Steering Around the Highway Bill Gridlock

Posted December 18, 2009 at 12:36pm

The current Congressional gridlock around funding the next surface transportation bill threatens to obscure an important question — can we find ways to move ahead while also reducing bottom-line costs?

[IMGCAP(1)]The Safe Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users guaranteed funding for highways, safety and public transit when it was signed into law in 2005. Although it was scheduled to expire at the end of September, stopgap measures have enabled federal spending to continue. Until lawmakers come up with a long-term solution, states will be unable to adequately plan for their transportation projects.

At issue is the absence of a sustainable funding mechanism to pay for ongoing and future surface transportation needs. The SAFETEA-LU was designed to address important challenges faced by this nation’s transportation system — improving safety, reducing traffic congestion, improving freight movement efficiency, increasing connectivity between types of transportation and reducing our carbon footprint. But infrastructure improvements are large-scale projects, and lawmakers are struggling with how to fund the proposed advancements long term given the dwindling balance in the Highway Trust Fund.

This debate highlights a hidden opportunity — instead of simply building more highways and laying train tracks, we can make them smarter. States can and should use technology and data-driven solutions much more so than they are now, and they should be encouraged — through policy changes and financing — to do so.

For instance, deploying advanced traffic light systems can reduce congestion by adjusting to conditions in real time, such as shortening the wait time when a car is alone at an intersection. Making traffic lights smarter may sound like a mere blip on the road map of infrastructure improvements, but all that time at red lights adds up. According to the Federal Highway Administration, every $1 invested in optimizing traffic signals returns $40 to the public in time and fuel savings. Americans waste 4.2 billion hours a year stuck in traffic. Those congested roadways cost $78 billion annually, when you combine the billions of hours in lost productivity and 2.9 billion gallons of wasted gas — and that’s not even counting the negative impact on our air quality.

The future looks even more congested. In Los Angeles, the congestion capital of the country, drivers lost an average of 70 hours — nearly three full days — in 2007, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. If current trends persist, much of urban America could graduate to Los Angeles-style gridlock: as many as 11 cities could reach or exceed Los Angeles’ current traffic levels before 2030.

Technology can help reverse this trend and reduce these wasted dollars. More importantly, investing in technology in the short term will help increase efficiencies in the long run, ensuring the Highway Trust Fund goes further while also rewarding private sector innovation.

As part of his recent remarks at the Brookings Institution, President Barack Obama noted the benefits of private sector investments to generate jobs, growth and innovation in areas such as modernizing our transportation system. He also reaffirmed: “Instilling confidence in our commitment to being fiscally prudent gives the private sector the confidence to make long-term investments in our people and in America.—

Around the world, intelligent transportation solutions are being deployed to help cities and regions manage traffic congestion, provide a better user experience and increase economic competitiveness. In Ireland, for example, the Railway Procurement Agency worked with IBM to implement an Integrated Ticketing System that allows commuters in the greater Dublin area to use a single prepaid smart card for travel on all buses, trains, trams and coaches, eliminating the need to carry cash to pay for tickets. This provides commuters with seamless travel and transfers across different modes of transport and enables flexible fares and ticket products.

The Swedish Road Administration began a pilot road charging system in 2007 to get a handle on traffic congestion in the inner city. Working with IBM, the Swedish Road Administration helped the city of Stockholm cut city traffic by 18 percent, reduce emissions 14 to 18 percent and increase public transportation use dramatically. Even inner-city retailers benefited, experiencing a 6 percent increase in sales.

The pilot was so successful that Stockholm residents overwhelmingly supported full adoption of the system a year later. Brisbane, Australia, recently implemented a similar solution to deal with the rising number of freight trucks traveling to and from its port and the workers commuting to its airport, port and central business district.

Another way to ease congestion, provide a better user experience and reduce lost economic productivity is to predict traffic jams before they form. IBM is testing software in Singapore that can examine current traffic patterns and predict congestion up to 45 minutes ahead. The system has proved to be about 90 percent accurate in predicting the volume and speed of drivers, information that is then used to adjust 1,700 sets of traffic lights.

Technology is making rail transport significantly more cost-effective, too. Netherlands Railways, one of the busiest national railway networks in Europe, is using IBM software to manage more than 5,000 trains in the Netherlands. The railway’s new smart transportation system has improved its operating efficiency by as much as 6 percent, netting a cost savings of more than $30 million annually.

The U.S. has the opportunity to bring these same benefits to our own transportation systems. Let’s keep this country’s much-needed infrastructure improvements on track by using advances in technology and data-driven solutions to make our transportation systems more cost-effective and efficient over the long haul. The bottom line is billions of dollars flowing back into the economy.

Gerard M. Mooney is general manager for global government and education at IBM Corp.