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US ITS systems approach critical decision time

First publishedin ITS International
January February 2009
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BlankConnie Sorrell, chair of the ITS America Annual Meeting and Exposition
Constance S. Sorrell was appointed as the first chief of system operations at Virginia Department of Transportation to proactively manage the existing roadway capacity to its highest level, in addition to the more traditional businesses of maintenance, traffic engineering and security. Sorrell is responsible for the $1.3 billion maintenance and operations budget. Her leadership directs all system operations and maintenance for the state highway system, including planning and delivering programmes and projects to alleviate congestion at traffic choke points, developing innovative ways to manage highway incidents and employing traveller information systems. She and her staff continually review the department's highway maintenance programme to deliver the most cost-effective maintenance of roads and to decrease the impact of maintenance activities on traffic flow. Improvement of snow and ice-removal operations is also in her purview. Sorrell serves as a member of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America's Board of Directors. She is a member of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Association (AASHTO) and Vice-Chair of its Subcommittee on Operations. A former Chairperson of the Transportation Research Board (TRB), she is currently a member of the TRB's Research and Technology Coordinating committee. Connie.Sorrell@VDOT.Virginia.gov

Connie Sorrell, chair of the ITS America Annual Meeting and Exposition, explains why ITS in America is approaching a critical crossroads

Connie Sorrell, as Chief of Systems Operations for the Virginia Department of Transportation, doesn't normally speak in hyperbole, but she can't help but be enthusiastic about this year's ITS America's annual meeting in the nation's capitol, 1-3 June, 2009. Certainly, as Chair of the 2009 ITS America Annual Meeting and Exposition, like everyone who has performed this important role before her, she is keen to promote the event. And she does so, persuasively and energetically.

Here's the message: This is the big one. This is the most important Annual Meeting and Exposition for many years past and, indeed, for several years to come. In short, this is the critical one, with a great deal riding on it. Not just for the industry. Not just for state and federal authorities, but for the US nation as a whole.

Of course, Connie Sorrell doesn't state it in such dramatic terms. "The annual meeting is happening at a critical time, just before the new transportation authorisation bill is approved by Congress. This will be the legislation that funds transportation for the next five years in the US. The timing is perfect for showcasing how important ITS is as an integral component of transportation systems and services, such as congestion relief, traveller information for highways, transit and other modes, air quality improvement, and transportation emergency response," she begins.

Pressing issues

That bill will address pressing issues for the nation related to infrastructure preservation and investment, safety, mobility, environmental stewardship, energy policy and emergency preparedness across all the modes of transportation. Technology will be a key element in addressing those issues. Indeed, the national commission that looked into what the next authorisation for transportation planning recommended that a significant allocation of funds be specifically directed towards technology, a policy change that has been widely recognised and supported by the ITS America and other transportation organisations and industries.

"We have the new administration of President Obama, with a new federal transportation team that is being put in place as we speak. Our Annual Meeting, which is themed Moving America Forward, is taking place in June, just three months before Congress is due to act on this important legislation." The meeting will showcase the President's team of new national transportation leaders and provide attendees with the opportunity to interact with them on the use of technology across all the transportation modes.

That's good news for the industry, but it's not Sorrell's style to count the likely ITS chickens before they are hatched. Quite the reverse. Through her role at Virginia DOT, and her long experience in the industry, she knows first hand the many benefits that ITS brings through modest investments. Sorrell is convinced that ITS America can play a pivotal role in shaping new legislation that will provide an environmentally sound and financially stable transportation programme in the next five-year authorisation bill. That's why the Annual Meeting, being staged on the shores of the historic Potomac river, just a few miles from the nation's capitol in Washington, has a crucial role to play.

"We are in a great location to provide members of Congress a first-hand experience in understanding what ITS means to their state and to the nation's transportation challenges as a whole," Sorrell says. "Capitol Hill Day is a new feature in the Annual Meeting where Members of Congress will experience ITS technologies in action. Meeting participants can interact and communicate directly with their legislators.

"We are bringing the technology to them. Among the highlights will be a 'City Streets' demonstration, the Traffic Management Centre of the Future, and vehicle demonstrations. Venues include the Gaylord National Resort Conference Center and Capitol Hill. The Conference Center has 100,000 square feet of exhibition space and over 85 per cent of it is sold. The parking deck at the Center will also be a site for demonstrations. These demonstrations are geared toward key committee members, new lawmakers, and executive branch officials who will influence the next transportation bill," Sorrell says.

Improving safety and mobility, economic productivity, a cleaner environment, and a better quality of life are just a few of the reasons Congress and the new administration should make the deployment of intelligent transportation systems a centrepiece of the bill.

As Sorrel points out, "Investments in transportation technologies are investments in jobs, in global competitiveness, providing transportation choices, ensuring freight movement and a cleaner environment." She also believes it is very important for state Departments of Transportation, as well as transit, aviation and other transportation officials in state governments throughout the US, to find the funds to attend.

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Gaylord National Resort & Convention Centre
The Gaylord National Resort & Convention Centre, where this year's ITS America Annual Meeting and Exposition will be held from 1-3 June. With convenient access to three major airports, it is located just eight miles due south of Washington, DC
In addition to the Capitol Hill Day and speaking with their elected representatives, and meeting the new federal transportation executives, the programmes are structured based on the outcomes transportation should deliver for its customers in the areas of Environmental Matters, Freight and Commercial Vehicles, Infrastructure and Traffic Management, Policy and Strategy, Public Transportation, Training and Education, Traveller Information, Vehicle Systems and Electronics, and Wireless Communications.

The programme will showcase the latest academic work as well as practitioners' experiences in using technology to improve transportation. Special sessions on the many multimodal transportation projects and technology applications in the Maryland, District of Columbia and Virginia regions will be showcased. Technical tours will be available for a wide variety of transportation interests.

Then Sorrell pauses, reflects on what she has said and qualifies it: "Over the years, we have benefited from funding for needed research and demonstration projects. We know now that many technology solutions exist today. We have proven strategies and applications that are in practice in some places in the US and around the world. The timing is right for the US to invest in these proven approaches in a systematic, integrated way to deploy these technologies on a much larger scale. What will be on display at the Annual Meeting are deployable solutions that have already been proven to work, not just in America but in other regions around the world," Sorrell says.

Her point is well made. Congressmen and women are unlikely to be turned on or interested in abstract 'technology solutions'. They will, however, be very interested and attentive when presented with seeing how the technology works, as well as with cost benefits and return on investment, particularly as they prepare to commit billions of taxpayer dollars in the transportation reauthorisation bill. Their focus will be, if we invest this money, what will we get in return? Sorrell believes the ITS America Annual Meeting can provide those hard, factual answers and that much-needed qualification that will give Congress confidence in its task ahead. States across the country have impressive numbers to demonstrate the cost-effectiveness of ITS investment. California, Washington State, Texas, New York, just to name a few, have many success stories. Florida recently revealed that a $9.9 million investment in technology will yield a $142 million return. Virginia has attracted millions in private investment dollars in the Northern Virginia region by entering into a contract with Fluor-Transurban through their Public-Private Transportation Act for the conversion of the very successful Interstate 495 HOV lanes into HOT lanes. This project is projected to provide substantial congestion review on the Beltway. Currently, the remaining portions of Interstate 95 and 395 in the region are under negotiation. Also, major improvements in the signal timing optimisation; the use of variable speed technology to manage traffic through construction zones; the use of traveller information technology to provide timely information during major events such as the recent presidential inauguration, are all providing examples of innovative and cost-effective ways of maximising the existing infrastructure.

Companies in this article

ITS America
Virginia Department of Transportation

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