by Joe Shea
April 10, 2011
FLORIDA 'LOCALS' FIGHT A FEDERAL STRANGLEHOLD ON FIBER-OPTIC LINES
SARASOTA, Fla., April 10, 2011 -- Top officials from two counties blasted the Florida Department of Transportation and its consultants for barring use of fiber optic lines it will install along I-75, urging the FDOT to join the 21st Century to save money and seize opportunities to "piggy-back," or plant parallel fiber for cities, counties and towns along the way. The venue was a meeting of transportation officials with city and county government officials in Sarasota, Fla.
Robert Skaggs and two planners from the venerable transportation planning consultancy Gannett & Fleming bore the brunt of the criticism as they repeatedly echoed FDOT policy and federal highway officials in saying that they will not let non-DOT users run parallel fiber for their communities.
"We don't share fiber with the locals," Skaggs said.
Members of the board of the Metropolitan Planning Organization say fiber optic capacity could help brighten local economies by attracting new businesses, expanding the promise of the Internet, enhancing communications, helping law enforcement and improving the region's quality of life. It domintaed the agenda at their March meeting.
The $35.7-million FDOT fiber project, scheduled for completion in early 2014, is part of a wide-ranging Intelligent Transportation System plan to add to services already provided along the key Interstate artery. Dynamic messaging about looming traffic jams, Amber alerts, long-range warnings of roadway incidents and other projects aimed at better management of traffic flow are the principal aims of ITS.
The system of surveillance cameras and traffic detectors will watch roadways throughout South Florida's portion of I-75, as they do now on some other Interstates and I-275. The ITS system would also upgrade radio alerts on weather and incidents, the new 511 phone system, and provide streaming closed-cicuit video to traffic management systems located in Manatee County and Fort Myers, Fla.
The "smart highway" concept has been built out by state and federal transportation experts over more than six decades since President Dwight D. Eisenhower inaugurated the Interstate Highway system during his second term. During its development, however, planners have sometimes become a law unto themselves, arbitrarily determining where and what wiill be built with public trust funds generated largely by gasoline taxes drivers pay. Only in the past two decades has citizen input through organizations like MPO been invited, and few cities have had much impact on roadway design.
While the roads have become safer and "more intelligent," it often seems that old ideas are recycled with fancy new names like Intelligent Transportation Systems and "multi-modal integrated roadways," while great ideas with simple aims have lingered. For instance, where are the highways that let drivers set ther cars on cruise control and leave the driving to the road - a vision promised for decades?
The debate over access to fiber becomes important for several reasons. First, allowing access would finally include local government in real decisions that very much affect them; entire towns have turned to dust in the absence of Interstate off-ramps. But more importantly, sharing fiber could make communities genuine partners, not anonymous regional entities called "the locals" that are easily dismissed.
Including "the locals" achieves a third important objective: preventing highway surveillance from becoming the exclusive property of state and federal agencies like the FDOT. They are not true law enforcement agencies, and allowing them to gain exclusive control of mountains of data that really belong to everyone who pays for the Interstate system can be dangerous; sharing information like this broadly gives no camp a greater advantage than others. That aspect of the debate was an undercurrent at the MPO meeting.
Skaggs reported that the tens of millions spent on fiber optic will be for the benefit if the FDOT alone, while officials complained that they could save millions by being able to use dark fiber - unused fiber optic capacity on the state's rpoute - and installing their own. It would be extremely expensive for counties, for instance, to dig lines that parallel I-75 whencable is already being installed at a known cost. Commisioner Joe McClash pointed out that counties and cities that resold their acess could earn hefty fees that way, helping to pay back their investments. Sarasota, Fla., was a finalist in the national Google competition to become the company's first full -wireless city, and much of its downtown district already offers free wireless coverage.
But it's by no means all about data. The access to fiber optic cables that state and federal agencies might offer to counties, cities and towns along the Interstate system is the real source of value, allowing them to save on costly local ISP charges and even go into the wireless business as a provider of their own access.
One visionary who saw those possibilities, Coloradan Philip Anschutz, became a billionaire when he piggy-backed Qwest fiber optic lines along the righ- of-way of his Union Pacific Railroad; the system eventually became part of QWest/Century Cable's 187,000 route-mile nationwide fiber network.
But the planner was insistent that the FDOT wouldn't share, and instead sought to answer privacy issues no one had raised. The cameras would not record anything for posterity, he said repeatedly.
"We have no interest in what is going on inside the cars," he said. That drew a knowing laugh.
"I don't have any expectation of privacy anywhere I go," responded Maryann Barneby, a Bradenton City Council member as she held up her cell phone to display its camera. "I just took a picture of you with my pen," MPO chair David Garofalo shot back. The laughter was at the expense of the FDOT.
The agency opposes use of its fiber cameras by "locals," even though Skaggs admitted they are technically capable of recording video captured from hundreds of cameras it will place atop 40-50 ft. poles. He said will not be recorded or made available to anyone else due to the potential cost of archiving and providing the data the systems might capture on accidents, criminal activity and dangerous driving.
Some on the MPO may have been mindful of a recent fatal abduction case in which a young girl whose efforts to escape her captor might have been successful if cameras could have tracked the car she was in as it traveled in the county. She was seen by multiple witnesses who called 911 to report her apparent distress.
The FDOT does respond to law-enforcement requests for video of current roadway issues, such as the overturning of a tractor-trailer carrying hazardous materials. "We can zoom in on the HAZMAT tag," Skaggs said.
"It's just ridiculous," declared Manatee County Commissioner Robin DiSabatino, who was echoed by six or seven other officials on the MPO board.
The MPO acted on a motion by Manatee County Commissioner-At-Large Joe McClash to ask elected federal officials, including Rep. Vern Buchanan and others to make the parallel installation of Interstate highway fiber systems - I-Ways - a reality. Commissioner Nora Patterson added Florida's U.S. Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio to that list. They will send two separate letters to each, one on allowing parallel fiber lines and the other on using data from the cameras cooperatively with communities along I-75.
McClash also said the information from cameras that are monitored during the week by the Manatee County Traffic Management Center could be archived by the county from the data the center receives.
"We own it. It's ours," he said about the data the Manatee County TMC would capture. What the data might tell communities about tourist traffic, travel times for buses and county cars and trucks and other yet-unimagined uses could have great value, McClash feels.
Outgoing Sarasota Mayor Kelly Kirschner disputed the state's claims about the cost of archiving the video, noting that memory storage media have come down greatly in price.
The meeting was held at New College of Florida's Sudakoff Center and heard transportation ideas and official feedback on a variety of topics ranging from bike-safe roadways and roundabouts to multi-modal planning for integrated transportation arteries across the region. About 60 people attended.
Joe Shea is Editor-in-Chief of The American Reporter, which he and other journalists founded 17 years ago today.
A slightly different version of this article first appeared in The Bradenton Times, where he is a former part-time government reporter. Used with permission.