- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2002

Mayor Anthony A. Williams is leading an effort to begin a 511 telephone service for callers to get the latest road, transit and airline information for the Washington region.
"We're working with the Council of Governments to put together a 511 transportation phone number throughout the region," said Dan Tangherlini, acting director of the D.C. Division of Transportation. "We're putting together a grant proposal to the Federal Highway Administration."
The Federal Highway Administration is providing states up to $100,000 in seed money to start the services. The District could qualify for the same grant money.
The 511 number would be an expanded version of the current SmarTraveler service the Virginia Department of Transportation oversees. Callers to SmarTraveler, at 301-628-4343, can get information on road congestion and transit schedules and fares.
The mayor's office and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) hope to make the 511 service more interactive, allowing callers to contact emergency road assistance services or to notify transportation officials about problems, such as traffic light outages. They also might be able to use the service for personal trip planning, Mr. Tangherlini said.
"Initially, it would be things like delays on New York Avenue or an accident in Kenilworth, kind of an on-demand traffic report," he said. "The trick would be trying to work this out with Maryland and Virginia, so we could do this throughout the region. From there, we would look at an interactive system."
He said the chances of the District winning a federal grant improved Wednesday when the District Council's Committee on Public Works and the Environment approved a proposal to elevate the transportation division to a cabinet-level office within the mayor's administration.
"I think what it will help us do is be able to coordinate more with other states on a consistent, equal level and help us compete with all the states for this kind of grant, like 511," Mr. Tangherlini said.
Federal and state funding for the SmarTraveler service ends in December. Local officials say they are uncertain where they would get the money to continue it or whether they want to continue it.
"The region is not that satisfied with the SmarTraveler," said Andrew Meese, principal transportation planner for the MWCOG. "We'd rather look into other possibilities and see if we could do something better."
Transportation division spokesman Tony Martin said, "Since 9/11, the mayor is committed to make sure some of the problems that occurred never occur again."
He referred to traffic gridlock that clogged the Washington region's streets and highways after the September 11 attack, either from government employees' leaving work early or because security barriers blocked traffic on major roadways for weeks afterward.
"We want something that will help the entire region," Mr. Martin said. "It could help by giving a single source for commuters to call and check to see what problems are taking place."
A similar 511 service started in Utah last month at an estimated cost of $650,000 per year. In addition to road congestion and weather hazard information, callers can learn about transit fares and hours of operation. Utah started the service in anticipation of a huge influx of visitors next month for the Winter Olympics. Other 511 services are operating in Kentucky, Minnesota and Nebraska.

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