Office of Operations
21st Century Operations Using 21st Century Technologies

511 Case Studies

July 2001


On July 21, 2000, the Federal Communications Commission assigned the 511 abbreviated dialing code on a national basis for the provision of transportation information. Further, the FCC ruling has left it to state and local transportation agencies, telecommunications carriers and regulators to determine the appropriate courses of action to make these services available.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Joint Program Office is sponsoring an effort to document the progress of early implementers of 511 services for the benefit of the entire transportation community. It is anticipated that five such case studies will be documented.

This case study focuses on the State of Minnesota and its implementation of statewide 511 services. As is evident in reading this document, the implementation is a work in progress. The intention is to concisely provide a current "snapshot" of the progress being made in Minnesota. It is anticipated as events warrant and interest of the community demand, this case study will be updated.

The principal point of contact for the Minnesota deployment is Bill Gardner ( or 651 282-2115). The principal authors of this case study are Rick Schuman of PBS&J ( or 407 647-7275) and Eli Sherer ( or 617 916-5859).

Multiple documents and web sites have been referenced in this case study. To the extent possible, links are provided to these documents and sites. This and other 511 case studies are located at ""

This document contains five sections:

History/Perspective - Pre-511

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT), with significant input from the Minnesota State Patrol, the Office of Tourism and the Office of Technology, adopted a plan in 1998 for Advanced Traveler Information Systems in Minnesota. This plan addresses customer needs and existing information systems and created a project development and coordination process for new traveler information efforts. It also created an overall vision for traveler information: "Travelers in Minnesota will have access to information they need to have a safe, efficient and satisfying trip." The plan addressed issues surrounding data collection and data quality, expected travel outcomes, private sector roles, business models, guiding principles and project development guidelines. The ATIS Plan is consistent with an overall Mn/DOT information strategic objective: "To listen to our customers and respond with accurate, timely information upon which they can rely."

Table 1 provides a listing of the principal transportation-related telephone services currently being provided in the State of Minnesota.

Phone # Managed By Service / Information Available Area Covered
651-633-8383 SmartRoute Systems Real-time Traffic Updates Minneapolis / St. Paul
Cellular #211 SmartRoute Systems Real-time Traffic Updates Minneapolis / St. Paul
612-338-7275 Minneapolis Parking Parking Information City of Minneapolis
612-341-4287 Metro Transit Bus Information Minneapolis/St. Paul
612-348-SNOW City of Minneapolis Snow Emergency Information Minneapolis
651-266-PLOW City of St. Paul Snow Emergency Information St. Paul
612-373-3333 MetroTransit Schedule, Route, and Trip Planning Information Metro Minneapolis / St. Paul
612-341-4BUS MetroTransit Departure Times Metro Minneapolis / St. Paul
800-542-0220 (out-state)
Minnesota DOT MnDOT Road Condition and Weather Information System Minnesota
Metropolitan Airports Commission Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Parking Information MSP Airport
Table 1 - Current Transportation Phone Services in Minnesota

The 800/local phone system operated by Minnesota DOT is the most relevant in terms of near-term 511 services. Previously, a system called #SAFE (#7233) was available to wireless callers, but this system was housed directly at the University of North Dakota and did not include all levels of information currently available. The #SAFE system has not been publicized since a conversion to the new Road Condition and Weather Information System, since preparations for 511 conversion are underway. The system does not currently offer traffic information, and though the SmarTraveler® service, operated in cooperation with SmartRoute Systems is also relevant, it currently only provides information for the Twin Cities area.

Minnesota DOT Road Condition and Weather Information System

Providing information to travelers is a key element of Minnesota's ITS programs. Further, institutional coordination in the state through programs such as SmarTraveler® ( or 651-633-8383, TripUSA (, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (, the Minneapolis/St. Paul's Metro Division (, and other privately owned web sites that utilize SmarTraveler®-generated information such as the Star Tribune newspapers ( and Mn/DOT-generated information such as Twin Cities Express (, have created the environment for providing information to travelers across jurisdictional boundaries through coordinated sources. One means of obtaining portions of this information on a statewide basis is via the Minnesota DOT Road Condition and Weather Information telephone system. This service is provided as both a local call to users in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, and as a toll-free telephone service to users outside of the local area.

The system provides information in two ways: First, callers may retrieve information by numbered roadway and geographic area; second, callers may refine their search by entering the milepost number along a specific highway.

As shown in figure 1, there are a number of components to providing such a telephone-based service.

  • Call Routing & Telephone System - Minnesota DOT funds local and toll-free access statewide through 800-542-0220 and 651-284-0511. All calls terminate at the network operations center in the MnDOT Transportation building in St. Paul.
  • Telephone System - An interactive voice response (IVR) telephone system operated by MnDOT at the Transportation Building in St. Paul.
  • Data Integration - The University of North Dakota (UND) receives automated information from Road Weather Information System (R/WIS) sensors, and from Minnesota Condition Reporting and Acquisition System (Mn/CARS) data entry computers. This information is passed through the Internet where UND creates concatenated speech files from the combined data. These files are then converted using a text-to-speech engine, and served back through the Internet as concatenated sentences to the MnDOT Telephone System. More detail on these processes will be provided later in this document.
  • Data Collection - Automated data from the RWIS sensors is combined with manually entered data from Mn/CARS (in XML-OUT format) as both are served through the Internet to the UND systems for integration. Future plans call for information to be served from Metro Division Traffic Sensors (in XML format) to UND as well.
  • In addition to this, raw data from the R/WIS and Mn/CARS systems is distributed via the Internet to TripUSA ( and other ISPs. It is the responsibility of these ISPs to fuse the data and determine their own output.

Flow diagram figure depicting the elements of the Minnesota Voice Remote Access System, as described in the previous text
Figure 1 - Minnesota Voice Remote Access System Elements

There are two main forms of information presently available to callers through the Road Condition and Weather Information System:

  • Road/Weather conditions on major state roads by Road Segment - Callers select the desired road by typing the route number on the telephone keypad, including Minnesota and North and South Dakota
  • Road/Weather conditions on major state roads by Mile Marker - Callers select the desired road by typing the route number on the telephone keypad. They are able to further specify location by entering direction and mile marker for the chosen roadway

(Note: these commands are not presently voice activated)

As described below, the Mn/DOT Condition and Acquisition Reporting System (Mn/CARS) and the Mn/DOT Road Condition and Weather Information System provide the basis for this information.

Minnesota Condition and Acquisition Reporting System (Mn/CARS)

Through a pooled-fund project with Iowa, Washington and Missouri, Minnesota has developed and implemented Mn/CARS. Mn/CARS is an Internet-based application used by Mn/DOT Districts and the Minnesota State Patrol to enter data about road conditions, restrictions and incidents. Mn/CARS data is integrated into a database that is then accessible to travelers though the Road Condition and Weather Information telephone service.

Mn/CARS is designed to collect statewide information with an unlimited number of users able to provide input to the system on both interstate highways and urban/rural highways. This information may also include data from neighboring states that are with similar systems or connected to the in-state system. Since the system is Internet based accessible, "users" on the system do not need special software to enter data, simply an ID and password. Presently, there are around 300 users with passwords and ID's. Some of these ID's have restricted access to allow for supervision of data input and flow, or for specials circumstances. Of these current ID's, about 90% have used MnCARS at one time or another and roughly 50-80 use the system on a daily basis, representing all of Mn/DOT's Districts. MnCARS is TMDD compliant and exports data in XML format. The system application runs on a single server, taking input from all available users. The XML output runs on a separate server, pushing data out every 5 minutes to UND for fusion with the Road/Weather Information System (automated) data, before dissemination to the public. The data consists of information about construction locations and restrictions, lane/road closures due to accidents and weather, maintenance activities, and other information from the State Patrol and District Offices. The Mn/CARS information includes:

  • Current restrictions such as closed lanes and speed reductions
  • Current and planned road closures and alternate routes
  • Current roadway conditions, including weather information (though this is primarily provided through the R/WIS system)

In April 2001, a Mn/CARS policy statement was developed in order to standardize the inputs being produced by the Mn/DOT districts. A computer located at each agency allows sharing and viewing of information while serving this data to the University of North Dakota system. The Mn/CARS policy statement is focused on the delivery of accurate and timely information from each district providing input. Along with specific staffing requirements, the districts are instructed to update "situations" at minimum twice per day at 8:30am and 4:30pm, or as conditions change. Additionally, the user guidelines state the following with regard to incident details:

  • County or Multi-County information should be entered as such.
  • Permit conditions are to be entered by road segment.
  • Mn/CARS situations are only to be entered if they are likely to disrupt traffic conditions in the reporting area.
  • Consistent, standardized descriptions are to be used for situations, using the TMDD - Traffic Management Data Dictionary (this section is under development).
  • No free form text is to be used to describe a situation.
  • Use free form text for detour information only (this section is under development).

Road Condition and Weather Information System

Road and Weather Information System (R/WIS): Mn/DOT has implemented a statewide system of R/WIS sensors to collect real-time road surface and weather conditions. This system is then used to provide real-time road-related weather reports and forecasts. The current weather reports and near-term forecasts are then integrated into a database that is accessible to travelers through the Road Condition and Weather Information telephone service.

Every 3 hours, the University of North Dakota runs weather models, accessing all R/WIS data from Minnesota sensors over the Internet. The 93 operating R/WIS sites report data approximately every 10 minutes to a server in St. Paul. This data is transmitted, again over the Internet, to a server at UND. Here, a database weeds out the site information that monitors only local, immediate area conditions, and focuses on the "Forecast" site data. (By design, monitoring sites are placed in areas to monitor road conditions and might be shielded by trees where they cannot measure wind speed or direction, whereas Forecast sites are designed to monitor overall conditions for a wider atmospheric area.)

The database then combines this data with AWOS and ASOS data, from the National Weather Service. At least hourly, the last reading from all of the sites are taken and delivered into a forecast model. A meteorologist then takes these models and creates a forecast for every 10-kilometer area in the state.

The forecasts are then converted into numeric files to be delivered to the telephone system. The telephony system holds a number of concatenated speech files. The files delivered from the UND system are number coded files corresponding to the concatenated voice files. When someone calls in to listen to a forecast, the software on the telephony system arranges the codes to play the voice files in the proper order.

Data from the Mn/CARS system is also delivered to UND where it is ingested and converted in the same manner then returned as numbered files to the telephony system combined with the R/WIS data. Included in this data is information from North and South Dakota as well as Minnesota. Similar information from Nebraska is scheduled to be on-line soon.

Road Condition and Weather Information System (Telephone Service)

Minnesota Department of Transportation has operated some form of telephone-based traveler information since 1985. Through the Office of Maintenance, MnDOT has implemented a statewide toll-free and a local Twin Cities number to access road conditions. These numbers are 1-800-542-0220 and 651-284-0511. The telephony equipment was recently upgraded from 19 lines to 48 to reduce the number of missed calls. Of these 48 lines, 46 are for receiving calls, one is for transferring updates from UND, and one is for troubleshooting. In March 2001 the system was also upgraded from human operator voice-recorded information to a system that converts text to speech through concatenation of prerecorded words and phrases.

Installation of the existing IVR cost MnDOT roughly $100,000 for hardware and software. Telephone lines are $20 per month; per line and toll-free service is 10¢ per minute, billed in 6-second increments. Calls to the local number are free within the metro Twin Cities. As all these lines are for incoming calls only, there are no per-call or outgoing call charges for service.

Road Condition and Weather Information System Statistics

The system currently receives approximately 200-300 calls per day. The average call lasts roughly two minutes. During periods of inclement weather or holiday weekends, the previous system would become overloaded, with callers being unable to get through to the system. During the April 2001 flooding, the new system handled around 1000 calls per day. The old system was not able to track per-day call volume, and there are currently no detailed statistics available for missed calls or day-to-day call handling on the new system.

Telecommunications charges cost MnDOT roughly $12,000 per year for the physical phone lines, with toll-free service charges varying depending on usage.

Additionally, the University of North Dakota is paid $10,500 per month for system support and to perform forecasting and integration of the data.

Road Condition and Weather Information System Advertising/Marketing

To date, some advertising has occurred to inform the public of the availability of the telephone system, but at this point in the preparation for the 511 service availability, no specific advertising budget has been established. The principal means of advertising thus far has been via:

  • Traditional Radio and Television (during severe winter weather)
  • Minnesota Department of Public Safety gives out the number to callers
  • MnDOT's Internet Web site

Customer Feedback

According to MnDOT, customer feedback on the new system was at first quite heavy. The predominant comments focused on a lack of coverage (less information available on certain roadways and areas), and that there was only one menu selection option available wherein the caller was required to enter both the route and milepost number. Since May 1st, this situation has changed as the availability of more road condition information has increased and a new menu option added allowing callers to select by road segment (area) as well as milepost number.

Calls to the customer service number have decreased substantially, leaving MnDOT with the feeling that customers are more satisfied with the information they are receiving than previously. To confirm this belief, MnDOT is planning a focus group to be held after the July 4th weekend. Previously, a focus group was held during the winter of 1999-2000 for the #SAFE system, but the comments received during those sessions focused on road coverage.

Institutional Background in Minnesota

This section describes the transportation and telecommunications institutional structures in Minnesota.


The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is the principal statewide transportation agency. MnDOT is divided into 8 districts and has responsibility for the construction, operation and maintenance of 12,000 centerline miles of state highways.

Map showing the 8 districts of the Minnesota Department of Transportation

Figure 2 Map of 8 districts

In the Metro area, transit services are provided under the umbrella of the Metropolitan Council (the regional planning agency), with Metro Transit providing the vast majority of fixed route service. Future plans for the statewide telephone information service include incorporating transit information, particularly transit schedules.


Three different telecommunications infrastructures need to be considered when contemplating 511 services.


There are nearly 100 Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers (ILECs) and Competitive Local Exchange Carriers (CLECs) operating in the state. The ILECs and CLECs are the principal organizations involved in landline 511 services.

Additionally, there are over 200 long distance carriers in the state at this time. Depending on the transport method of 511 calls, one or many of these companies may need to be involved in providing 511 service.

Map showing the telephone area dialing codes in the Twin Cities' area of Minnesota

Figure 3 Twin Cities Area Code Map


Throughout the State, there are 20 wireless companies licensed to operate wireless phone services. In some markets such as Hennepin County, as many as seven companies may be operating concurrently. In other areas, it is possible that fewer companies are in operation, while there may be more in major metropolitan areas as well. No centralized source exists that readily compares wireless carriers' coverage in the State (often, carriers show their advertised coverage on their corporate web site). However, several of the nation's major carriers offer wireless service in at least portions of Minnesota, including AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless, Qwest Wireless, VoiceStream Wireless, Nextel and Sprint PCS. As the following example of Sprint PCS coverage illustrates in figure 4, wireless coverage is not ubiquitous, although networks are expanding. The coverage pattern is typical.

Map showing the coverage area of Sprint PCS telecommunications of Minnesota

Figure 4 Sprint Wireless Coverage Map

Wireless calls are routed through the nearest wireless tower, often called a base station, then through a wireline network operated by the wireless carrier that may interconnect with the a landline telephone system. Charges apply for the amount of airtime used during a call, regardless of whether the caller originated or received the call. Roaming agreements are usually in place so a customer of a wireless carrier outside the region can make or receive calls while in the region. Additional charges may apply when "roaming," though depending on the users calling plan, roaming calls may be included in their monthly usage charges.


There are many coin-operated phone vendors in Minnesota. These coin operators, who in many cases are not the ILECs, must address routing of 511 calls made via payphones. If the call is provided as a local call, the caller will pay the usual fee. However if the call is provided through a toll-free network (no charge to the caller), the service provider may have to pay a charge additional to the cost of the toll-free call to the payphone operator.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission regulates significant parts of the Minnesota economy - electric, natural gas and telephone service. Each of these services plays a vital role in consumer comfort and convenience, in commercial activity, and in industrial production. The Minnesota Legislature requires the Commission to ensure that utilities provide safe, adequate, reliable service at fair, reasonable rates. The Commission regulates such matters as:

  • Rate changes;
  • Service extensions;
  • Service areas;
  • Acquisition or transfer of utility property;
  • Formal and informal complaints;
  • Construction of power plants, transmission lines, and other large energy facilities; and
  • Rates and conditions of service to co-generators and small power producers.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission consists of five commissioners appointed by the governor to six-year, staggered terms. By law, no more than three commissioners can be of the same political party and at least one commissioner must reside at the time of appointment outside the seven-county metropolitan area. The governor designates one of the commissioners to serve as chair. The commissioners and their staff members work full time at the Commission's office in St. Paul, except when attending hearings in other parts of the state. Electric service in Minnesota is provided by 50 cooperative electric utilities, 124 municipal electric utilities and five investor-owned utilities. Natural gas is provided by 26 municipal gas utilities and 10 investor-owned utilities. 97 local telephone companies provide telephone service. The number of long distance companies that provide service in Minnesota is steadily increasing. At this time, there are over 200 long distance telephone companies in Minnesota.

Additionally, the Department of Commerce, Telecommunications Division represents Minnesota's consumers in all aspects of regulating telecommunications providers. Ensuring that reliable telecommunications services are provided to all citizens at reasonable rates. The Telecommunications Division responds to forces that affect the telephone industry, such as new federal laws and advances in technology, by directing statewide policy and developing new state legislation. With this designation, the division may likely be the body that allocates the 511 dialing code recently designated for ATIS by the FCC.

The Division represents the broad public interest in all telecommunications matters before the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) by:

  • Analyzing telephone company filings (e.g. changes in rates, conditions of service, provision of services, and service area)
  • Delivering expert testimony and providing written recommendations to the PUC
  • Investigating company policies and practices
  • Enforcing Minnesota's telecommunications laws and PUC orders.
  • Ensure companies are following state laws and PUC orders by requiring reports, by viewing company records and practices, and through follow-up investigations.


The overall goal of Minnesota's 511 program is for travelers to be able to dial 511 on any phone to access current information on road conditions, traffic congestion, incidents, road closures and delays, current weather forecasts for all state highways and most major local roads in Minnesota and neighboring states and to access event and commuter parking availability, transit schedules, and major airport arrival and departures.

Recognizing the national 511 vision and the Minnesota ATIS Plan vision, Mn/DOT has adopted a vision for 511 implementation:

511, within the context of a larger traveler information system, will be implemented in a collaborative manner with other owners of travel-related information (public agencies) and with wire and wireless telecommunication providers. Implementation will be done in phases with a phase one designed to take advantage of Mn/DOT's existing traveler information infrastructure and voluntary participation of telecommunication providers. Ultimate 511 deployment will strive to take advantage of strategic partnerships in order to eliminate or minimize new resources for long-term operational and maintenance support, to optimize service to the traveling public and to conform to national 511 deployment goals, objectives and standards.

Key elements of the Two-Phased Vision of the Minnesota 511 approach are:

  • Wireless phone access to 511 services by Fall, 2001. Callers will be able to retrieve current information on road conditions, incidents, road closures and delays and current weather forecasts for all State highways in Minnesota. All information will be available through a single access number, 511, regardless of which wireless carrier the customer is using. At this writing, about 3/4 of the cellular carriers in the state have activated the 511 code, and are "pointing" it to MnDOT's toll-free number. MnDOT is reluctant to publicize this prior to the Fall, however, when the remaining companies are expected to be on line.
  • Complete telephone access to 511 services by Fall, 2003. Callers will be able to access traveler information services from any telephone, landline or wireless, to retrieve current information on road conditions, traffic congestion, incidents, road closures and delays and current weather forecasts for all State highways and most major local roads in Minnesota and neighboring states, as well as access event and commuter parking availability, transit schedules, and major airport arrival and departure information.

Ongoing Activities

There are several activities ongoing in an effort to bring about 511 implementation in Minnesota:

  • Mn/DOT has created executive and technical groups to manage 511 implementation.
  • Mn/DOT is informally contacting cellular providers for purposes of enabling 511.
  • Mn/DOT is coordinating with other N11 stakeholders (211, 711 and 911).
  • A workshop is planned for mid-2001 to get stakeholder input to an overall Minnesota vision and deployment plan for 511.

Market research is scheduled for summer, 2001 to provide guidance on existing and planned traveler information services. The Minnesota ATIS Policy Committee has been established to provide; a) Leadership in developing standards and deployment of ATIS program within the state of Minnesota; b) Coordinate with the National ATIS program including the 511 project; c) Participate in the early 511 implementation program. An ATIS Technical Committee addresses technical implementation issues.

Several key implementation issues have been identified:

  • Uniform Standards - MnDOT desires uniform standards for 511 implementation, both for data input, and data delivery.
  • The "menu tree" - how to keep a simple tree structure as more information becomes accessible
  • Content - what information should be available; what connections should be made to other information sources; determine the reliability of the information and its source
  • Use focus groups to determine acceptability of the data and structure (use a small team to test new standards)
  • Look to newer Business Models to expand the service, pick the right partner to sustain the goals
  • Go beyond road conditions (weather) as a requirement, look for additional resources to provide information and funding
  • Maintain incremental expansion, don't overshoot the goals

Other steps that need to be addressed include:

  • Statewide, the quality of reported data must improve and, where possible, incorporate travel-time data in the metro regions.
  • Transit information is available in the Twin Cities; during phase 2 incorporate this and other transit information into the system.
  • Minnesota DOT is planning an RFI (Request for Information) on the business models issue.

Lessons Learned

The following are some of the key "lessons learned" by the implementers of 511 in Minnesota. They are not intended to be exhaustive, but rather cover some key items they have learned through their process that might be helpful to others.

MIS/Technical staff must be involved early on. Check with technical staff that will be asked to implement changes whether the goals are realistic and adjust accordingly.

Establish firewall policy for access. Understand that sometimes access to the system must be made from a remote location and prepare for such an instance. System cannot rely on people always being local for operations and maintenance.

24-hour operation requires 24-hour support. Understand that a system that runs 24/7 must have a minimum maintenance level available 24/7.

Permitting functions not involved early enough. Since the old system was permit-based, many functions that were modified had a history in the permitting area, but permitting functions and staff were not involved in the process early enough to maintain a clean changeover. Currently, the system requires more modifications due to this issue.

Clear menu structure for new information. In order for the system to be successful, a clear and easy to understand menu structure and help system must be in place for callers before they become frustrated with any changes in the system. This may also hold true to operators of the system as changes are made in allowing for more options and information.

Must have consistent data entry. Data entry standards must be established and understood by the personnel intended to use the system. Change will not be easy but can be even harder when there is no clear explanation for why or how the changes are to be implemented. Specifying a standard Data Dictionary will not guarantee that it will be used at all times, expect some resistance.

Cooperation of telephone companies required. Both landline and wireless carriers must be on-board for any system changes and new implementation, though MnDOT may decide to limit or expand the participating carriers to allow for the best marketing and use of the system. Find the right person at the phone companies and make sure they have a full explanation of the goals of the system. (Obtain a copy of any tariff in place for 511 that might apply).

Be prepared to change and upgrade. As the stakeholders (the public and DOT officials) see what has been accomplished, be prepared to change the product. No product can be designed perfectly from the start.

Look to new business models. Realize that older models may need to be updated or thrown out entirely. Going beyond simple Road Condition reports may require additional funding that current business models may not support. Though funding may in fact be a policy decision, the opportunity to explore new business models to either reduce costs, or enhance services should always be an option.

Office of Operations