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Jax Daily Record Thursday, May 24, 200712:00 PM EST

Area ITS master plan comes together

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by: Mike Sharkey

by Mike Sharkey

Staff Writer

NASCAR has its “Car of Tomorrow” and it’s very unlikely you’ll ever ride in one. However, if you buy a car made after 2008, it’s pretty much a guarantee the car will talk to you, find you a hotel room, warn you of traffic and roadway issues and a host of other things.

Wednesday, the First Coast Metropolitan Planning Organization rolled out its First Coast ITS Regional Master Plan. The Intelligent Transportation System involves a coalition of area transportation, technology and law enforcement agencies all with one goal in mind: making area roads safer.

“This involves over 60 agencies and 100 individuals. It’s multi-jurisdictional,” said Jeff Sheffield, director of planning for FCMPO.

Sheffield said the origination of the plan to integrate dozens of agencies and individuals goes back to 2004 when FCMPO realized there was no sense in creating an ITS for just Duval County. In order for a system that employs technological advancements in vehicles, roadway signage and even the road itself to be effective, all four area counties —┬áDuval, Clay, Nassau and St. Johns — had to be involved and technologically integrated.

“You can’t have a camera bought in Nassau County not be able to communicate with St. Johns County,” said Sheffield.

City Council member Lake Ray has been fascinated with the idea of installing ITS locally ever since the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce’s trip to Dallas where he saw how the City, public transportation agencies, local and state law enforcement and other entities were tied together in a system that alerted both drivers and law enforcement of traffic issues and emergencies.

“This is the fruition of years of effort,” said Ray, who has been working on this for five years. “We had to get the blueprint, then get the master plan. It’s time to move forward and put ITS into motion.”

Ray said in today’s world technology is everywhere: cell phones that double as computers, cars that tell you when to change the oil, etc. But, one area is lacking and it costs people money every day.

“We have technology everywhere but in our infrastructure,” said Ray. “To bring the 20th century into the 21st century, we needed a blueprint. It’s a quality of life issue and ITS will not eliminate traffic jams, but it will keep drivers informed. It can reduce travel time by 40 hours a year. What is a 40-hour work week worth?”

Those who attended Wednesday’s announcement at the Osborn Center were given rides in a van equipped with Vehicle Infrastructure Integration. An onboard computer programmed to integrate with a computer installed in a traffic signal and other street signs alerts the driver when the light is changing and of other roadway hazards or potential problems. It’s the future of this technology that has Sheffield and Pete Vega, an ITS engineer with the State Department of Transportation, excited. According to Vega, all vehicle manufacturers, starting with the 2008 models, will be required to install the VII system. This system will alert drivers about traffic jams, road closures and even potholes that are hundreds of yards down the road.

“In an ideal scenario, a car half a mile up the road would hit a pothole. That car tells the road, which tells you about the pothole,” said Sheffield. “Imagine how far the possibilities can go.”

Vega says those possibilities extend to restaurants, hotels and other services, all of which would like to become part of the vehicle’s VII and the local ITS by alerting drivers of dining, lodging and other options.

“The auto manufacturers are chomping at the bit to do this. There’s a test track in Michigan,” said Vega, explaining drivers in unfamiliar territory could use the system to locate the closest McDonald’s or a Holiday Inn at the press of a button. Vega said those companies would “sponsor” the system and, in return, they would be the first option.

Vega said the DOT plans to build a regional transportation management center that would incorporate all of the agencies committed to the local ITS coalition.

“Our overall goal is to provide the best transportation system in the nation,” said Vega.

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