State and Local Transportation IT Advances in the Face of Budget Austerity

Oct. 7, 2017
American cities today are striving to become “smarter,” with integrated systems connecting highways and other modes of transit.

American cities today are striving to become “smarter,” with integrated systems connecting highways and other modes of transit. Mobile applications under development are becoming streamlined and multi-modal, allowing for better sharing among governments and private contractors involved in many statewide and interstate programs.

Much of the impetus for these improvements to IT in transportation comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Intelligent Transportation System Strategic Plan (ITS), 2015-2019. DOT describes ITS as “a set of tools that facilitate a connected, integrated and automated transportation system that is information-intensive to better serve the interests of users and be responsive to the needs of travelers and system operators.”

Unfortunately, growth in transportation spending to accomplish these goals is coming from states rather than the federal level. Federal funds represent an average of 29 percent of transportation budgeting. And DOT funding cuts leave even that level of support in doubt. While continued but limited funding may be available through the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, signed into law during the previous administration, it represents only a down payment on what’s really needed to reinvigorate America’s ailing infrastructure and put ITS into effect.

Despite the limited funds available through the federal government, transportation spending has still experienced an 8.8 percent increase since FY15, with three regions — the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast and Southwest — seeing particularly strong growth in FY 2016.

Driverless Cars and Barriers to Adoption

On the horizon, work supporting ITS will, of course, encompass driverless cars, a market estimated to comprise as much as 20 percent of all vehicles on the road in the next 25 years. While testing for driverless cars and trucks is already underway, one key barrier to more rapid adoption is the current lack of infrastructure and protections against cyberattacks. The introduction of the SPY Car Act is intended to reduce the risk of vehicle cybersecurity attacks, but this and other laws and regulations are still in their infancy.

The first step to a larger adoption of driverless cars, is “connected vehicles,” or vehicles integrated into the Internet of things (IoT). Connected vehicle pilots are already underway in Wyoming, New York City and Tampa, Florida. Michigan is also the home of multiple connected vehicle efforts, including work on traffic management and truck platooning. In fact, Michigan serves an interesting example of the extent of work underway at the state level to find an intersection between transportation and IT.

Michigan — The Home of Transportation IT?

Michigan is working hard to maintain its position as home to America’s automotive industry, even as the industry becomes increasingly connected and autonomous. Total transportation funding for the state in FY2017-2018 is set at $4.1 billion. Two-thirds of that is from state funds, which is also where IT budgeting for automotive mobility initiatives comes from.

The state has several ambitious programs in place:

Planet M represents the collective mobility IT efforts across Michigan around the technologies and services that enable people and goods to move around. The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is developing a connected vehicle environment centered along the freeway of the metro Detroit area. The corridor goes through the heart of Michigan's automotive and technology development area and links to several other connected vehicle pilot deployments.

MCity is a partnership between MDOT and the University of Michigan that tests autonomous vehicles in a closed research environment. MCity is a continuation of a 2012 Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot Model Deployment from the USDOT and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. Industry partners include BMW, Ford, GM, Verizon, federal and state governments and the PlanetM project.

The American Center for Mobility in Detroit was designated by the DOT as a National Automated Vehicle Proving Ground and will offer a range of driving environments and infrastructure, including a 2.5-mile highway loop, a 700-foot curved tunnel, two double overpasses, intersections, roundabouts and a dedicated cellular LTE network provided by AT&T.

The U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) is a partnership with MDOT and it tests communications technology for Army vehicles along I-69. These test results can then be translated to concepts for truck platooning, and to increase safety and efficiency and address the looming shortage of truck drivers. This also has the potential to increase the capacity of the freeways and reduce fuel consumption, saving money and reducing emissions.

Where Do We Go From Here?

These examples of what’s happening in Michigan show that the next generation of transportation is a connected, multi-modal system comprised of personal vehicles, transit options, trains and more. This state and local multi-modal connected market is creating a bevy of opportunities for data collection and transmission to data storage, analysis and visualization for public consumption through mobile applications.
Transportation is changing and becoming more collaborative. But funding continues to be a top issue at state and federal levels, and aging infrastructure makes for competing priorities.

States must ensure that technology advancements do not necessarily require large capital investment and that they are using existing or legacy technology infrastructure to the best advantage. Only in that way can both state and local governments have continued creativity in the evolving transportation IT environment.

Rachel Eckert is a state and local government and education (SLED) consultant with immixGroup, an Arrow company that helps technology companies do business with the government.