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June 8, 2009 2:30 AM, EDT
States Creating ‘Smart Road’ Projects with Stimulus Funds to Reduce Traffic
By Michele Fuetsch, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the June 8 print edition of Transport Topics.

Instead of buying only asphalt and steel, several states will spend federal stimulus dollars on “smart road” projects that use information technology to reduce congestion, according to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“Although traditional road and bridge construction projects are key elements of improving the nation’s highways,” states can go beyond new construction with “alternatives that enhance capacity and performance of existing infrastructure,” the NCSL report said.

Colorado, for instance, plans to spend some of its stimulus dollars on high-tech weather alert systems along Interstate 70 where snow and ice can imperil winter truck traffic through the Rocky Mountains.

Ohio will spend $15 million in the Cleveland and Akron areas to buy such equipment as traffic cameras, electronic message boards and weather advisory radios.

Such investments are known as ITS or intelligent transportation systems.

The NCSL report makes the case that ITS spending on such items as high-occupancy vehicle lanes and electronic tolling improves transportation flow, mitigates congestion and reduces fuel consumption and emissions.

The biggest “smart road” project to date using stimulus dollars may be in Pennsylvania, according to Stateline.org, a news service operated by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

In Pennsylvania, $74 million in stimulus funds is earmarked for ITS purchases along 72 miles of highway in the Philadelphia area.

Pennsylvania transportation officials said they hope to reduce traffic delays and the resulting pollution from idling by adding 59 closed-circuit video cameras and 39 electronic traffic signs to the roads.

The new cameras and signs will connect to the state’s traffic control center in King of Prussia, a suburb of Philadelphia. The center already has 175 cameras feeding into its system to help control traffic flow on the highways.

The NCSL report said that ITS projects meet the stimulus goal of producing jobs quickly.

A January 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration found that ITS projects got under way more quickly than new road construction projects.

ITS investments require “minimal new rights-of-way,” the DOT report said. In addition, DOT found that ITS projects tend to put about 50% of a project’s spending into the hands of workers, compared with only 20% when the spending is on new highway construction projects.

Not every state, however, found that the stimulus spending was suited to ITS investments.

Virginia, for example, did not allocate any stimulus dollars to ITS, said its secretary of transportation, Pierce Homer.

New ITS projects, Homer said, have a long lead time and, because the stimulus money must be spent quickly to generate jobs, Virginia concentrated its spending on replacement, not new projects, so hiring would start as soon as possible.

“Most of our ITS is in the highly urbanized areas,” he said. “Those are not the economically distressed areas of the state.”

For Virginia, Homer said, ITS replacement spending is better suited to the state’s regular transportation budget.