Intelligent Transportation Systems:

Improved DOT Collaboration and Communication Could Enhance the Use of Technology to Manage Congestion

GAO-12-308: Published: Mar 19, 2012. Publicly Released: Apr 18, 2012.

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What GAO Found

State and local governments currently use ITS technologies in various ways to monitor and control traffic and inform travelers. For example, transportation agencies use cameras to monitor traffic conditions, signal technologies to control traffic flow, and dynamic message signs to inform travelers about travel conditions. By interviewing experts, GAO identified several emerging uses of ITS that have significant potential to reduce traffic congestion. For example, integrating traffic and emergency services data can allow for enhanced detection of and response to roadway incidents. However, some cities use ITS and the emerging uses to a much greater extent than others.

State and local governments face multiple challenges in using ITS technologies to manage traffic congestion. For example, some agencies do not fully integrate ITS into their planning processes. Funding the deployment and maintenance of ITS technologies is also an issue, because of funding constraints and competition with other needed infrastructure projects. Further, agencies struggle to attract and retain staff with the skills necessary to manage and maintain ITS systems and may not have leaders who support ITS. Finally, coordination among agencies can enhance the effectiveness of ITS through such activities as synchronized traffic signals along a corridor, but such coordination can be difficult given agencies’ differing perspectives and priorities.

RITA’s and FHWA’s activities to promote and support the use of ITS technologies help address these challenges. Both offer ITS-related training and technical assistance and provide guidance and information on their websites. FHWA estimates that states used about $800 million to $1.3 billion of their eligible 2010 federal aid highway funds and $798 million to $1.3 billion of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds on ITS. Further adoption of leading practices could improve these efforts. RITA’s and FHWA’s respective roles in these efforts are not clearly defined, potentially inhibiting their ability to effectively leverage resources. Some experts and transportation agencies noted that ITS-related information on RITA’s and FHWA’s websites is not always presented in a way that is useful and some agencies lack awareness of some ITS activities sponsored by DOT. Several options have been proposed to improve communication about ITS-related activities and facilitate the sharing of ITS information among state and local officials. While RITA intends to develop a new strategy in 2012 for promoting the use of ITS, it has not yet determined whether it will incorporate any of these proposals.

Why GAO Did This Study

Traffic congestion burdens the nation’s quality of life and will likely grow substantially if current trends continue. Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) are a range of technologies that can reduce congestion at less cost than some other approaches. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) is responsible for promoting and supporting the use of ITS in coordination with other modal administrations, including the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Since 1994, DOT has overseen the allocation and expenditure of more than $3 billion for deploying and researching ITS. GAO was asked to address (1) the current and emerging uses of ITS technologies by state and local governments, (2) the challenges these governments face in using ITS, and (3) the extent to which DOT’s efforts to promote and support ITS address these challenges and follow leading practices. To conduct this work GAO visited four sites, and interviewed and analyzed documents and data from DOT and state and local transportation officials, ITS experts, and other stakeholders.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that the Secretary of Transportation clearly define the roles of RITA and FHWA in promoting the use of ITS, improve the usefulness of ITS information on the agencies’ websites, and include in its strategy plans to further enhance communication on ITS activities. DOT reviewed a draft of this report, said it would consider our recommendations, and provided technical comments.

For more information, contact David J. Wise at (202) 512-2834 or wised@gao.gov.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To effectively target efforts, leverage resources, better promote and support the use of ITS technologies by state and local governments, and improve access to and awareness of ITS resources, the Secretary of Transportation should include in RITA’s strategy for promoting the adoption of ITStechnologies plans for collaborating with external partners to (1) further enhance communication about the availability of ITS resources and (2) facilitate learning exchanges.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To effectively target efforts, leverage resources, better promote and support the use of ITS technologies by state and local governments, and improve access to and awareness of ITS resources, the Secretary of Transportation should revise ITS information on RITA and FHWA websites to improve its usefulness for state and local audiences based on their needs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Traffic congestion burdens Americans' quality of life through wasted energy, time, and money; increased pollution; and threats to safety. State and local governments can use Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) technologies to support strategies to more efficiently use existing roadway capacity by improving traffic flow. The U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) is responsible for promoting and supporting the use of ITS in coordination with other modal administrations, including the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). In March 2012, we found that state and local governments face challenges in planning and funding ITS use, ensuring that staff and leaders have adequate knowledge of ITS, and coordinating ITS approaches, which impede their ability to make the most effective use of ITS technologies in addressing congestion. While DOT's efforts to promote and support the use of ITS technologies help state and local agencies address these challenges, the department could improve the effectiveness of these efforts through greater use of leading practices for promoting technology use. For example, in comparing RITA and FHWA websites related to ITS, we found each of the sites provided links to different studies and guidance for several of the same or similar ITS uses. Therefore, we recommended that the Secretary of Transportation revise ITS information on the RITA and FHWA websites to improve its usefulness for state and local audiences based on their needs. In August 2012, RITA's ITS Joint Program Office added information to its website with links to relevant FHWA websites. In addition, FHWA websites were updated with links to the ITS Joint Program Office website and its professional capacity building program for ITS. This additional linkage can assist state and local agency officials in locating the most relevant DOT ITS information and resources.

    Recommendation: To effectively target efforts, leverage resources, better promote and support the use of ITS technologies by state and local governments, and improve access to and awareness of ITS resources, the Secretary of Transportation should clearly define and document the respective roles and responsibilities of RITA and FHWA in promoting and supporting the use of ITS.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To effectively target efforts, leverage resources, better promote and support the use of ITS technologies by state and local governments, and improve access to and awareness of ITS resources, the Secretary of Transportation should include in RITA's strategy for promoting the adoption of ITStechnologies plans for collaborating with external partners to (1) further enhance communication about the availability of ITS resources and (2) facilitate learning exchanges.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Traffic congestion burdens Americans' quality of life through wasted energy, time, and money; increased pollution; and threats to safety. State and local governments can use Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) technologies to support strategies to more efficiently use existing roadway capacity by improving traffic flow. The U.S. Department of Transportation's Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) is responsible for promoting and supporting the use of ITS in coordination with other modal administrations, including the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). In March 2012, we found that state and local governments face challenges in planning and funding ITS use, ensuring that staff and leaders have adequate knowledge of ITS, and coordinating ITS approaches, which impede their ability to make the most effective use of ITS technologies in addressing congestion. While DOT's efforts to promote and support the use of ITS technologies help state and local agencies address these challenges, the department could improve the effectiveness of these efforts through greater use of leading practices for promoting technology use. For example, we found transportation agencies may not be aware of all the ITS-related activities and information offered by RITA. Therefore, we recommended that the Secretary of Transportation include in RITA's strategy for promoting the adoption of ITS technologies plans for collaborating with external partners to further enhance communication about the availability of ITS resources and facilitate learning exchanges. RITA developed an ITS professional capacity building outreach plan, which it began implementing in June 2012, that includes improved communication efforts with external partners. In addition, DOT developed a professional capacity building program marketing plan that included strategies for increasing participation in the program, including peer-to-peer training, which is a type of learning exchange among state and local officials. This additional outreach can better ensure state and local agency officials receive relevant ITS information.

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