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High-Tech Highways

It's a little bit sci-fi and little bit Big Brother. And it may not be long before it comes to an expressway near you.

It's high-tech transportation, optimistically referred to in the industry as "intelligent transportation systems," presumably to distinguish it from unintelligent ones today.

Imagine a little transponder in your car, the kind of gadget that zips you through the SunPass toll lanes, monitoring your speed, the places you go, the miles you've driven. Imagine that same transponder communicating with the cars around you, to avoid collisions, with sensors in the highway to guide your car, and with a central transportation office to alert traffic dispatchers to slowdowns. But also imagine that little transponder letting the government charge you for every mile driven, mail you a ticket for speeding and find out you stopped off at a bar on the way home.

Over the next four years, Florida's Department of Transportation plans to spend more than $850 million, roughly 10% of its planned contracts, on ITS, the industry's name for intelligent transportation, says Lowell R. Clary, DOT's assistant secretary for transportation support.

"We know that we can't build our way out of the traffic and transportation challenges our state faces," Gov. Jeb Bush said last summer after DOT opened its $9-million SunGuide Transportation Management Center in Miami, where remote-controlled cameras and highway sensors are used to provide alerts on traffic conditions. "There is a finite capacity to build or expand our roads. But we can use technology to help us make the most of our roads and highways."

Real growth-management would help, too, but that's a whole different topic.

Some of the ideas aren't so gee-whiz in technology, but they would change the way we think about commuting.

Some programs on the drawing boards in Florida:

-- Instead of building metrorail systems, which have large upfront capital costs and unpredictable ridership, metro areas might start with dedicated bus lanes, maybe in the median of current interstate systems. That's being studied for I-595 in Broward County. At some distant point, the lanes could even be converted to rail.

-- New "express" lanes, running in the medians of existing freeway lanes, would be accessible only with a toll, which could be changed instantaneously to ensure that the express lanes are always free-flowing. If express lanes started slowing down, the toll could be raised to deter some users. In California, where such a system has been used for seven years on a 10-mile stretch of State Route 91 east of Anaheim, toll revenue tripled (thanks to regular increases), the number of trips grew by almost half in the first five years, and there are well over 100,000 transponders in use. In Florida, Orlando is furthest along in planning such a system.

-- Sensors and video cameras serve as alert systems for drivers. At traffic operations centers in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, traffic managers can light up digital warning signs on I-95. Drivers can check the camera views on websites or call 511 and find out if there are any traffic problems along their planned route.

-- What DOT calls its big strategic initiative, the "Strategic Intermodal System," is supposed to improve connectors (roads, mostly) to make the entire transportation system actually work together -- airports, expressways, seaports, rail stations. The Legislature set aside $100 million for it this year.

-- In addition to assessing gasoline and sales taxes at the pump to finance road construction, cars could be monitored for miles driven and drivers taxed for their individual use. Initially, the system might be low-tech, such as reporting your odometer readings or having them checked. Eventually, the system might be high-tech and automated, such as using those eerie transponders. This would allow variable pricing on congested surface streets during peak congestion in much the same way tolls would be used for express lanes.

Important concerns
The politics and social issues are important. In the Virginia suburbs of Washington, there was huge conflict over the decision several years ago to limit new lanes on the Dulles Toll Road to high-occupancy vehicles (HOV), meaning two or more passengers. Today the talk is of "high occupancy tolls," or HOT lanes, to let solo drivers buy their way onto HOV lanes. HOV has tricky enforcement issues. (People were known to put mannequins in their cars to try to fool the cops.) Opponents -- solo drivers stuck in the regular lanes -- thought the extra lanes should be used to give everyone modest improvements instead of giving big gains to those with multiple riders.

There is also the issue of equal opportunity. Do toll roads unfairly benefit those who can afford to buy their way out of congestion? Clary says no, because toll express lanes can actually save drivers money. On State Route 91 in California, "most people using it are either middle income or low income," he says (although studies also show some correlation with income levels). "Do you know what it costs if you're late to day care (pickup)? Five dollars a minute. They'll pay a $3 toll to get there on time."

A lot of people don't use the express lanes every day, Clary says, but only when they're in a hurry or when congestion is extra heavy. "They're more concerned about reliability," so you know that one way or another, you can make your commute in a predictable amount of time.

Privacy, Clary acknowledges, is a big issue in the more high-tech concepts. And privacy organizations are out of the loop. Creative Loafing, an alternative-weekly newspaper in Charlotte, N.C. (in which I am an investor), recently wrote extensively about the federal project and the corporate money behind it and discovered that privacy advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, knew nothing about it. And the proponents clearly were just giving lip service to the issue.

There is also the issue of getting equipment into cars. So-called "adaptive cruise control" alone can cost up to $3,000 per car.

And there is the question of money. DOT set a new record last year by putting $2.3 billion in projects under contract, a pace that continues this year. But Congress continues to stall on the legislation committing federal transportation money for the next five years, and in any event it is unlikely to produce a big increase. The next big source of financing is from local taxes, as tax-cutting federal and state politicians dump more costs on local governments.

"The toll is more to provide a choice and to ensure a guaranteed level of service," Clary says. "You need a local dedicated revenue stream." That means more local-option votes.

But transportation expenditures do pay off, even if it's not the government that profits. In the efficiency of commerce, in time saved for commuters, in convenience and attractiveness for tourists, transportation expenditures, DOT claims, can have returns on investment of 35% a year or more. Not to mention the political benefits of faster commutes.

That may be gee-whiz enough for a lot of politicians.