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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 62· No. 5 > FHWA's Computer Systems Are Ready for the Year 2000

March/April 1999
Vol. 62· No. 5

FHWA's Computer Systems Are Ready for the Year 2000

by Larry Neff

This article is an updated and expanded version of an article published in the Summer 1998 issue of MOVE, the publication of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

Over the last year, the media have been full of articles warning of the impending disaster that may be caused by the Year 2000 (Y2K) computer problem. And, in fact, the turn of the century can pose major problems for most computer systems unless they have been carefully reviewed and modified to accommodate dates of Jan. 1, 2000, and beyond.

As many of you know by now, in the past when the cost of storing data in computers was very high, it was standard practice by thrifty computer programmers to store only the last two digits of the year in any database. Thus, most computer systems were designed to store and process the year 1972 as 72. The problem now is that this long-standing practice will cause computer systems to treat the year 2000 (stored as 00) as the year 1900 unless appropriate changes have already been made or are made very soon. Unlike many other computer problems, nobody can give anyone a time extension for solving this problem.

When you consider how often computer systems use dates to calculate the length of time for something to occur, the cost of goods or services, or many other time-based sums and averages, you can see what a nightmare the Y2K problem could produce. The problem becomes more complex given the large number of output reports produced by each system and the electronic exchange of data among systems, both internally and externally.

FHWA's Y2K Program

E. Dean CarlsonLike most large organizations, both public and private, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has been working for several years to ensure that our information systems will correctly accommodate dates of the year 2000 and beyond. As far back as 1989, FHWA used four-digit years when we programmed our Financial Management Information System (which tracks federal funding on highway projects). FHWA's very early Y2K efforts were recognized in congressional hearings by Rep. Steve Horn, chair of the Information Technology Panel of the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee.

To provide federal agencies with a logical plan of attack for the Y2K problem, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) set up a five-phased approach with deadlines for each phase for mission-critical systems:

  1. Awareness — Dec. 31, 1996.
  2. Assessment — Aug. 31, 1997.
  3. Renovation — Sept. 30, 1998.
  4. Validation/Testing — Jan. 31, 1999.
  5. Implementation — March 31, 1999.

All of FHWA's Y2K work for all mission-critical systems for all five phases has been completed according to the OMB schedule.

Just inventorying all systems and keeping track of the Y2K work to be done has been quite a task. To help guide Y2K efforts within FHWA, we developed a detailed and comprehensive Year 2000 Compliance Plan in October 1997 for all of FHWA's mission-critical and non-mission-critical systems. Since then, FHWA has provided a wide variety of periodic progress reports to Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater and to OMB.

To accomplish our Y2K work in the most cost-effective way possible, FHWA scheduled our Y2K work to be done in conjunction with other enhancements to our systems. In other words, while "the hood was up for a regular oil change," we took care of the Y2K problem at the same time. In some cases, new systems were planned to be implemented before the Year 2000, but we went ahead and modified the existing systems for Y2K just in case the new system was delayed for any reason.

State DOT Computer Systems

Much of the information in FHWA's systems actually originates in the state departments of transportation (DOTs) and is sent to FHWA electronically via the AAMVAnet data network, which was established to support the Commercial Drivers License Information System. FHWA has been working closely with the state DOTs to look at the data they send us to ensure that it is Y2K compliant.

By using "windowing" programs that calculate all years between 50 and 99 as 1950 through 1999 and all years between 00 and 49 as 2000 through 2049, FHWA has been able to continue to accept the data provided by the state DOTs in the same format we have always received it without requiring the states to change their systems. In this way, FHWA avoided imposing an additional burden of change on the state DOTs at a time when they are already faced with completing their own Y2K work.

Of course, all the state DOTs have active and comprehensive Y2K programs of their own. Plans for these programs have been discussed over the last several years at the annual meeting of the Information Systems Subcommittee of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). The subcommittee is composed of the heads of the computer departments of all state DOTs. The subcommittee's next annual meeting will be hosted by the Connecticut DOT in June 1999.

The chair of the Information Systems Subcommittee is Kansas Secretary of Transportation E. Dean Carlson (a former executive director of FHWA). In February 1998, Secretary Carlson sent a letter to all state DOTs reminding them of the need for top-level management attention to the Y2K problem.

Several months earlier in October 1997, (then) acting Federal Highway Administrator Gloria J. Jeff directed all managers in FHWA field offices to raise the Y2K problem in meetings with FHWA's external partners and customers.

FHWA's Y2K Web Site

To provide information on FHWA's Y2K program and easy access to the Y2K programs and best practices of other organizations, we created the FHWA Year 2000 Web page (http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/y2k/index.htm) in January 1998. FHWA's Y2K Web site provides quick links to extensive information on the Y2K Web sites of the state DOTs and many other transportation organizations, as well as to other federal agencies involved in Y2K issues. FHWA's Y2K Web site also provides information for the states on the Y2K status of FHWA's own information systems.

State and Local Transportation Systems

While the state DOTs have been working on Y2K compliance for their information systems for several years, work on computer chips embedded in the transportation systems they own and operate generally started somewhat later. Because many traffic control systems either run on a "time-of-day mode" or use "time-of-day mode" as a back-up for a real-time or traffic-responsive mode of operation, they can present special Y2K problems.

FHWA has recommended that each organization that operates traffic control systems contact each system's developer and/or supplier to determine if that system will be affected by the Y2K problem. Since many traffic control systems are part of a complex integrated system of various components (including operating systems, application programs, utility programs, etc.), it is difficult for a traffic signal developer or supplier to provide a universal assessment of their product's Y2K compliance. Remember that it gets more complicated if any system upgrades have subsequently been installed by a third party, which is a situation ripe for blaming the other guy. Fortunately, the traffic signal manufacturers have cooperated fully with Y2K initiatives.

ITS Y2K Summit: A Call to Action

Obviously, the world of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) with its interrelated information systems and networks presents special Y2K challenges. Recognizing this need, Deputy Secretary of Transportation Mortimer L. Downey hosted the ITS Y2K Summit on July 27, 1998, as a "Call to Action" for the ITS community. This full-day seminar brought together top ITS and Y2K experts from around the country to develop an action plan. A follow-on ITS Y2K Summit was held in early 1999 to assess progress on this Y2K action plan for the transportation sector.

Transportation Research Board Y2K Programs

Also recognizing the importance of the Y2K problem for the transportation industry, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) included three major Y2K programs in the January 1999 annual TRB meeting in Washington, D.C. Two sessions — "Are Your Transportation Systems Ready for the Year 2000?" and "Future and Legal Issues on the Y2K Problem" — were sponsored by TRB's Committee on Information Systems and Technology and TRB's Committee on Emerging Technology Law. The third session, "Agency Efforts for Freeway Operations to be Y2K Compliant," was sponsored by the TRB Committee on Freeway Operations.

What Can You Do?

Time has nearly run out! If your organization has not done so already, all responsible managers should ensure that a comprehensive assessment is immediately made of potential Y2K problems. Be sure that an evaluation of all data your organization exchanges with other organizations is included in this assessment, and also be sure to evaluate any computer chips that may be embedded in other systems your organization operates, is responsible for, or uses.

There are many Y2K resources available, and the Internet is a great place to find them. Check out FHWA's Y2K Web site and its many links to other Y2K resources. It's also a good practice to include clauses in all contracts that require all new hardware and software to be Y2K compliant to ensure that the problem doesn't get any worse in the interim.

A good Y2K program requires a certain degree of skepticism. Don't accept at face value assurances from your staff or from vendors that everything is "fine." Some vendors have been found to certify that their software and other products are Y2K compliant when they are not. There is a link from the FHWA Y2K Web site to a Y2K site sponsored by the Federal Chief Information Officers Council that provides information on the Y2K compliance of various software products.

With good planning, we'll all be able to celebrate the new millennium with confidence that our information systems and our transportation systems will continue to work as they should.

For information on FHWA's Y2K program, please contact Y2K coordinator Joe Tillman via our Web site (http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/y2k/index.htm).

Larry Neff has served as chief of the Information Systems and Programs Division of the Federal Highway Administration since August 1996. He has 12 years of experience in information technology (IT) management, policy, and planning and manages extensive IT services that have been contracted out. He helped lead the division in selecting and migrating towards a new, leading-edge IT infrastructure for Web-enabled agencywide information systems and networks. His previous work experience in FHWA includes agencywide and program-specific strategic planning and business process re-engineering. Neff is the secretary of AASHTO's Information Systems Subcommittee and is a member of TRB's Committee on Information Systems and Technology. He is a graduate of The George Washington University, and he also studied at Carnegie-Mellon University and the Department of Defense Information Resources Management College.

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