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Federal Highway Administrator Mary Peters
Remarks as prepared for delivery
Institute of Transportation Engineers 2005 Technical Conference and Exhibit
February 28, 2005, Las Vegas, Nevada
"Taking Operations to the Next Level"

Gridlock Nation

Maybe you noticed a recent weeklong ABC News series the network called "Gridlock Nation." When I was interviewed, I said, "Traffic congestion is costing the U.S. billions of dollars every year. Because of congestion, people are delayed in traffic. There is a loss of productivity and the loss of ability to get goods where they need to be on time."

I said, "Congestion is a problem that is spreading -- not just in our larger urban areas, but throughout America. We absolutely must do something about it."

These days, that view is a given. Really nothing surprising. Congestion is assumed just about everywhere.

What can we do about it? We must use a variety of tools.

  • Add new lanes and new bridges where we have more traffic than the system can handle is part of the solution.
  • Manage demand by using tolling or lane pricing. The Bush Administration, U.S. DOT and Federal Highways want to give states the option of tolling and implementing HOT lanes to reduce congestion. New capacity can be financed through public private partnerships.
  • The best solution right now is to manage traffic a lot better. Use technology where is it appropriate to manage the system. This solution is relatively inexpensive and can be implemented quickly . . . but it requires changing the mindset of the transportation community.
21st Century Operations

We're here to talk about taking system management and operations to the next level.

To move to what we at FHWA refer to as "21st century operations." Operations that are more proactive, more performance-based, more effective, on a continuous 24/7 basis, regional, and intermodal.

For the most part, our transportation system is developed. Our monumental Interstate System is built. My message to ITE is: We need to focus more of our attention to operating the system -- to maximizing its capabilities. We need to shift from structure focus to customer focus.

Customer focus means each traveler should have the opportunity to go from Point A to Point B safely and on time. Even as transportation agencies struggle to provide needed long-term system capacity, the traveling public expects the best possible service from the existing capacity -- now.

Our customers -- the American people -- want a system that is reliable, that is safe, and they want to know what is happening along their route so that they can make informed decisions. I know that none of this is new to many of you. ITE members have always been in the forefront of effectively operating the transportation system. But what I'm talking about is raising the bar to a new level, a level we can reach only if we all work together.

This is a new mission for transportation agencies – perhaps the new mission.

The Reliable System

What would a reliable system look like?

It would look like a more mature version of what we've doing piecemeal, right now. Getting a new surface transportation bill passed should give us a boost. The Bush Administration proposal gives states more flexibility in both program management and funding.

A reliable system wouldn't be plagued by reductions in capacity and delays due to traffic incidents -- breakdowns or serious crashes would be detected and cleared quickly.

We would do a much better job of managing traffic in and around work zones. Our system is aging and needs to be maintained and rehabilitated. But we can work faster and smarter by getting in, installing long-lasting materials, and getting out.

We would anticipate the impact of bad weather and effectively manage those impacts instead of reacting to them.

We would proactively manage traffic generated by special events, from parades to football games to concerts.

We would provide better information to motorists on traffic conditions and alternate routes.

We are doing a much better job on the information front. For example:

In December, I visited the Transportation Management Center that is the home base of Georgia Navigator.

  • More than 1,400 cameras monitor traffic conditions in the Atlanta area.
  • Web information is refreshed about every minute.
  • The web site receives two million hits per month.
  • Up-to-date travel time information is displayed on dynamic message signs.
  • Through My Navigator, commuters receive customized information on their routes and automatic updates are available by e-mail, cell phone or PDA.

Certainly, there is still a lot of congestion in the Atlanta area. But traffic is being proactively managed and motorists have the information they need to make better decisions on when to travel, what mode to take, and which route to choose.

Operations Focus

As you will hear when Steve Lockwood's paper (Systems Management and Operations: A Culture Shock) is presented later today, there is nothing revolutionary in shifting to a Navigator-like focus on the customer.

This evolution -- long underway in many other infrastructure-intense public services such as power, water and telecommunications -- inevitably moves towards a basic set of conventions and expectations.

  • No unexpected interruptions to service
  • Consistent and measurable quality
  • Premium service options

There are legal and organizational barriers to be sure, but they can be overcome if we can change our mindset. It is not substantially a matter of funding. Nor do improved operations await some technological silver bullet. Current ITS technology is ripe for beneficial applications. But improving operations is more than fine-tuning. Such improvements require a fundamentally new understanding of the connections among mobility, performance and operations.

Changes in culture are often more difficult than money and technology. Leadership and change management will be essential at all levels. We have to keep our ultimate goal in mind: keeping people and goods moving because transportation moves the American economy.

Steps Toward Culture Change

In order to get there, we need tools that everyone can use and the institutional foundation to make it happen. At FHWA, we are working on both of these critical areas. We are taking steps -- with you -- toward changing our culture.

  • We are working closely with the National Transportation Operations Coalition to lay the needed institutional foundation. We are educating decision-makers about the benefits of investing in operations.

  • We are working to make regional transportation operations collaborative and coordination activities commonplace.

  • We are examining the role of operations activities in the transportation planning process and pushing links between operations and planning.

  • We are developing and promoting the use of transportation operations performance measures.

  • We are developing and using analysis tools that can better evaluate the benefits of operational improvements.

  • We are partnering with AASHTO and others to launch the national incident management coalition.

  • Our recently released Final Rule on work zone safety and mobility is targeted not only on keeping travelers and workers safe, but also to make sure that mobility is taken into account when we design and operate work zones.

  • We helped sponsor the first national conference on special events traffic management, held a few months ago in New Orleans.

  • We have championed the deployment of 511 traveler information telephone service. 511 now reaches nearly 30 percent of the nation's population.

Five years ago, AASHTO did not have a subcommittee focused on System Operations and Management. Now they do.

The Transportation Research Board did not have a Committee focused on Regional Transportation System Management and Operations. Now they do.

ITE did not have an ITS Management and Operations Council. Now you do.

We are proud to be a partner with ITE in many of these activities, including the national traffic signal report card that you've already heard about this morning.

Looking Ahead

Looking a few years along the road, will we be operating what we have much better than today? There's no question.

In five years (hopefully), state and local transportation agencies will view operations on an equal footing with system expansion and system preservation activities, not as an afterthought.

Agencies will be organized to deliver operations services across jurisdictional, functional, and modal boundaries.

Operations will be 24/7, not just focused on peak periods.

Operations will be proactive, not reactive.

Motorists will have useful information at their fingertips, before and during their trip.

And we will all be focused on giving the customer what they tell us they want -- a reliable trip.

I believe we can reach this vision of the future - and FHWA is committed to helping achieve it.

But we cannot do it alone.

ITE members are on the front lines and we need you to help make it happen.

Working together, we will make a big difference for American mobility and for all of America!


FHWA Briefing Room | Speeches and Testimony

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Page last modified on September 14, 2012.
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