Better communication could help Transportation relieve traffic congestion, GAO says

Two agencies could work better with each other and states on tech that reduces highway backups.

Elaine Thompson/AP

The Transportation Department is using new technology in conjunction with state and local governments to improve the flow of highway traffic, but the Government Accountability Office believes Transportation could be doing more to communicate its implementation.

In a report dated March 19 and made public Wednesday, GAO said the department had spent more than $3 billion on Intelligent Transportation Systems -- low-cost technologies that reduce highway congestion -- since 1994. These systems, which include reversible flow lanes, variable speed limits and adaptive traffic signals, have found success in limited use in metropolitan areas such as Washington and Seattle.

ITS duties are handled primarily by two agencies within Transportation: the Research and Innovative Technology Administration and the Federal Highway Administration. These agencies sponsor and fund state and local governments that employ ITS technologies. GAO found that their duties are vaguely defined within Transportation.

In light of the oblique instructions the department gives to its agencies in charge of federal sponsorships, GAO also reported that state and local governments are not fully integrating ITS technologies into their highway planning processes. Additionally, state and local governments have trouble hiring and retaining staff that understands new technology, according to GAO.

Still, there has been some progress. According to a Transportation survey, the percentage of freeway miles covered in traffic cameras has jumped in the last decade from 15 percent in 2000 to 45 percent in 2010. Additionally, the percentage of freeway miles covered by other data collection technologies, such as radar detectors and vehicle probes, also rose from 18 percent in 2000 to 55 percent in 2010.

To spur further traffic innovations at the state and local levels, GAO recommended the Transportation secretary more clearly define the roles of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration and the Federal Highway Administration in promoting the use of ITS. Additionally, GAO recommended the secretary improve the usefulness of ITS information on Transportation websites and plan ways to enhance communication regarding ITS activities.

The Transportation Department said it would consider GAO's recommendations.