Rural Interstate Corridor Communications Study
Report to States
Next Steps/Action Items
In an era of constrained public sector funding, State DOTs face limits on both capital expenditures and operating costs. Even ITS projects, which generally have a very high benefit-cost ratio, are difficult to sell in such an environment. While private sector telecommunications companies also face uncertainty, particularly given the current market conditions, it is likely that both State DOTs and private sector partners could benefit from deals that spread the upfront costs and ongoing maintenance expenditures across the two parties.
In undertaking this assessment, the study team was encouraged by the receptive attitudes of participants from the State DOTs. Successful implementation of high-speed telecommunications projects such as those contemplated in this study will require that State DOTs learn about the business conditions, market forces, and trends that make up the environment for action. Projects must meet the needs of the DOTs for communications between traffic management centers, with field devices, and with partners in such services as traveler information. However, to successfully involve private sector partners, agencies must understand the value proposition for telecommunications companies, as well as the political forces promoting widespread availability of broadband service.
DOTs may also be challenged by the governance models implied in a multi-state, public-private or public-public partnership. In some instances, impediments to implementation reside in law, regulation, or policy within the three corridors under study here. It may be necessary to pass enabling legislation or to effect changes in regulations to enable the States to undertake public-private partnerships or telecommunications projects. Fortunately, several models exist for undertaking such enterprises, from consortia established for tolling in the Northeast (E-Z Pass), multi-state bodies set up to handle traveler information (511 Deployment Coalition), to the I 95 Corridor Coalition, which was assembled to advance traffic management, congestion mitigation, and traveler information among States in the Atlantic Seaboard through which Interstate 95 runs.
No matter how straightforward a shared resource project may seem, they take time to develop and see through to the end. There are multiple decision-makers and stakeholders within a DOT that must be satisfied, as well as in other stakeholder agencies like the department of administration and often the governor's office. The efforts to advertise, negotiate, design, and construct a communications backbone through a shared resource project can easily take several years. Dedicated staff that can act as project champions are needed within the DOTs to ensure success. Adding to the complexity is that communications infrastructure is not an area that DOT staff normally design, construct, or inspect. This requires a very quick education by the DOT on communications engineering.
Despite obstacles presented by differing policies and the current economic and fiscal climate, the "corridor" approach has significant potential for the deployment of high-speed telecommunications infrastructure. Given the potential benefits to both rural communities and the State Departments of Transportation, the States should consider working with U.S. DOT and AASHTO to develop processes to harmonize utility accommodation policies, and to promote Public-Private and Public- Public Partnerships in States that do not currently encourage (or allow) such partnerships. States should also consider steps to streamline the permitting process for longitudinal placement of HST infrastructure within Interstate highway rights-of-way, including creation of "one-stop shopping" for telecommunications companies seeking such permits.
States will also be faced with critical choices about managing facilities like fiber optic or wireless infrastructure for high-speed telecommunications. Most DOTs are not equipped to maintain high-technology installations of this sort, and will have to decide whether to create an in-house capability or to rely on contractors for this function. Transportation agencies should look to "best practices" in developing an approach to implementation or expansion of high-speed telecommunications facilities. A listing of potential resources is contained in Appendix D.
In implementing a program for the deployment of a high-speed telecommunications infrastructure, State DOTs will need to balance the advantages presented by the generally clear and unencumbered rights-of-way for deployment with their responsibility for ensuring safety for Interstate highway users and their own workforce. Existing utility accommodation policies support this objective, and these policies can be revised to encourage the use of rights-of-way for a high-speed telecommunications infrastructure, without sacrificing safety.
Construction practices for the installation of fiber optic cables have been refined so that the environmental impact of such construction can be minimized. Still, significant environmental issues can be encountered when installing telecommunications infrastructure in State ROW. Construction activity can disturb vegetation and increase the amount of sediment in runoff that eventually makes its way to local streams and rivers. Directional boring produces manageable amounts of runoff, but it is heavily silt laden. State DOTs have policies regarding the treatment of runoff from construction sites and protection of waterways. Other environmental issues to consider include the disturbance of wetland areas and the timing of construction activities that may interfere with nesting periods of certain bird species. Such issues are generally considered manageable.
While the construction of towers for wireless telecommunications presents fewer problems than laying fiber optic cable, such issues as the visual impact of towers may arise.