Road to 511 service is littered with speed bumps

Once you leave Whitehorse, the nearest community in any direction is 150 km. away. By the time you get from A to B, weather conditions can change half a dozen times and roads can be closed at a moment’s notice.

Keeping abreast of that information can be a matter of life and death, which is why the Yukon is particularly interested in participating in a national program to provide weather and road condition information.

“Some of our roads, particularly the Dempster Highway, are subject to very severe conditions,” said Wally Hidinger, the Yukon’s manager of transportation planning and programming.

“There’s a lot of wind and extremely cold temperatures, and it’s frequently closed. If someone can learn the upper Dempster is closed before leaving Whitehorse, they will respond differently than if they’re halfway up the Dempster.”

But while it may be sunny skies for this year’s launch of a nationwide 511 weather information line, a similar service for road condition information is encountering a series of potholes and dead ends.

That’s because, while Environment Canada is spearheading the weather information service, the other portion is the responsibility of the provinces, not all of whom have the same interest in (or resources to participate in) the project. And that, say experts, could leave a good part of the undertaking in the ditch.

“Some (provinces) are more anxious than others to proceed,” said Colin Rayman, general manager of Intelligent Transportation Systems Society of Canada, one of the members of the Canada 511 Consortium of government and private agencies such as Environment Canada, Transport Canada, provincial and territorial governments and the Canadian Urban Transit Association.

“Of all of the 13 provinces and territories, none have publicly said they will launch a 511 service for traveller information.”

It takes six months for a telecom provider to get the number up and running. It’s unlikely any of the provinces or territories will have completed the necessary work by June to go live by the end of the year.

Tony Chir, manager of dissemination systems at Environment Canada, said the department operates about 180 telephone answering devices, but it has been looking at upgrading its systems for some time. “As soon as there’s any significant weather – or in Toronto if there’s mention of 15 snowflakes – the excessive load on that line can become very difficult. For every call we get we answer one and miss 10 because of busy signals.”

On top of that, not every area in Canada has access to one of those lines, he added.

Chir could not say what the 511 system will cost. Nor was he sure what the maximum capacity will be, although he expects yearly call volumes to hit the 100 million mark, up from the current call volume of about 33 million a year.

Chir said he envisions options to listen to automated local and non-local forecasts. Callers will also have the option to switch over to road condition information for participating regions. Eventually, said Chir, there will likely be a Web application integrated into the solution, although, he said, “We’re hoping to start crawling first.”

Roberta Fox, senior partner with Fox Group Consulting, said road infrastructure relative to population growth in Canada is underfunded to begin with. The responsibility for roads falls under a mish-mash of local, regional and provincial governments. That raises the question of who will provide road condition information and how it will be collected.

“On Ontario’s Highway 407 they ran fibre down the road and put the cameras on a network so it’s all networked, but not all of the 401 is networked.”

Few new roads, unless they are privately owned, have that kind of intelligence built in.

“If it’s a retrofit, they’ll have to dig up the road to put it in,” said Fox.

But the provinces and territories shouldn’t look to the federal government for a handout. Transport Canada‘s (TC) involvement in the project is purely as an equal member of the consortium, said Susan Spencer, director of intelligent transportation systems at TC.

“We’re not directing the show,” she said. “It’s up to the provinces because it’s really their jurisdiction,” she said.

The consortium has yet to decide whether there should be a common look and feel to the service. Part of that decision will be based on the experiences of other jurisdictions that have implemented 511, such as the U.S.

The Yukon’s Hidinger said the Yukon is quietly planning on providing a 511 service by March 31, 2008.

New Brunswick is not quite as committed – yet. The province has a 1-800 number for road reports available in the winter, which it could potentially switch over to 511.

“The question is, do you enhance that service and add more information? I think with us it will be an incremental program. It won’t be a full-blown deployment,” said Nancy Lynch, assistant director in New Brunswick’s transportation policy branch.

Although the provinces and territories are on their own when it comes to boarding the 511 train, there is a council of provincial deputy ministers responsible for transportation and highway safety supposedly overseeing the project. Spokespeople for the council did not respond to repeated requests for interviews from Computing Canada at press time.

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