Georgia to get mere portion of data from new traffic sensors

Data restrictions imposed by owner Traffic.com

News Cox News Service August 20, 2007
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New solar-powered sensors are set for installation along 80 miles of roads as traffic-clogged Atlanta as part of a $50 million federal program to help big cities guide rush-hour drivers and assist transportation planners.

However, access to the data collected by the sensors will be limited. The data will belong not to Georgia but to the private contractor Traffic.com, which was designated for the project by supporters in Congress.

Under agreements that only recently were made public, much of the pertinent "real-time" traffic information is reserved for Traffic.com to use in its private services.

As a result, Georgia's new 511 travel line won't be able to use all the data generated by the new road sensors, set up with $2 million in federal funds. The most detailed information—used to calculate drive times—will be reserved for those who use the Traffic.com's private services, such as its website, or who drive an Acura TL or Cadillac equipped with traffic guidance systems supplied by the company.

Mark Demidovich, assistant state traffic engineer for the Georgia Department of Transportation, acknowledged the restrictions this week after reviewing the terms of the state's agreement with Traffic.com.

"When we first signed this [agreement], we didn't even have 511 on our radar screen yet. This is something I'm going to need to discuss," he said, adding that he wants to feed all available information into the 511 service.

Although GDOT already has extensive coverage of roads around Atlanta, Demidovich said he welcomed the federally financed Traffic.com project to fill in gaps along Georgia routes 120 and 400, I-675 and the Stone Mountain Freeway.

"The deal for Georgia DOT was very attractive," Demidovich said. "We could get all these sensors at no cost to us or the state."

However, Demidovich recently became aware of the fine print of the agreement, which stipulates that Georgia would have to bargain for the right to use the detailed data from the new sensors for electronic message signs that project drive times.

John Collins, vice president for intelligence transportation systems for Traffic.com, said that his company would negotiate an agreement on the message signs.

As for the 511 service, he said Georgia could use only the so-called "Basic Traveler" information, which includes road closures, major delays and crashes and indicates the level of congestion by color coding routes as red, yellow or green.

"At the end of the day, we do need to be able to sell something to pay for the ongoing cost of the system," Collins said, adding that the company makes its revenue by providing the "granular" details such as the minute-by-minute speed of traffic flow to its various traffic information services, including the website and radio spots, which carry ads.

The federal project was championed in 1998 by Rep. Bud Shuster, a now-retired Republican who was known as a master of bringing transportation projects to his home state of Pennsylvania. Traffic.com, then an upstart tech company based in Wayne, Pa., was awarded the first contract in a program that later expanded to a $50 million effort nationwide. The firm was bought earlier this year by NAVTEQ, a Silicon Valley tech giant.

The precise arrangements have been secret until recently, when the Sunlight Foundation, a private watchdog group that seeks to open government documents to public viewing, obtained the Traffic.com agreements with various localities through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Critics charge that the Traffic.com contracts stem from its political connections in Washington, where the firm has hired more than 10 lobbying firms, including one run by a former top aide to Shuster.

"It was all done by political guys that know how to game the system," said Jerry Werner, an engineer who until 2005 was a federal subcontractor working for the National Transportation Operations Coalition, where he followed the Traffic.com developments. He has continued to track the federal program.

"The program's goals are exactly right, but once you look into the agreements, you can see how they are very limiting," he said. Even so, he said the $2 million grants offered each city were inviting.

"It's $2 million of your taxpayer dollars," he said. "But from the perspective of the local agency, it's free." Even the requirement for local governments to provide matching money was waived in most cases, he said.

Georgia is providing no cash for the Atlanta project, Demidovich said.

The Georgia agreement, signed last year, is similar to those struck with other high-traffic localities, including Philadelphia; Tampa; Boston; the states of California and Virginia; and Columbus, Ohio.

Some major cities, including Miami and Houston, have turned down the Traffic.com grants, and several cities have indicated they would wait for a future phase of the project, which was expected to be more flexible.

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