April 17, 2009 By Andy Opsahl
Money for transportation projects has been some of the earliest to flow from the U.S. economic stimulus package. Municipalities in Bucks County, Penn.; Philadelphia; Flint, Mich.; and others are using some of the money for intelligent transportation systems (ITS), a class of products that includes changeable electronic message boards, pavement sensors and cameras that help synchronize traffic.
In one such project, St. Cloud, Minn., is funding a traffic-monitoring software upgrade. The project received $320,000. Attaining the money was easy for St. Cloud because of the "joint powers agreement" it shares with its county and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT), which received stimulus money from the Federal Highway Administration, said Blake Redfield, traffic systems manager of St. Cloud.
All three entities own traffic signals within St. Cloud, so they share access and control of the system that regulates the lights, provided by vendor Econolite International. The fact that it was an intelligent traffic system made it an easier draw for stimulus funding, Redfield said.
"In Minnesota, there just aren't a lot of cities doing a tremendous amount of ITS types of projects, especially communities our size of around 100,000 people," Redfield explained. The fact that Mn/DOT wanted funding to go for a diverse collection of projects made the St. Cloud ITS procurement an even likelier candidate for stimulus funding. Software like this usually comes with annual maintenance service costs from the vendor. The agencies are exploring whether it would be legal to use some of the stimulus to pay for five years of that service upfront, according to Mn/DOT District Traffic Engineer Tom Dumont.
President Barack Obama heralded funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as a way to stimulate job growth. Purchases like St. Cloud's traffic-monitoring software raise a question: Are state and local stimulus recipients stimulating job growth or simply paying bills already planned for with stimulus money instead of state-generated money?
Dumont pointed out that the stimulus money accelerated deployment of the traffic-monitoring software, which could have helped save jobs.
But Redfield said the three agencies involved planned to update the traffic-management software anyway during the next several months because the vendor announced it would stop providing maintenance service for the existing software in 2011.
"It was [a matter of], 'Do we continue the maintenance contract on the old system that we know isn't going to be supported in a couple years, or do we upgrade the system right now?'" Dumont explained.