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United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - Winter 1997

Moving Forward Smartly: The Role for ITS in the NEXTEA

by Jeff Lindley

Significance of ISTEA and ITS

isteaThe Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) was pivotal legislation. It wrapped up the interstate highway construction program and introduced a new surface transportation era -- one where operations and management of the existing system are of paramount importance.

ISTEA ushered in the new era by launching an initiative to research, develop, test, and evaluate advanced electronic systems. The initiative, marked by unprecedented cooperation between the public and private sectors, aims to improve the safety and efficiency of the existing transportation infrastructure.

When outfitted with intelligent transportation systems, or ITS, the existing infrastructure will provide a large portion of the new capacity required to satisfy the continuing increases in travel demand and system use.

The ISTEA-authorized ITS program has already resulted in significant accomplishments. These accomplishments include: (1) development of a National ITS Program Plan, (2) completion of a national ITS system architecture and launching of an agressive standards development program, (3) launching of a comprehensive program of basic and applied research on enabling technologies and ITS strategies, (4) launching of more than 70 field operational tests of ITS technologies and services, (5) a long-term prototype development effort for an automated highway system, (6) ITS deployment planning studies in more than 75 metropolitan areas and corridors, and (7) initiation of 11 model deployment projects. The model deployment projects will serve as good examples for those ready to deploy proven ITS technologies and strategies.

ITS Reauthorization Working Group

Encouraged by the preliminary results of the ITS initiative, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is considering the appropriate role for ITS in ISTEA reauthorization -- or NEXTEA, as it is sometimes called. Within DOT, the ITS Joint Program Office has convened an interagency ITS Reauthorization Working Group to consider ITS provisions in NEXTEA. (See "The Road to Reauthorization: Building on the Success of ISTEA" for an explanation of the reauthorization process.)

DOT recognizes that transportation system performance depends on both a sound structural system and a system that is operated smartly. The department also knows the public is not well served by crumbling infrastructure or traffic flow disruptions on overcrowded facilities. We must both fix our infrastructure and make our transportation system smart.

For almost a year, the working group has been addressing ITS reauthorization issues. The group has developed an evolving draft working paper that reflects internal agency reviews and a dozen formal outreach sessions held with a variety of constituents and interested parties in California, Minnesota, New York, Texas, and Virginia.

This effort focused first on the need for ITS, which is the main subject of this article, along with related reauthorization issues such as intermodal systems management, devolution (the transfer of some authority from the federal government to state and local agencies), and an effective federal role. The ongoing discussions and outreach will lead to development of a formal DOT position on ITS provisions as part of the department's comprehensive recommendations on ISTEA reauthorization, expected early in 1997.

The National Interest in ITS

The exploratory assessment of ITS called for by ISTEA has produced a compelling case for making ITS an essential component of our future transportation system.

While serving us well for many years as the backbone of the nation's economy, the highway system has deteriorated and become too congested. ITS will boost economic prosperity, strengthen the United States as a global competitor, increase system capacity, cut congestion, and save money and lives.

Congestion Problems and Economic Benefits

A 34 percent increase in highway capacity is needed in the next 10 years just to stay even with the anticipated growth in vehicle-miles traveled (VMT). This expansion would cost about $150 billion over the next decade for 50 cities -- if such capacity increases could ever be found to be economically and environmentally feasible. Currently, less than 60 percent of this VMT-offsetting capacity is being built.

In far too many places, the system is congested for too many hours each day. Traffic has increased 30 percent in the last 10 years, and the number of cars on the road is projected to increase 50 percent in the next decade. If nothing is done to accommodate this trend, the result will be more traffic congestion leading to gridlock.

Congestion causes delays, wasted time and fuel, and increased air pollution, and since "time is money," there is a significant economic penalty to be paid for congestion. According to a study by the Texas Transportation Institute, using data from 1992, the costs of congestion were more than $8 billion in the Los Angeles metropolitan area; more than $7 billion for New York City; and close to $3 billion each for Chicago, San Francisco-Oakland, and Washington, D.C. In addition, for each of eight other urban areas, congestion costs exceeded $1 billion. The same congestion interferes with the movement of goods and employees, imposing $40 billion in costs on businesses and sapping the country's ability to compete in the global marketplace.

Also, stress-causing congestion robs Americans of two billion hours a year -- wasted time that could be used in much more economically valuable, productive, and certainly more enjoyable ways. Gridlock also delays emergency vehicles, further exacerbating safety problems.

By creating capacity on, rather than expanding, existing highways and by avoiding construction of new roads, ITS can address travel demand growth and congestion problems while minimizing negative impacts on the quality of life. Smart vehicles with increasingly sophisticated on-board diagnostic capabilities will also be much better equipped to monitor, detect, and correct emission problems.

The nation's future prosperity depends upon maintaining the competitive advantage that results from our extensive transportation system. Our far-reaching network, including the almost 70,000 kilometers of interstate highways, allows people and goods to be moved within urban areas and across the vast distances between metropolitan areas at lower costs relative to other nations. If we are to remain a strong global competitor and deal effectively with congestion and safety problems, we need to accelerate our efforts to implement ITS.

Safety and Efficiency Benefits

We must reduce the number of accidents on U.S. highways. About 6.4 million vehicle crashes occur annually, and these accidents exact an enormous personal and economic loss. The estimated cost of traffic accidents in the United States is about $150 billion each year according to "The Economic Cost of Motor Vehicle Crashes, 1994," a technical report of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

ITS, widely deployed, will save money and lives, plus achieve sizable nationwide efficiency and safety benefits in at least three ways:

  • By enabling the existing system to handle a significant portion of the expected growth in traffic. Fully deployed intelligent transportation infrastructures (ITI) in our 75 largest metropolitan areas will create two-thirds of the new capacity needed in our most congested corridors over the next decade at 20 to 25 percent of the cost of expanding existing, or adding new, facilities.
  • By introducing smart vehicles with crash-avoidance devices that will significantly reduce accidents. NHTSA estimates that ITS could cut the number of crashes nationwide by about 1.1 million annually, saving $23 billion each year.
  • By reducing transaction costs for transportation users and the government. Electronic toll and fare collection for commercial and other vehicles will provide non-stop collection of user fees that will reduce the high cost of cash transactions by up to 90 percent.

Benefits to Commercial Vehicles

Lower transaction costs benefit taxpayers directly and consumers indirectly by reducing the cost of delivered goods. A national or even international ITS infrastructure will allow vehicles to be screened electronically at mainline speeds. Trucks will go not only from New York to California but from Mexico through the United States to Canada with all interstate and international regulatory transactions handled electronically.

Carriers participating in electronic clearance programs will be able to operate trucks without paper credentials. Borders will become transparent, the trip will become seamless, and today's costly delays and unnecessary stops will be a thing of the past.

ITS will allow carriers to manage their fleets more effectively and economically, so that schedules and maintenance can be optimized. Fleet managers will be able to track vehicles throughout North America. Much-improved highway, traffic, and weather information will result in smarter routing decisions.

In helping to realize the intermodal "I" of ISTEA, ITS will facilitate intermodal transport because electronic transactions support intermodal interchange among trucks, railroads, ships, and air freight lines. All trailers and containers will carry a standard intermodal tag that is readable by carriers in all modes.

ITI Goal

To achieve the wide ranging benefits described above, Secretary Peña announced in January 1996 a new national goal to deploy an ITI across the United States in both urban and rural areas over the next 10 years. The urban component calls for outfitting 75 of the largest metropolitan areas with a "complete" ITI in 10 years. This initiative, called Operation TimeSaver, aims to reduce travel times by 15 percent regardless of mode. In February, the secretary set the initiative in motion by announcing a solicitation of several model sites for early/full ITI deployment.

The TimeSaver initiative focuses on cities and suburbs where the greatest mobility problems can be found. This initiative also commits DOT to upgrading technology in 450 other communities and on our rural roads as needs dictate. The initiative provides the thrust and charts the course for the department's ITI deployment efforts into the next century.

When the secretary established this ITI goal, he connected the transportation and information infrastructures by saying: "It's our turn to commit to building the next frontier in surface transportation. And that frontier will be in the information age."

The development of the national information infrastructure (NII) has been sparked by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 -- the first major deregulation and reform of our telecommunications law in more than 60 years. Together, NII and the telecommunications law are providing the enabling foundation for ITS technologies.

The transportation community will be deploying ITI during a period when the nation's information infrastructure will grow and change more rapidly than ever before. This timing presents unique challenges and opportunities.

ITS Reauthorization Considerations

The widespread deployment of ITS throughout the United States and across the borders into Canada and Mexico is clearly a top-priority national interest. In a sense, ITS is inevitable -- a natural result of the national transition into the emerging Information Age. The rising tide of the Information Age will simply lift the transportation system into the next century. So why not let ITS just happen by itself?

ITS Is "Happening"

ITS is happening -- beyond the research, testing, and evaluation efforts funded by the ITS program. Increasingly, state and local officials are using federal-aid funds to implement ITS to improve traffic management, offer innovative transit service, and automate toll collection lanes. Public agencies, using funding outside the federal ITS program, are currently spending more than a billion dollars per year on such ITS components as smart traffic signals and transit fleet management systems.

ITS Could Be Better

Unfortunately, while ITS is happening with sizable investments of public funds, ITS is not being deployed widely, consistently, or systematically. A few notable exceptions, which have benefited from special ITS funding, are "Guidestar" in Minnesota, "Transtar" in Houston, and the Atlanta Traveler Information Showcase used to manage traffic during the Olympics. However, for the most part, the deployment of ITI components has not been coordinated, but instead it has been modally oriented, spotty, and isolated.


Houston's TranStar Traffic Management Center monitors traffic conditions on a real-time basis.


This situation is occurring in part because ITS champions are not well represented in transportation planning and funding decisions. Also, ITS projects are still viewed as capital investments, rather than investments for operating the transportation system to its fullest potential. Changes to statewide and metropolitan planning procedures should be considered to ensure that ITS options are fully and accurately considered as critical elements of future transportation plans and programs

Regarding the movement of goods, the prospects for ITS services to benefit commercial traffic through the Commercial Vehicle Information Systems Network (CVISN) are even dimmer due to fewer eligible funding sources outside the current federal ITS program.

Specific ITS Issues for NEXTEA

Deliberations on ISTEA reauthorization need to address several key considerations with respect to ITS.

ITS Provides the Information Infrastructure for Intermodal Systems Management

Greater reliance on the improved operation of existing infrastructure is inevitable. The networks are essentially in place with no plans in sight for expansion on a significant scale. Much of the future growth in the demand for transportation must be met with facilities that already exist -- some of which are congested, physically constrained, or under-used. Whatever the situation, better management of existing facilities is the only viable solution.

ISTEA emphasized the improved management of existing transportation systems. This integral part of the legislation called for the implementation of several management systems, including traffic congestion, safety, and transit management systems. However, a suitable management information infrastructure, on which to base the management systems, was lacking, resulting in more rhetoric than results.

ITS will provide the information infrastructure and analytical tools needed to realize the intermodal systems management goal envisioned in ISTEA. For example, ITS can supply critical system performance data, collected for traffic/transit management and other ITS purposes, to identify operational problems, causes, and solutions, along with information on the effectiveness of implemented improvements.

However, as was the case in providing physical transportation infrastructure, the provision of critical transportation information infrastructure will likely require special funding support -- at least in the beginning.

ITS Is Not Yet Ready to Stand Alone

The trend toward fewer and broader program funding categories, which started with ISTEA, is providing state and local officials with greater flexibility and choice in targeting federal funds to meet transportation needs within their jurisdictions. This trend is entirely appropriate for existing mature physical transportation infrastructure, but it is not necessarily well-suited to the task of creating a new transportation information and communications infrastructure -- an infrastructure of integrated components that must talk and listen to each other. The common understanding of the benefits of ITS and methods for properly planning and implementing the ITS infrastructure necessary for this approach to work has not yet been achieved on a national basis.

Virtually all of the feedback from the outreach sessions sponsored by the ITS Reauthorization Working Group stressed that ITS has not yet reached a state of maturity nationally where it can be successfully implemented solely by relying on the "mainstream" transportation planning process and funding sources. The repeated message was that ITS should continue to receive special emphasis within the overall surface transportation program.

Rational ITS Deployment Requires Federal Leadership

ITS will happen, to some degree, with or without federal intervention. However, federal leadership can positively impact the timing, cost, and effectiveness of ITS deployment.

National leadership -- not mandates -- is needed to ensure the consistency of user services and operations. Without strong national leadership, ITS deployment is likely to be spotty and inconsistent. Federal involvement in project development oversight and interoperability standards will reduce the risk of nonintegrated and ineffective state and local public investments (with federal funds) in ITS infrastructure. To use a parallel example, we could ultimately invest heavily in a lot of stand-alone personal computers, but without networking or internet capabilities, they could never be used to their fullest capacity.

If nationwide ITS is to be implemented successfully, interstate uniformity in service availability, compatibility, and interoperability will be required. Accomplishing this uniformity will require a federal role and national leadership.

A strong federal role is needed to perpetuate an "environment" in which ITS can flourish in partnership with public sector transportation agencies, academic institutions, and private industry. The range of federal activities could include:

  • National "visioning" and leadership.
  • Consensus building.
  • Research on enabling technologies.
  • Assessment, demonstration, and evaluation.
  • Training, technical guidance, and assistance.
  • Leadership in developing standards.
  • Funding incentives to ensure concerted and coordinated action.

A Minimalist Federal Approach Is Possible

In the future, most ITI and CVISN deployment will need to be funded by general-purpose transportation dollars from federal, state, local, and private sources. But is it enough to rely solely on "mainstreaming" during the next five to six years? ITS and CVISN are nascent (just coming into existence) technologies; nascent too is the underlying philosophy of integrated, intermodal system management that lies at the heart of ITS's promise. At this stage, special incentive funding may well be warranted on a transitional basis for ITS to successfully compete for mainstream funding.

New technologies and new approaches, like new life forms, almost always need an incubation period with special resources and support if they are to take hold and flourish. A small amount of extra incentive funding may make a substantial difference in overcoming the existing barriers to cooperative, intermodal deployment by states and local jurisdictions and private industry.


As we move through the 1990s toward the 21st century, the validity of ISTEA's vision has been confirmed. The need to improve the operation and management of the existing transportation system has become even more critical.

The dimensions of our growing transportation problems, the comparative costs/benefits of available solutions, and the diverse economic and safety benefits that ITS can deliver lead to one conclusion: ITS will need to be an essential tool for improving the nation's transportation system in the next century. The reality is that without ITS tools, no practical and affordable alternatives exist to handle the expected increases in travel by private and commercial vehicles.

The country faces the challenges and choices of how best to accelerate ITS deployment -- of how best, during the ISTEA reauthorization process, to take advantage of unique opportunities in the information infrastructure and telecommunications sectors. We must get on with the task of moving forward smartly.

This article was adapted from a paper that was co-authored by Gary Ritter of the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.

Jeff Lindley is the deputy director of DOT's ITS Joint Program Office. Since 1985, he has also held positions in the FHWA Office of Research, Development, and Technology; the Office of Traffic Management and ITS Applications; and Region Nine in San Francisco.