States investing in real-time traffic data

In February the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) released new data showing that Americans are driving more than ever before. In 2016, drivers in cars, trucks, minivans and SUVs put a record 3.22 trillion miles on the nation’s roads, up 2.8 percent from 3.1 trillion miles in 2015.

The data also shows that it’s the fifth consecutive year of increased miles driven on roads and highways which underscores the demands facing American’s roads and bridges and reaffirms calls for greater investment in surface transportation infrastructure.

It also means drivers are more aware of the roads they travel each day. There is that road that must be avoided at certain times of the day due to high traffic congestion. We all have our special back-road shortcuts, which have become few and far between these days, that we take when traffic is at a standstill. Before the internet and mobile phones, we relied only on television, newspapers, radios, traffic helicopters and even CB radios to warn us of construction, accidents and congestion on the roads. If your car broke down, you thumbed a ride or walked to the nearest pay phone, unless the road had one of those convenient, emergency call box phones on the roadway.
These sources are still very reliable, but once mobile devices and the internet came into existence, the updates became instantaneous as we refreshed our web browsers. The department of transportation in most states seems to have taken notice to this resource and partnered with other businesses to get their websites up-to-date.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation announced in January that they were partnering with the popular crowd-sourcing traffic navigation mobile app Waze. The Wisconsin DOT will verify and then post real-time traffic data such as construction, crashes and road closures throughout the state using the Waze website and app. Wisconsin DOT plans to incorporate Waze’s data into the 511 Wisconsin website redesign this spring. The change will give drivers faster updates, personalized camera feeds and better knowledge of road conditions.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation (CT DOT) launched a new website last month called the CT Travel Smart. CT DOT spent $150,000 upgrading the website and the federal government funded 80 percent of the bill. Drivers can personalize their travel details, can view the entire state or just a region or they can sign up online and create certain routes and save individual cameras to their profile. They can also receive personalized alert messages about their saved routes or certain roads. The state has 350 traffic cameras running 24-hours a day.

If potholes seem to be a common problem on your route, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) is currently updating its online database so all roads in Boston will have lookouts for potholes. The program was piloted in a couple of cities and will expand its service to the rest of the state over the next few months. During the pilot program, a total of 520 potholes were repaired on I-90 and between Springfield and Weston. Drivers can report a pothole by calling a hotline or filling out a form online.

If it isn’t potholes you want to avoid, maybe it is a slick film of ice that has you anxious. New technology was recently added to the Michigan Department of Transportation’s (MDOT) website which allows drivers to track snowplows working around the Upper Peninsula in real time. Drivers can click on active plows and see exactly what they are doing and whether it is plowing or applying salt. The technology currently only tracks MDOT plows and not county road commission or private plows.

Transportation agencies aren’t the only ones keeping their residents in the know. City officials in West Palm Beach, Fla. teamed up with a consulting firm to study the city’s transportation for the future. The study will include downtown, the Okeechobee Boulevard corridor, parking management and transportation demand.

The consulting team will have a website, WPBmobility.com, that will go live in a few days with updates on the studies and an interactive map for the public to help identify where there are problems or opportunities for transportation changes. This comes at a time when the city is developing a citywide bicycle master plan and making downtown more livable.

But what happens when it is your vehicle that is causing the traffic jam? The Illinois Tollway has launched a beta form of tracking program for users to locate Highway Emergency Lane Patrol (HELP) trucks. The HELP Truck Tracker, which is available on the tollway’s website, shows trucks marked on the website with arrows identifying the direction of travel with a popup text box reporting the nearest mile marker. The HELP program sent out 12 trucks to patrol the Tollway system in 12 counties from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday. The trucks assisted more than 30,000 customers while patrolling more than 1.2 million miles last year.

Ensuring safety on college campuses – becoming more difficult each day

Campus safety has never been easy or simple. Now, the responsibility is truly awesome.

In the last few years, there have been dozens of horrific incidents and now that a number of states allow guns on campus, the job of providing for campus safety has become increasingly more difficult and complicated.

Most universities have focused on incident prevention and quick response.  Many have gone through extensive planning sessions to find ways to ensure safety, but it would be hard to find a university official anywhere who feels confident that security and safety are under control. Perhaps the greatest impediment to ensuring a safe campus environment is a lack of adequate funding.
In spite of funding issues, physical security has definitely been improved. Most new buildings have access systems that provide officers the ability to centrally lock down facilities if there is an active shooter incident. Surveillance camera technology also continually searches for abnormal activities that could pose a threat. Other emerging technologies have also made inroads on college campuses.

Most campuses have invested in walkway lighting and “blue light” emergency call boxes. Outreach programs aimed at informing and educating students and faculty of what they can do to protect themselves have been implemented.

Taxpayers care about the campus safety issue and they are involved. Voters approved a $14.5 million bond issue in December to improve safety and security measures at Iowa Western Community College. The bond package that was approved will fund new cameras, secure doors, enhanced locks and other security improvements.

Kansas State University (KSU) is installing upgrades to security systems. The additional investment in security is in response to a new Kansas law allowing for concealed handguns on university campuses. If an exemption for public universities is not granted by the legislature, KSU is considering the use of wands and portable metal detectors for events. The new security measures are expected to cost more than $1 million.

Voters approved a measure late in 2016 to provide the Southwestern Community College District $400 million for campus facility improvements. A new building will be constructed to house all campus Security and Risk Management functions.  Other security enhancements will also be implemented.

In January 2017, the Atlanta University Center Consortium announced that it will team with the Atlanta Police Department to implement security measures to prevent and reduce crime at its four member institutions – Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine and Spelman College. The $700,000 project will include the installation of 35 new security cameras and the utilization of five license plate readers. The camera feeds will be monitored 24/7 by campus police and at the Atlanta Police Department’s video integration center.

Officials at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., have proposed the replacement and expansion of the university’s access control system. The project will convert all existing access-controlled doors to a new system and expand electronic control to major academic buildings. The system will also be able to provide centralized lockdown functionality in response to active shooter incidents, which are increasing on university campuses at an alarming rate. This $7.2 million project is expected to beginning with the 2018 school year.

Virginia State University (VSU) hopes to spend $3.26 million in campus-wide safety and security improvements. After a series of events involving VSU students, the university hired a security consultant to perform a campus evaluation and make recommendations for improvements. If funded by the Virginia Legislature, the project will install new LED lighting at educational and general-use buildings, parking lots and sidewalks/paths. The university will also install a new traffic/security gate to curtail campus access. Additionally, the university has plans to provide electronic card access at all academic and administrative buildings. The funding of these projects is currently scheduled for 2018.

It’s a new world – and a more dangerous world.  More resources and funding are critically needed to ensure campus safety for students, instructors and visitors.

Free wireless offered outside through public-private partnerships

Has this happened to you while driving? The radio in your vehicle is playing a song on a local radio station’s frequency and then suddenly the song starts fading in and out in the car speakers until it either goes to dead air or picks up another radio station.  You have traveled beyond the bandwidth of that frequency and have now found yourself singing the rest of the song a cappella style. Well, the same thing applies to the internet and Wireless Fidelity or Wi-Fi.

Your device can pick up a Wi-Fi signal that connects it to the internet, thru the air just like a high-frequency radio signal. Wi-Fi, like the frequency of a radio station, is regulated. Electronic components that make up a wireless network are based on one of the 802.11 standards that were set by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Wi-Fi Alliance. The Wi-Fi Alliance trademarked the name Wi-Fi and promoted the technology. The technology is also referred to as WLAN, short for wireless local area network. The type of 802.11 protocol used indoors will deliver transmission ranges anywhere from 115 to 230 feet.

It is up to you to foot the bill for wireless technology in your home, but most indoor establishments pay to offer some type of free Wi-Fi for your convenience. But what happens when you go outside? Free Wi-Fi kiosks by CIVIQ Smartscapes have started popping up in cities like New York,  Miami, Portland, Ore., Chicago and San Antonio. The kiosk includes a dual 55-inch outdoor display, dual touch screen, Wi-Fi and USB quick charge capabilities. These kiosks are scattered throughout the city and provide a Wi-Fi range from 150 to 250 feet. The kiosks can also be customized to provide information about upcoming events, geographic points of interest other local information.

New York plans to have 7,500 kiosks by 2024. The city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications oversees upkeep of the LinkNYC kiosks while CityBridge, a group of tech companies, assumes responsibility for installation of the kiosks in exchange for the advertising revenue generated by the project. The advertising shown on the kiosks means that the city offers the service with possibly no cost to the taxpayers. Since the law prohibits this type of arrangement in Texas, Bexar County is paying $280,122 for the six kiosks to be installed throughout San Antonio this summer.

For those traveling underground, the Wi-Fi signal can be very faint, but the city of New York found a way to deliver free wireless throughout their underground subway stations. Service underground went live at a few stations five years ago, but January officially marked the goal date of delivering the service at all stations. In addition to wireless, some stations now offer cellular service. These services presently are not offered on trains traveling between stations, but the city has promised that the service would be available when they roll out their next generation subway trains in 2020.

The company that provides the free service for the city agreed to spend $7 million on the Wi-Fi operation over five years and will advertise along the route to promote it. To access the Wi-Fi connection and enter the password, users have to start at a landing page which highlights local events, poses a poll question, provides the weather and allows the city to interact with the users.

If you feel like getting away from the city and might want to go climb a mountain, Mount Everest, would be your best option for Wi-Fi. Previously, a couple of the base camp services offered Wi-Fi at $5 an hour, but free wireless will be made available soon at the Lukla-Everest Base Camp and Annapurna Base Camp along Everest. The Nepal Telecommunications Authority (NTA) plans on using fibre-optic cables that can resist the extreme cold atop Everest.

The NTA will also introduce a system of wireless broadband transmitters to send microwave signals up and down the mountain in case extreme weather interferes with the fibre-optic cables. At 17,600 feet above sea level, the base camp will be the highest location on Earth with free Wi-Fi.

For those who would rather keep their feet firmly planted at the bottom of a mountain can head to one of several beaches and camping areas to get free wireless outside. Most of these outdoor venues have been offering the luxury of Wi-Fi for a few years. And believe it or not, you can even get free wireless service at a cemetery. At Oak Grove Cemetery in Paducah, Ky., visitors who want to perform genealogical research don’t have to wait until they get home to look up names on head stones. In 2016, Moscow, Russia equipped 133 cemeteries with wireless technology. Some of these cemeteries are the final resting place of well-known authors and leaders and the Wi-Fi allows visitors to learn more about those laid to rest.

Photo: by Karen Bryan 

Public-private partnerships – happening even in small cities, rural areas of the country

There’s lots of news about major cities launching public-private partnerships (P3s) to rebuild, upgrade and improve urban assets. The P3s have become attractive because of a lack of public funding and an abundance of private-sector capital just waiting to be tapped.

But, there’s not much news about P3s in smaller cities or in rural areas. That is about to change. As public officials in less populated parts of the country lament that the projects they need to launch are not large enough to capture the attention of investors or experienced contracting partners, some of their counterparts are forging ahead.

Many creative and innovative city leaders have found ways to get around all obstacles. P3s are now being launched for all types of projects in smaller cities and taxpayers will benefit as public assets are salvaged and/or improved.

Redevelopment projects are becoming common and most involve a private-sector partner. Smaller communities are revitalizing downtown areas, developing commercial ventures on non-revenue-producing property, building libraries, parks and repairing roadways through P3s. Such efforts always lead to increased property values and increased revenues for the city, and many of the P3 projects involve adding new revenue streams to city coffers.

One of the issues facing small cities and rural areas in initiating P3s is formulating a revenue model to repay the private investment of capital. And, another hurdle has been that the projects are not large enough to capture the attention of experienced contracting partners.  City leaders in many regions have solved that problem by consolidating a number of projects and finding ways to incentivize partners, bringing grant funding to the table and offering attractive benefits such as exclusive development rights.

Other incentives include long-term leasing agreements and revenue-sharing opportunities. One common thread is the use of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) in which future gains in taxes from a redevelopment effort are used to repay bonds that provide a financial incentive to an investor.

In addition to P3s for redevelopment, infrastructure and amenity projects, there are numerous examples of small city P3s that address broadband, water and wastewater facility operations and parking garages. New P3 projects are also emerging in the areas of smart lighting, solar energy, municipal facilities consolidation and green storm water infrastructure. 

In January, the city of Missoula, Mont., worked to finalize a P3 to redevelop a riverfront property. The project will include a conference center, hotel, parking, retail, restaurants, entertainment space, offices, housing and a public plaza. A large project for a mid-size city! The city is selling the riverfront property to developers and will buy a portion of the conference center and the parking garage once the facilities are built. The total project cost will be approximately $150 million.

Another new P3 is occurring in Salina, Kan., a city with a population of less than 50,000. The city just approved a $154 million downtown redevelopment project that includes $105 million in private funding, $19.1 million in state-issued STAR bonds, $9.2 million in Community Improvement District sales tax funds and $4.9 million in TIF property tax funds. The city will get a downtown hotel, a field house, new streetscapes, theater improvements, a museum and low-income apartments.

Another P3 in Texarkana, Texas, a city with a population of under 37,000, will involve a mixed-use historical preservation project. The city will get new residential space as well as commercial space on the first floor of a building that is located on city property. The revenue model includes HUD funds along with federal and state historic credits, an EPA cleanup loan and some conventional debt.

In June 2016, the city of Burlington, Vt., launched a P3 for a marina project.  The engagement allows the private-sector partner to build a 160-slip facility on public land and then operate the marina for 40 years. The city will receive lease payments for 40 years as well as public amenities. TIF funding will be used to help fund some of the amenities, including a parking lot and a park. 

In 2016, the city of Noblesville, Ind., inked an agreement with an athletic facilities developer to build the Noble Field House at Finch Creek Park.  The project includes a $15 million, 130,000-square-foot youth sports facility. Under the P3 agreement, the developer is responsible for all capital construction, operating and maintenance costs. Incentives to the developer include $300,000 annually in property tax reimbursement for 20 years, $250,000 annually from TIF funding for 20 years and the sale of 10 acres of land for $500,000.

City leaders in smaller cities are indeed becoming creative as they rebuild and upgrade public assets.

 

 

Image: iStock/Easyturn