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Public Roads - March/April 2000

Developing An 'Operations Vision'

by Kenneth R. Wykle

The following article was adapted from Administrator Wykle's speech to the ITS World Congress, Panel 6, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Nov. 9, 1999.

There is an oncoming shift in developed countries from constructing highway systems to operating what we have. Let me put that in perspective.

In the United States and around the world, railroads dominated the early part of this century. Cars and trucks came to the forefront by the 1950s. The United States responded by building our Interstate Highway System -- a great achievement. Most of us grew up as road networks and highway systems were being built around the world. Today, in the United States, the interstate system -- roughly 70,000 kilometers -- is basically complete. We will continue to maintain it, improve it, and add a few miles. What we will not be doing is adding thousands of new miles.

Operating the System

What we will do is operate the system. Our mission for the 21st century must be to optimize the performance of the surface transportation system by actively managing and operating it in an integrated, intermodal fashion.

President Clinton and Vice President Gore have been very clear about the role of technological innovation in making our economy strong and improving our quality of life. They have emphasized that "investing in technology is investing in America's future." We at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) are working to leverage technology.

We are investing in intelligent transportation systems (ITS) and technology applications to ensure that we can improve mobility through more efficient transportation operations. ITS will be the "interstate system" of the 21st century. The economies of nations around the world will continue to depend on a highly functioning interconnected transportation system.

The biggest challenge facing transportation leaders will be to manage a transition from a culture based on highway construction to a culture based on operations.

The Meaning of Operations

When I say "operations", I mean maximizing our investment in our current transportation system and managing the performance of our future infrastructure. I mean delivering integrated services to our customers -- whether they are freight shippers, transit users, commuters, tourists, or pedestrians. And I mean delivering these services under varying conditions -- during snowstorms, hurricanes, sporting events, daily congestion, national emergencies, and even during the Christmas Eve rush at the shopping mall.

Operating means adjusting traffic signals in real time in response to changing conditions. Operating means responding to a highway crash in a well-coordinated, preplanned manner. Operating means responding to weather conditions so that in a rainstorm during rush hour, the transit system is ready for a higher-than-normal number of riders and so that during a blizzard, snowplows are deployed efficiently.

Operating means making sure that signs, both fixed and changeable, provide users with the information they need and in a manner they understand. Operating means ensuring that work zones -- and our whole approach to reconstruction and rehabilitation -- are managed for safety and mobility. Operating means making sure that the supply chain from origin to the retail shelf is predictable and efficient.

Operating means preparing an emergency plan; disasters can happen anytime, not just from 9 to 5! And finally, operating means having local and regional policies in place for pricing, land use, and other demand management strategies so we can get every last shred of capacity for our users.

All of this means changing our 20th century culture of construction to a 21st century culture of management and operations. It will not be easy.

Strides in ITS Deployment

ITS gives us the leverage to manage and operate the system.

Over the past several years, we have made tremendous strides in deploying ITS around our country and around the world. We are well past the beginning stage in the United States, and deployment of ITS infrastructure in our largest metropolitan areas is now one of the top five priorities of FHWA. Our goal is to have basic ITS infrastructure deployed in the nation's 75 largest metropolitan areas by 2005.

We are also looking beyond metropolitan areas. We expect to have 10 states with integrated, statewide rural ITS services by 2003. We continue our firm commitment to commercial vehicle ITS infrastructure; our program is called Commercial Vehicle Information Systems and Networks (CVISN). We plan to have CVISN infrastructure deployed in 26 to 30 states by 2003.

Moving Toward Operations

The citizens of each of the nations represented in the ITS World Congress expect and deserve a seamless end-to-end system that is coordinated, integrated, operated, and managed as a single system. How do we do it? Our biggest challenge will come from the way we handle our problems today.

Virtually all of our surface transportation institutions were born or shaped by the mission of construction. This includes how we plan, budget, and implement transportation systems. We have a tradition of declaring success by cutting ribbons, not by measuring how well we actively managed the system yesterday or during the last quarter. Our 20-year models must show the benefits of operating strategies.

Another challenge will be that "operating the system" inherently means process -- integrating actions, systems, and users -- and yet the construction paradigm has fragmented our industry. We are divided by geography, mode, political jurisdiction, type of road, and by profession -- planner, design engineer, traffic engineer, police, parking lot entrepreneur, and reporter.

Communicating an "operations vision" based on performance rather than projects is going to be hard. We cannot -- nor should we -- ignore the institutional and physical infrastructures that exist. If we are to successfully make the transition, we will have to build on -- and build from -- institutions that do not quite fit, cultures that do not align very well, and policies and mindsets that seem to be obstacles. Institutions and people will need to understand why change is needed.

FHWA Preparations

So, what is the United States doing to prepare for the challenges of the 21st century?

First, in FHWA, we have fundamentally realigned our organization to make operations one of our core businesses. Our Operations Core Business Unit will lead the way in improving infrastructure performance through applied technology and in advancing the state of the practice in all aspects of operations.

With our state and local partners, we are working in such areas as work zone safety and mobility; weather responsiveness; emergency preparedness; demand management; congestion management; incident management; freight management, including border crossings and intermodal connections; and standards. We are developing a comprehensive program of standards testing and awareness to complement the excellent international standards development work of the past decade. Improvements in all of these work areas illustrate the importance and success of our partnerships with state and local highway agencies to deploy ITS.

Beyond an organizational emphasis on operations, we are promoting national strategies that support ITS, such as the recent allocation of a radio spectrum by our Federal Communications Commission. They have dedicated the 5.9-gigahertz band -- the same frequency used in Europe and Japan -- for short-range communications systems designed to alleviate traffic congestion and improve safety. Devices using this frequency will support ITS activities, such as intersection collision avoidance and commercial vehicle operations.

Another example of a broader strategy is the proposal for a national traveler information telephone number -- known as N11. This would allow anybody, anywhere in the United States, to dial the same number for traveler information. It would be particularly useful in times of natural disaster.

And finally, we are beginning a national dialogue on the importance of the shift in emphasis from construction to operations. This national dialogue will help to shape the next major U.S. transportation legislation in 2003.


This is an exciting time to be part of the transportation community. We are at a pivotal moment -- a time when we must seize the opportunities offered by the information age. We can make a difference. We can improve safety and mobility for the world. The challenges are great but not insurmountable.

The leadership of ITS professionals will make the difference in the new century of operations. I strongly encourage you to participate in "Transportation Operations -- Moving Into the 21st Century," the Institute for Transportation Engineers (ITE) 2000 International Conference, at the Hyatt Regency in Irvine, Calif., April 2 through 5. The goal of the conference is to provide transportation professionals with information on what has been done, what is being done, and what can be done to meet current and future challenges in transportation operations.

For more information about "Transportation Operations -- Moving Into the 21st Century," contact Donna Ford of ITE at (202) 554-8050 or

Kenneth R. Wykle is the federal highway administrator. He has served as the chief of the Federal Highway Administration since Nov. 10, 1997. From 1995 to 1997, he was vice president for defense transportation for Science Applications International Corp. Wykle is a retired Army lieutenant general.