Sunday, February 10, 2008
After Spending $850K, N.M. Put the Brakes on State-Of-The-Art 511 System to Aid Drivers
By Colleen Heild
Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Investigative Reporter
Imagine picking up the phone and finding out about driving conditions, major accidents and road closures simply by dialing 511.
It's a reality for motorists in at least 32 states.
But in New Mexico? Keep dreaming.
After spending $850,000, the state Department of Transportation quietly withdrew last fall from a multistate project designed to give travelers state-of-the art tools to help navigate the road.
The idea was to develop a Web site with real-time travel information that would link to roadside message boards and a voice-activated phone line with an easy-to-remember number.
But the only thing New Mexico had to show for the state's investment and five years of preparation was a Web site that lasted 15 months.
The DOT pulled the plug last September, replacing it with a less-expensive version designed in-house.
The 511 phone system slated to be implemented several years ago never got off the ground.
The state has been limping along with its existing toll-free road hot line the same hot line that drew heated criticism a year ago for failing to update important road closures during storms.
Irate motorists, stranded and getting bum information on the hot line, complained that it did more harm than good.
While the hot line at (800) 432-4269 was recently upgraded, it still isn't as sophisticated or informative as 511 systems in other states.
The new Web site, nmroads.com, isn't generating the complaints of its predecessor, but DOT officials say it's only a "stopgap measure."
In fact, DOT officials concede the current offerings aren't what they envisioned or would aspire to.
More technical adjustments are needed for the Web site.
A DOT traffic management center monitors the road advisory Web site and inputs road data into the hot line.
But it isn't yet staffed 24/7, so on-call employees must update the system when roads get bad.
There's no telling when New Mexico will implement 511.
"I don't have a timeline on that," said Robert Ortiz, New Mexico's deputy DOT secretary for highway operations.
New Mexico was one of seven states that originally pooled their funds to finance the travel advisory project, with the Iowa Department of Transportation acting as project administrator.
"Everybody (in the consortium) was able to launch and take advantage of the (511) software except for New Mexico," said John Whited of the Iowa transportation department. "Though they had access to it, they didn't have the internal whatever ... to do it."
Iowa has offered 511 since 2002.
Money is tight these days at the New Mexico DOT, which is facing a half-billion dollar shortfall on dozens of planned road improvement projects.
"We have to prioritize," Ortiz said, "And right now, roads are taking a front seat."
Once high hopes
Back in 1999, the U.S. Department of Transportation petitioned the Federal Communications Commission for a specific phone number to make it easier for travelers nationwide to access travel information services.
And 511 was created.
Under then-Gov. Gary Johnson, New Mexico started moving toward a 511 system in 2001 by joining the consortium.
After exploring how best to inform the traveling public, the private firm Castle Rock Consultants of Portland, Ore., was hired to develop the software for the states.
The computer-based system that resulted was dubbed "Condition Acquisition and Reporting System," or CARS for short.
Ortiz said the vision of CARS was to "input the information once and the data would go out to a multitude (of travelers information devices)," such as a Web site, a 511 phone system and electronic message boards posted along major roadways.
That was easier said than done at least in New Mexico. But documents obtained by the Journal show things looked hopeful at first.
In a December 2001 application for federal funding, the CARS group stated that New Mexico planned to offer statewide 511 service within the year.
The application added that New Mexico had "significant resources available that will help ensure successful 511 deployments at an early date."
In 2005 and again in 2007, New Mexico was slated to launch 511, according to reports by a group called the 511 Deployment Group. Dozens of states, meanwhile, that weren't part of CARS were finding other ways to start up service.
"We never could get everything in place to implement it," Ortiz said of New Mexico's experience, "such as getting all the (phone) providers to link to our system."
He also said that New Mexico wanted to first get its Web system up and running well before advancing to 511.
A rousing failure
The DOT announced the creation of the road advisory Web site in June 2006.
But the big snowstorms of 2006 and 2007 proved the Web site's dependability to be iffy, DOT officials said. During the morning hours of one major snowfall, the Web site went down for five hours.
Overall, the Web site wasn't updating fast enough, Ortiz said. Motorists might have left home thinking a road was open when it was closed and the update hadn't yet posted.
Every time problems on the Web site developed, Ortiz said, New Mexico had to call Iowa's DOT, which would pass the information on to Castle Rock.
"And we had some immediate needs to change some things, to make that Web site better for New Mexico and the response we were getting from Iowa DOT and Castle Rock was just too slow," Ortiz said. "We don't have time to wait for two months for them to change a button on a Web site."
CARS was a "one size fits all system," Ortiz said. And New Mexico would have had to pay extra for enhancements.
Peter Davies of Castle Rock said in an e-mail to the Journal that the changes New Mexico requested "were not 'bug fixes' but new features to be funded by New Mexico, in partnership with other agencies."
He added that "many more states have joined the CARS Group than left. Nevertheless, Castle Rock has no problem in respecting New Mexico's decision."
Davies didn't respond to a Journal question about the delays in responding to New Mexico Web site problems. He referred a reporter to the Iowa DOT.
Whited, of Iowa's DOT, said he believed New Mexico's withdrawal from the project was unrelated to Castle Rock's customer service.
"I know they've had several program managers change through the history and I know they were having what we call internal institutional issues."
Asked if any other states in the project have complained about Castle Rock, Whited said, "Everybody's got shortcomings and gaps and stuff, but you look at the overall picture and they've developed some pretty innovative approaches."
He said the only other state to drop out was Wyoming, which hosted its own traveler Web site but relied on Castle Rock for 511.
Wyoming's DOT switched to another 511 provider last year.
New Mexico DOT officials say that, so far, they have been pleased with their in-house Web site, which cost $60,000 to develop.
It costs about $6,000 to $10,000 a year to operate, compared with the $89,000 annual fee Castle Rock charged to host the service, said DOT spokesman S.U. Mahesh.
511's not there yet
Under the DOT's toll-free hot line, which has no acronym, callers must press buttons on a keypad.
With 511 phone lines in other states, callers can ask a voice-recognition system about specific routes.
Some states have added other features to the phone line, such as weather conditions. Arizona, for example, includes national park information.
Toll-free road hot lines that convert to 511 have experienced a 300 percent to 500 percent increase in call volume, research has found.
And those who used 511 systems were on time to their destinations by 5 to 16 percentage points over travelers not using the service.
For the week of Jan. 20 to 26, the state's Web site had 108,056 hits, Ortiz said.
The hot line doesn't appear to be as popular. From Dec. 17 to Dec. 31 of last year, for instance, the hot line received 58,539 calls.
The New Mexico DOT has been testing a 511 system, but Mahesh said "it's not for outside use."
Ortiz said there's currently not enough money to implement 511.
Some states have spent nearly $1 million to develop 511 and as much as $1 million a year to operate the system.
Along with phone service providers, law enforcement agencies that provide road information must also be on board before any such system is launched, Mahesh said.
Ortiz said the $850,000 New Mexico spent on CARS wasn't money down the drain. He said his agency is now better prepared to forge ahead with new technology.
But with $1 million budgeted this year for that purpose, Ortiz says, "We've got to bite it off one bite at a time."