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Publication Number:      Date:  November/December 2002
Issue No: Vol. 66 No. 3
Date: November/December 2002



by John W. Epling

When the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991 was signed into law, officials of metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) across the country were delighted. ISTEA had made a dramatic change in how transportation planning in the Nation would be undertaken in the future. Now the local elected officials serving on the boards of MPOs finally had a chance to play a major role in shaping the transportation networks in their communities.

As Edward Weiner wrote in Urban Transportation Planning in the United States, "Each metropolitan area had to prepare a long-range plan, updated periodically, that identified transportation facilities, which functioned as an integrated transportation system, including a financial plan." Further, he wrote, "A reasonable opportunity for public comment was required before the long-range plan was approved." Also, "A Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) was required. . . . The TIP had to include a priority list of projects and a financial plan consistent with funding that could reasonably be expected to be available."

It did not take long after passage of ISTEA, however, for the MPOs to realize that their expanded role in transportation decisionmaking brought new responsibilities. Citizens, elected and appointed officials, and other stakeholder groups now were coming to MPOs to advocate projects, ascertain the status of projects, and lobby for project priorities. MPOs soon found themselves having to reinvent their decisionmaking processes, expand their databases, and create more responsive public outreach programs.

Photo of TELUS beta tester during a break between presentations
TELUS beta testers take a break between presentations of the TELUS system.

Genesis of TELUS

The North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority (NJTPA), the fourth largest MPO in the Nation, took the challenge of ISTEA very seriously. Like most MPOs, the NJTPA initially tried expanding and modifying its existing information and decision-support systems. Although those efforts met with some success, the NJTPA quickly realized that piecemeal improvements to the existing approach would not adequately support the decisionmaking process. The NJTPA called upon Dr. Louis J. Pignataro, then-director of the Institute for Transportation at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), to help.

Early in this NJTPA/NJIT cooperative endeavor, Pignataro brought Dr. Robert W. Burchell, now codirector of the Center for Urban Policy Research (CUPR) at Rutgers University, on the team. Pignataro states, "Bob and I have worked together on several projects, so we know each other's capabilities quite well. He is a nationally recognized expert in modeling the fiscal impacts of land development."

Under the guidance of the NJTPA Board, the staffs of NJIT, CUPR, and NJTPA agreed on the objectives for the new system, and, in 1996, the consortium unveiled TELUS: Transportation, Economic & Land Use System. For its role in the development of TELUS, the NJTPA received the Technical Achievement Award at the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations' 1998 annual meeting in Texas.

The Original TELUS

The version of the TELUS software developed for the NJTPA included five components: (1) an automated TIP component containing basic information about each project; (2) an input-output model estimating project impacts on the number of jobs, per capita income, gross regional product, and tax revenues at the local, State, and Federal levels; (3) a property-value model estimating the impact of projects on the value of adjacent properties; (4) a project-interrelationships component identifying potential conflicts among projects; and (5) a geographic information system (GIS) reader.

Meet the TELUS Team

Louis Pignataro Robert Burchell Fred Ducca
Louis Pignataro was the codeveloper of the original TELUS and project director until October 2002. Robert Burchell of Rutgers University is the codeveloper and modeling manager for TELUS. Fred Ducca is the technical monitor assigned to the TELUS project by FHWA.
Dr. Hank Robison Dr. Stephen H. Putman Photo of Dr. Lazar Spasovic
Dr. Hank Robison developed the input-output models replacing the original version. Dr. Stephen H. Putman was the developer of the land-use model under construction for TELUS. In October 2002, Dr. Lazar Spasovic, NJIT, became the new project director for TELUS.

Going National

In 1998, with the passage of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), knowing that many MPOs had a need similar to that of the NJTPA, provided support to modify TELUS for nationwide distribution. FHWA assigned Fred Ducca, travel model team leader, as the technical monitor for TELUS.

With a new mandate—reinventing TELUS to meet the needs of a nationwide audience of MPOs—the TELUS team wasted no time getting the effort off the ground. Convening a focus group of 13 MPOs in October 1998, the team hoped to gain a better understanding of the modifications that might be required. Anticipating that modifications resulting from the focus group's feedback would take a maximum of 3 months, the TELUS team looked forward to releasing a national version in January 1999. The thinking was that if the system met the needs of the fourth largest MPO in the country, how many modifications possibly could be needed? The answer quickly surfaced.

Original Objectives of TELUS

  • TELUS must be a comprehensive, relational database for transportation projects that is easy to use and includes all the information necessary to produce the agency's annual transportation improvement program (TIP). It also needed to respond quickly to informational requests.
  • There should be decision-support features, including, at least, an economic model and a land-use model, that could help the MPO board decide which projects to include in the TIP and the priority to give them.
  • A geographic information system (GIS) should be included that would display the location of projects, both on the computer monitor and on printed maps.
  • There should be preformatted reports that would allow instantaneous printing and dissemination of project information, including an attached map, for bard members at their meetings and for interested citizens, public officials, and other stakeholders.

Coming Face-to-Face with Local Requirements

By design, the focus group represented MPOs of all sizes as well as different sections of the country. In addition to suggestions for data-field changes, the focus group raised three issues that had significant impact on the design of TELUS: (1) the potential interest that State departments of transportation (DOTs) might have in using the software; (2) the need for a stronger project-tracking feature, in terms of a project schedule and a complete history of all revisions made to a project; and (3) the need for some type of project-scoring module.

The team's expectation that the first national version of TELUS could be released within 3 months quickly fell by the wayside. The team members immediately began making major revisions and additions to the original TELUS. They also learned that some States were developing similar or much larger systems. Pignataro sent a letter to the head of each DOT urging that they explore the features of TELUS before spending large sums of limited State transportation dollars developing a comparable system. Efforts to interest the DOTs in TELUS complemented the team's extensive outreach program, which began in 1999.

Screenshot of TELUS National Version 3.0 menu includes: Select and Analyze Projects, Geographic Information System, Assemble TIP Database, Utilities, and Exit
The opening screen of TELUS enables the user to go directly to the desired features.

Beta Testing TELUS National Version 1.0

By late spring 1999, the TELUS team had what it thought was a version that responded well to the issues raised by the focus group. A beta-test group was created and met in the fall of 1999, after completing 3 months of testing. The beta testers dug into the details of the features, such as changing existing field names and adding new fields to better meet their needs and preferences. In many cases, the beta testers themselves did not agree on the suggested changes. For instance, although the database needs to include the length of projects, the preferences for how that length should be expressed differed significantly (e.g., miles, mileposts, from/to intersections).

In addition to the needs and preferences issue, some of the beta testers had difficulty installing TELUS, and others had difficulty bringing up their GIS maps in the system. If the team had not realized it before, it certainly realized now that developing a system to meet the needs and preferences of a single MPO (NJTPA) was one thing; designing one to satisfy those of 340-plus MPOs nationwide and 50 State DOTs would be quite another.

Responding to Local Needs and Preferences

Unlike some software, TELUS is not a licensed program where the user purchases the basic program and pays for individual customization and continuing support. TELUS is license-free to all MPOs and DOTs, and there is no charge for technical assistance. Although it is possible for the TELUS programmers to make minor changes for an MPO or DOT, it is impossible for them to make a significant number of changes or major modifications for each MPO and State DOT. Clearly, a solution to the local needs and preferences issue was needed, and it came in the form of a customization module (see "Customization").

TELUS National Version 1.0 (V1.0) was released, finally, in the spring of 2000. Installation disks and user manuals were sent free-of-charge to every MPO and DOT in the Nation. To keep track of which MPOs and DOTs were potential users, the team established a Web site (www.telus-national.org) for users to register at no cost and receive the numerical code that would enable them to install the system.

"TELUS has really improved my MPO's TIP data-management capabilities, which was my primary goal when I started using the system," wrote Paul Jaeger, transportation director with the Stark County Area Transportation Study in Ohio. "The customization module was a great improvement, and many of us in Ohio are now looking forward to the Web-enabled version."

Screenshot of TELUS customization screen
The customization module ensures that field names and drop-down lists wil reflect locally unique data sets and preferred terminology.

Telus National Version 3.0

The most recent version of TELUS (V3.0) was released in the late summer of 2002. Like previous versions, it is a highly graphical, Windows-based program using features of Microsoft Visual Basic for Applications® and MS Access 2000®. V3.0 will run on a broad range of Windows operating systems, including Windows 95, 98, ME, or NT. In addition, V3.0 requires a Pentium® PC processor, preferably with 166 MHz, 64-MB RAM, and 100 MB of hard disk space. A CD-ROM drive is required for installation. If MS Access 2000 is not on the user's hard drive, MS Access 2000 Runtime®, included on the TELUS installation disk, must be installed.

Screenshot of graphics used by TELUS to display a project's planned and actual schedules and funding status in terms of committed and noncommitted funds
This screen reflects the graphics used by TELUS to display a project's planned and acutal schedules and its funding status in terms of committed and uncommitted funds.

System Security

The security module enables the MPO and DOT to establish three levels of access to the system (higher levels can perform all the functions described for lower levels). The highest level belongs to the administrator, who controls access to the system by assigning levels of access. Managers, the second level, are responsible for maintaining the TIP database by modifying TIP project information. Viewers, with the lowest level of access, can view TIP information but cannot modify any of the data.


The customization module enables the user to tailor TELUS to the agency's unique needs and preferences. For instance, TELUS field names can be given an "alias" that will be reflected in all other modules and features. In addition, the user agency can create lists of all the localities in its jurisdiction, various districts (e.g., congressional, legislative) in its area, and, for interstate MPOs, the two or more States involved.

Once the lists are created, they will show up on the other screens as drop-down lists, enabling the user simply to select the proper entry. The user can select the number of years in the TIP, list the agency's phases of work, identify how dollar amounts will be shown (e.g., in thousands), identify user categories that are different from those in TELUS, and other options. These features considerably reduce the time required for data entry and minimize data-entry errors.

Screenshot of a data entry page
The data input screen has drop-down menus for most of the fields, making data entry fast and accurate.

Project Information

This module contains all the data about every project in the TIP or the State transportation improvement program (STIP). The project information module is the central database from which other TELUS modules and features draw. Among the data it includes for each project are the project ID number, project name and narrative description, lead agency and contact, project-revision number, narrative project description, project length and limits, narrative remarks about the project, project budget and funding sources, project mode (e.g., transit, highway), FHWA system category (five levels), and project schedule by phase-of-work.

When entering project data, the user also classifies the project as being "TIP," "Pre-TIP," or "Non-TIP" depending, respectively, on whether it has been approved for inclusion in the TIP, is being considered for inclusion, or is not being considered but is a project that the MPO or DOT wishes to track because it affects the transportation network.

Screenshot of GIS map from TELUS system
The user's GIS maps can be accessed in TELUS to select projects for analysis or print out maps showing the location of a project for a report.
TELUS default scoring system screen
For users who do not have a scoring system, or do not like the ones they have, TELUS includes a default system that they can use or modify.

Project History

This feature keeps track of all revisions made to a project, including the date of the change and the reasons for it. The user who needs a report of all revisions to a project can go to the reports module, described in "Preformatted Reports," select the preformatted report for project-revision history, and either view it on the screen or print it.

Project Scheduling

The project-scheduling feature of TELUS maintains the status of single- and multiyear projects on a quarterly or annual basis (the user selects). This module includes both numerical data and color charts reflecting the planned and actual schedule, by phases of work, and the status of project costs, by committed and uncommitted funds.

"Being able to track project funding by year and phase of work has been an especially valuable feature for us," says Dan Troxel of the Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission in Ohio. "And once we got the preformatted reports to reflect information the way the State DOT wants, we were able to put the system into full use."

Project Interrelationships

This module provides users with the capability to identify and analyze potential relationships among transportation projects. TELUS performs an automatic search and identifies projects that share certain characteristics, such as same mode, county or municipality, corridor (highway or rail line), and phase of work (construction). TELUS then displays a list of projects with potential relationships. Since TELUS only identifies potential relationships, the user must examine the relationships to determine whether they are of concern.


The GIS module enables users to access their agency's GIS system to view the project's location, select TIP projects for analysis, and print maps of projects for inclusion in reports. V3.0 uses ESRI MapObjects®® for this purpose.

Project Scoring

TELUS includes a project-scoring module with a default scoring system based on the seven TEA-21 planning objectives: economic vitality, system integration and connectivity, safety and security, system management and operation, accessibility and mobility, preservation of existing system, and environment and quality of life. Each of the objectives includes a number of scoring factors. An eighth category enables the user to identify and score locally important factors such as project readiness-to-go. In the default system, both the categories and factors are weighted but can be modified by the user. The user also can choose to create a completely new scoring system.

Planning Analysis

TELUS offers a planning analysis module that calculates the degree to which the entire TIP meets the seven TEA-21 planning objectives. This calculation is based on estimates of the percentage of project costs that are typically attributable to the achievement of one, several, or all seven objectives. For instance, the cost of fencing along both sides of a new highway supports the planning objective of safety and security of the transportation system. If the cost of fencing were found, typically, to be 0.1 percent of the cost of these types of projects and one of these types is in the MPO's TIP at a total cost of $40 million, then $40,000 is attributed to safety and security for that project. The remaining cost of the project might be attributed to some or all of the other objectives.

Similar calculations are made for all projects in the TIP. The percentages are default values in the project analysis data table and can be altered if the MPO or DOT believes that it has more accurate values. The result is a table summarizing the percentage of total TIP dollars contributing to each of the seven objectives and the percentage of projects contributing to each of the seven objectives.

Preformatted Reports

Many MPOs and DOTs are besieged with requests for information about projects from a variety of sources: board members; citizens; interest groups; news media; nationally-, State-, and locally-elected officials; and others. The nature of these requests vary from a need for basic project information and location to such issues as the date that construction will begin or end, how project costs have changed, whether the right-of-way has been surveyed or purchased, and whether the road alignment has changed. In the absence of a comprehensive and integrated database with preformatted reports, providing this information often can take hours, maybe even days. With TELUS, the response takes minutes.

"We just produced our TIP using TELUS," says Roger Del Rio of Florida's Broward County Office of Planning. "I really like the report wizard that allows us to modify the preformatted reports to fit special reporting needs. Now all key people in the office can access a common database for quick analyses and responses. Our next goal is to use TELUS to track transportation projects that are underway but not completed."

Economic Impacts

In January 1999 Dr. Henry ("Hank") Robison, principal research scientist with Economic Modeling Systems, Inc., of Moscow, ID, was brought aboard the TELUS team to develop input-output models to replace those in the original version of the software. By 2004, TELUS will include input-output models individually designed for each of the 340-plus MPOs nationwide.

The models will estimate the impact of projects on the number of jobs; per capita income; gross regional product; and local, State, and Federal tax revenues. The impacts are reflected for the project's host county or municipality, adjacent counties, the region, and the State.

Land-Use Impacts

In June 1999, Dr. Stephen Putman, professor at the University of Pennsylvania and president of S. H. Putman Associates, Inc., Townsend, DE, was added to the team to develop a land-use model to replace the property-value model. Unlike the other modules, the land-use model does not draw upon the project-specific information contained in TELUS to function. The land-use model will use the output of an MPO's network model, along with local employment, population, and land use data, to reallocate land use among the MPO's subgeographies (e.g., traffic analysis zones). Output from the land-use model then is used as input to the agency's network model, and the two models are run repeatedly until a state of equilibrium is reached. The model is scheduled for release in the fall of 2003. Like TELUS, the land-use model will be license-free to MPOs and DOTs.

New for 2003: A Web TELUS

A Web-enabled version of TELUS is under development, and it will be deployed and tested by the Alabama DOT during the fall and winter of 2002-2003. It should be available nationally by the spring of 2003. The Web version is designed to integrate with an agency's existing TIP/STIP database stored in a relational database management system, such as Oracle® or MS SQLServer®. The Web server may be running Windows®, Unix®, or Linux® operating systems, with a Pentium® class processor, 128 MB RAM, 30 MB of hard disk space, and permanent Internet access. The "client machines" (i.e., those of the MPOs) simply need Web browsers, such as MS Internet Explorer® or Netscape Navigator®, to access the system.

The Web-enabled version of TELUS, like the desktop version, will be provided at no cost to DOTs and MPOs, but the agency must provide third-party software licenses, such as the operating system, the reporting software, and the GIS software. The DOT can serve as host for the server with the State's MPOs as clients, but the Web-enabled version also could be used by an MPO serving as host with its member local governments serving as clients.

"I like a Web-enabled version of TELUS because it will open the TIP and long-range planning process to even more public involvement," says Steve Ostraseski, Birmingham Regional Planning Commission, AL. "Plus, it will allow MPOs to share data with the State that are difficult to share now, including GIS maps of projects, traffic projections, and project rankings. In general, the sharing of project-level data would be more efficient. It would be helpful, however, if TELUS could be expanded to include long-range plan information. We can do it now with TELUS, but it takes some ingenuity."

Change of Leadership for TELUS

On September 30, 2002, Lou Pignataro left the TELUS project as project director to pursue other ventures. The new director is Dr. Lazar Spasovic, who has been with the NJIT's Institute for Transportation for a number of years. Regarding the change in leadership, FHWA's Fred Ducca says, "Administratively, conceptually, and managerially, TELUS has been exceedingly well run during Lou's tenure. Now that I have had a chance to get to know and work with Lazar during the transition, I am confident that TELUS will continue in this vein."

Opening screenshot of web-enabled TELUS
An example of the opening screen of the Web-enabled version of TELUS. The screen can be redesigned to fit the user's preferences.

John W. Eplingis president of The Epling Corporation, a Virginia- based public policy advisory and research firm. Since 1998, he has been under contract with the NJIT serving as the project manager and deployment coordinator for TELUS. Epling served for 5 years as the executive director of the National Association of Regional Councils; 6 years as State planning director for New Jersey; and 18 years directing two regional councils and local planning offices. He has master's and doctor's degrees in public administration from the University of Southern California, and a master's degree in urban and regional planning and a B.S. degree from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. In the spring of 2002, he was inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Certified Planners.




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