paying for public data is consistent with that environment. Ultimately, however, the agencies decided not to risk fracturing the coalition and losing the project over this issue. Nevertheless, other ATIS deployments might face this issue, and principles for resolving it are needed.

Sharing risks and reward has been an unsettling, but exhilarating, experience for team members. They will be rewarded for their efforts if and when the project becomes a commercial success. The private team members will be rewarded with a profitable business venture, and the public team members will have informed travelers and a new source of ITS funds from their share of the revenues.

Balancing these prospects is a risk because the success of ATIS, a new and unproven market, is not guaranteed. Will the market in the region grow fast enough and be big enough to support the service? Only time will tell. Thus, the risk to the private sector team members is that they will not achieve the expected return on their investment. The public sector team members risk losing the continued operation of a service that travelers may come to rely on and the investment of public funds that the service represents.

SmarTraveler®

The first of many products to be sponsored by Partners In Motion was introduced to the public on July 1, 1997. It is called the SmarTraveler® Information System. It is a free telephone and Internet service created to give residents, tourists, and commercial vehicle operators easy access to on-demand, real-time, route-specific information regarding road conditions, events, traffic and transit conditions, construction projects, travel times, and travel speeds.

Coverage for this service encompasses the District of Columbia; Montgomery and Prince Georges counties in Maryland; Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties in Virginia; approach routes in a 40-kilometer radius from the center of Washington, D.C.; and commuter rail and bus routes coming into the region from even greater distances.

Travelers in the Washington metropolitan area dial (202) 863-1313 to gain access to this new service. Bell Atlantic NYNEX Mobile, Cellular One, and Sprint Spectrum mobile phone customers may also access the service by dialing #211. Once you place the call, listen to the system's audio menu to select specific routes, transit services, or other information. In addition, travelers can access SmarTraveler® online at www.smartraveler.com.

By dialing this number, users also have the option of direct connections to area transportation information lines, including those for Metrorail and Metrobus Mobility Link; Virginia Railway Express; MARC; Commuter Connections Ridesharing Program; and several other transit operations, including DASH, Loudoun County Transit, Fairfax Connector, RIDE ON in Montgomery County, THE BUS in Prince Georges County, PRTC OmniLink, and M-NCPPC Bicycle Route information, as well as for several paratransit services.

Traffic and transit information is available Monday through Friday from 5:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Event and construction information is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

SmarTraveler® information is also available for Boston, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia, and it will soon be available for New York City and Minneapolis.

Technical Elements

The technical elements of Partners In Motion are still evolving. Some of the agencies, such as VDOT and Virginia Railway Express, are implementing new technological systems, and Partners In Motion will delay development of interfaces for receiving electronic data from those agencies until their new systems are ready. While this approach has the disadvantage of stretching the development period beyond the original plan, it avoids creating an interface that would quickly become obsolete.

A second technical concern was that both public and private team members wanted a design that would minimize the workload for their operations staffs. Despite the prospect that many operations will eventually be automated, human operators are currently the primary means by which traffic and transit data relevant to ATIS are put into the system.

A third technical consideration was the project's relationship to the National ITS Architecture and to ITS standards. The architecture was developed to provide a common structure for the design of ITS around the country, and in 1997, the Federal Highway Administration initiated training programs to encourage its use. Although the deployment schedule of Partners In Motion did not enable it to take full advantage of the architecture, Battelle assessed how well the project conformed and concluded that Partners In Motion is a typical example of an ITS that incorporates legacy components. That is, rather than being built from scratch, it was designed around the intentional use of preexisting system components to save both time and money.

Although the National ITS Architecture was not the initial blueprint for Partners In Motion, the Partners In Motion architecture is consistent in many ways. It uses the same functional definitions, information flows, and communications requirements. It also relies on industry standards where they exist and are appropriate, such as in voice and data communications. Many ITS-specific standards are still being developed by standards organizations, such as the Society of Automotive Engineers and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. In the years ahead, Partners In Motion will evaluate retrofitting the system to comply with new standards.

Quite a bit of technical uncertainty surrounded the Partners In Motion traveler information project from the very beginning. Although the functional requirements presented by the coalition of agencies opened the door to creative approaches by vendors, most of the technical information needed to design and price a system was not available. Thus, once the Battelle team's proposal was selected and the budget was negotiated, the hard part of gathering essential technical details began. What information did the agencies have? What kind of hardware and software platforms did they use? What were their operational procedures? What kind of communications were available at each agency? Designing and implementing a complex ATIS that met the expectations of all parties within a fixed budget and schedule proved to be a formidable task. Clearly, a repository of ITS technical information for a region with as many transportation agencies as Washington, D.C., would be a major advantage for system builders in the future.

The project is testimony to the collaborative spirit of the partners. Mutual assistance and cooperation overcame many technical barriers.

For example, because the transmission of video images over commercially available communications lines can become prohibitively expensive, an approach was developed to share resources to get the job done. USDOT was receiving a feed of live traffic video from Montgomery County, Md., via a microwave antenna on top of the USDOT headquarters building, which was only a block away from the traveler information center. The team members leased a high-capacity line from Bell Atlantic for that short distance, enabling the center to receive the video images by way of USDOT at much less expense than a direct feed from Montgomery County.

In designing the automated system to collect data from the public agencies, redundant information was supposed to be eliminated wlth little or no input from the traveler information center operators. However, because of the difficulty in matching incidents received from different agencies (either geographically or by description), as well as additional information received from the private sector, the data had to be sorted and fused (or combined) manually. While some data are combined by the system automatically, a human operator must still interpret the incoming data and attempt to bring that data into a sensible whole. In future deployments of such systems, additional automated methods of data fusion should be developed to lessen the burden on the human operator.

Finally, the geographical distribution of agencies over a wide area presents some unique challenges. For instance, a major goal of the program was to allow sharing of real-time traffic and transit information among the participating public partners. The data was to be presented in both text and map-based formats, and some of it needed protection from outside access. The development of the system, communications network, and security procedures necessary to accommodate these requirements proved to be more difficult than originally estimated. The large volumes of data required a large bandwidth. Security required encryption procedures and user verification that further slowed access to the data. Development of an acceptable system regarding performance, the communications network to support that system, and adequate security measures for this distributed user group is a challenge. It is clear that transmitting large volumes of data to a distributed user group requires some creativity and innovation to stay within existing budgets. This is a lesson that can benefit other metropolitan areas seeking to build a similar system.

SmarTraveler® Responds to Transit Emergency

Just one week after officials celebrated the kickoff of Partners In Motion's SmarTraveler® Information System, a freight train derailment north of Crystal City, Va., provided SmarTraveler® with its first opportunity to respond to an emergency event.

At approximately 6:00 p.m. on July 8, 1997, a northbound freight train derailed as it traveled around a five-degree curve and struck a southbound Amtrak train. Luckily, only three Amtrak employees were injured, but with both tracks blocked, the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) commuter rail service, which was nearing the end of its evening rush hour, was brought to an abrupt halt. Four remaining VRE trains were scheduled to bring more than 600 passengers home from Washington to the Northern Virginia suburbs.

VRE officials rapidly assembled their plan to get the rail commuters home, and they contacted SmarTraveler® to disseminate information about the train cancellations and the plans for getting commuters home.

Passengers were advised to take Metrorail from downtown Washington, D.C., to the King Street station, which is adjacent to VRE's Alexandria, Va., station. At the Alexandria VRE station, commuters could board a VRE train to continue home.

Within minutes of receiving this information, SmarTraveler® was disseminating the news through its Internet and telephone services.

"We saw an immediate increase in calls that night, many of them accessing the VRE information report," said Steve Kuciemba, general manager of SmartRoute Systems.

VRE stayed in contact with SmarTraveler® throughout the night, updating the information center as new information became available.

As passengers were greeted at the Alexandria station by VRE officials, many commuters noted that they had received information about the derailment and the emergency plans from either SmarTraveler®, the VRE's own communications system, or the media. News articles the following day commented on VRE's success in getting the message out quickly to most passengers.

"The freight train derailment was a true test of Partners In Motion's ability to respond to emergency events, and we're pleased to report the service delivered," said VRE's director of operations Steve Roberts.

Conclusion

The Partners In Motion project is undoubtedly unique in many respects owing to the specifics of the geographic area it encompasses and the set of team members implementing the system. At the time of this writing, the Partners In Motion deployment is not yet complete and some of the risks and rewards won't be fully played out for many more months. Nevertheless, the experiences of both its public sector and private sector team members so far provide valuable lessons that can be applied to other ATIS deployments or ITS deployments in general.

Dr. Carol Zimmerman is ITS program manager for Battelle in Washington, D.C. She is currently the project manager for Partners In Motion, for which Battelle is the prime contractor and systems integrator. She has worked in various aspects of ITS, including management of ITS business at AT&T. Her areas of expertise are in developing and marketing new products. She received a doctorate in sociology from Yale University and bachelor's and master's degrees in geography from Kent State University.

Pamela Marston is a traffic management engineer in the Federal Highway Administration's Region 3 Office in Baltimore, Md. She currently serves as the public sector project manager for Partners In Motion.

ResearchFHWA
FHWA
United States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration