Florida's 511 system stalled by glitches

System often fails to deliver accurate travel times

News Orlando Sentinel June 07, 2007
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Many Florida motorists dialing 511 for estimated travel times on highways recently have gotten messages about technical difficulties instead, according to a report in the Orlando Sentinel.

Callers will still get a travel time, but it will be the standard one reflecting normal driving conditions, so if traffic is congested, callers won't get an accurate travel time, the paper reported.

511 is still offering up-to-date travel times on a few roads, including two of the busiest -- Interstate 4 and State Road 408 -- but even travel-time information on those roads is unavailable on the state's Web site, www.fl511.com, according to the paper.

"We really don't have any good information coming in on a regular basis" for major highways such as State Roads 436, 50 and 417, Rick Morrow, a transportation-operations engineer for the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), told the Sentinel.

The system still reports crashes and lane blockages, but motorists can't find out how long it will take to drive through the congestion, the paper reported.

The software that runs the system, which uses road sensors to measure traffic speeds, has been plagued with glitches from the beginning, and FDOT told the paper that Castle Rock Consultants, the company that created the software, has been no help. Castle Rock of Portland, Ore., is not working on the system now that its contract has expired, officials told the paper.

The state is considering ditching the system, the paper said.

Thanks to a backup system, information on roads such as State Road 408 and I-4 is still available, the Sentinel reported. Cameras on those highways can inform traffic operators of what's happening, allowing information to be manually posted on 511 and overhead signs.

But even "on the signs, it will just be our guesses," Paul Urbach, a shift supervisor for Traffic Monitoring Inc., which monitors conditions on major roads from FDOT's traffic-management center, told the Sentinel. The operators see backups on the cameras and estimate delays based on three to five minutes per mile, the paper said.

The 511 system won't be fully operational until a new software system is brought online in late July or early August, Morrow told the Sentinel.

Castle Rock's software has had problems getting travel time information onto I-4's electronic signs throughout its three-year contract, the paper reported. Some traffic operators question the accuracy of the information it produces, telling the paper they often override it with their own calculations.

"It often gets it wrong, real wrong," Charles Hata-King, a traffic operator for TMI, told the Sentinel earlier this year. In fact, TMI operators find the Castle Rock software so troublesome that nicknamed it "Crashes Regularly," the paper said.

After the Castle Rock contract expired April 30, things started getting worse, the paper said.

"We've had several crashes of the system that are getting closer and closer together," Morrow told the paper. "Now we're getting to a point where we're really struggling to keep the system working at all using the CRS software."

FDOT took down the 511 website that was part of the Castle Rock system in mid-May, and replaced it with one that Morrow told the paper is "not extremely user-friendly." On Tuesday, clicks for information on travel times got this message: "Due to technical difficulties this page is temporarily not available."

The problems with the system have caused a setback of more than two years in the operation of electronic changing-speed-limit signs along I-4 from Maitland Bouelvard to John Young Parkway, the paper said. Installed in early 2005, the signs have never reflected actual traffic conditions.

It's all part of iFlorida, a $21 million high-tech project designed to make driving in Florida easier and safer that includes a network of cameras to monitor major highways, bridge-security devices and other gadgets, the paper reported.

Castle Rock CEO Peter Davies told the paper in an email Tuesday the problem is that FDOT hasn't effectively tied its software into other parts of the system. Other agencies haven't had such problems with Castle Rock's products, Davies wrote.

"It's a complex system and . . . it's a really big challenge to make all of those high-tech gadgets work together," Davies told the paper after sending the email.

"We're just trying to make it work on its own," Morrow told the paper.

Despite the problems, Castle Rock has been paid about 85% of its $2.3 million contract, according to the Sentinel. FDOT wants a partial refund or more on work done on the system. And while an amicable solution is still being sought, "it's probably going to turn into a legal issue," Morrow told the paper.

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