In March 2000, the City of Fort Collins, Colorado replaced their antiquated traffic control system with an Advanced Traffic Management System (ATMS). Major components of the ATMS included the installation of a fiber optic communications network, wireless communications on specific links, a new traffic signal control system, a Transportation Management Center, and new traffic signal controllers and cabinets. The traffic signal control system will provide traffic responsive capabilities, and future functionality will include transit signal priority. The project was completed in December 2004. As part of the regional architecture, Fort Collins will be sharing data and services with other agencies including police, fire, and transit.
The City's signal control system was a combination of two companies' products. One company provided the traffic signal hardware and another company provided the system software. The two companies had a 10-year joint working agreement regarding their two products. Even with the close relationship, some normal traffic functions did not work. As problems arose during and after the integration phase, the City had to contend with each vendor saying the problem was caused by the other vendor. Ultimately, the two companies dissolved the joint agreement within two years of the City's purchase. Consequently, the City will have to choose one of the two companies with which to pursue a long-term relationship. The following lessons may assist others in avoiding similar issues on future projects.
- Contact a standards expert during the design phase to assist in clarifying the intent of the standards protocols for system design. The national family of standards, National Transportation Communications for ITS Protocols (NTCIP), is improving but does not yet provide specification or policy that is cleanly providing interconnectivity between products and manufacturers. Each manufacturer is still left with the ability to meet NTCIP guidelines and specifications, as it deems appropriate. Therefore, inter-jurisdictional integration is still the biggest hurdle and expense.
- Have knowledgeable people on staff or under contract during planning, design and implementation, to assist in filtering out the hype and guiding decisions. Poor use of scarce resources is an easy trap to fall into in the high-tech environment. Even if traffic control is not considered cutting-edge, often it requires products and services that the industry has not utilized in the past (video, fiber optics, Ethernet, various electronic converters, software/firmware, communications to tie it all together, wireless technologies, etc). ITS require familiarity with a high-tech environment, even if some do not think such familiarity is necessary.
- Install as much capacity as possible and use it judiciously when planning and installing a communications network. It becomes surprisingly easy to waste communications capacity due to poor planning, particularly with the overuse of video, which uses a large amount of bandwidth. A common pitfall many transportation agencies encounter is when a device has lower throughput than it was expected to have when developing the overall communications design. Many products are still not Ethernet-capable and may require converting or single-stranding the communications medium to meet goals. Conversely, many products are Ethernet-capable, but to what extent can become an unexpected question or problem.
- Create relationships with other agencies that have any level of common interests. Throughout the project, the City was in touch with anyone doing underground work and tried to "co-trench" in order to get conduit in the ground at reduced costs. Eventually, utilities, agencies, and contractors contacted the City, asking about plans to dig in their areas, which helped reduce their costs as well. The City’s biggest partnering success was with an electrical utility, which had already installed a fiber optic network around Ft. Collins. The City government was able to partner with the power agency to use 12 strands of fiber around the whole network. These 12 strands form the communications backbone of the City’s integrated traffic signal control system.
- Be aware of external pressures and do not overpromise the impossible in terms of project performance, schedule, and cost. It is easy to underestimate the effect public pressure and the City Councils may place on a project, often squeezing timelines from well-planned to "scramble mode."
Traffic signal systems hardware and software have been largely proprietary for many years, locking agencies into non-competitive agreements. The introduction of the NTCIP standards intended to remove the proprietary nature of the hardware and software; however, interpretation of the standards remains unclear enough to allow vendors to continue to include proprietary functions, making system integration difficult and expensive. Providing knowledgeable staff and seeking out a standards expert may help to improve the specifications for integration so that the agency gets the system they desire. Creating relationships with other local entities and preparing an efficient system design for communications will result in less cost for underground work and more capacity for future system expansion. The above lessons are core issues when designing an advanced transportation management system such as that designed by the City of Fort Collins. Regardless of project size, recognizing these lessons and following the recommendations may result in a project that meets schedule, performance, and cost goals established by the agency.
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