Intelligent Transportation rolling out statewide
by David Guenthner
The Lone Star Times
Volume 6, Issue 2
Could improved roadway information for Texas drivers attack traffic congestion cost-effectively?
Believing so, the Texas Department of Transportation is committing $50 million a year towards rolling out the idea statewide.
An Aug.15 panel at the 2001 Texas Transportation Summit in Irving not only provided a status report on Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) but explained why transportation experts are so keen on the concept
ITS is a coordinated system of technologies that could gather and disseminate information on current highway conditions. One example is San Antonio's TransGuide ( LSR , Aug. 25, 2000, downloadable from the LSR website, http://www.lonestarreport.org/.)
Video cameras installed along highways watch for traffic and accidents while vehicle sensors installed either in or above the roadways monitor traffic speeds.
Once the information is collected, orange-and-black message boards communicate estimated travel times between particular points, as well as specific information about trouble areas and suggested alternate routes. The information is also posted to special websites containing more comprehensive reports on road conditions as well as real-time video from the cameras.
The objective is to provide better information to motorists and law enforcement so that the former can navigate around trouble spots and the latter can more quickly clear those spots.
Carol Walters , a research engineer for the Texas Transportation Institute, gave one demonstration of how ITS is living up to its potential.
On Aug.10 at 1:26p.m., two tractor-trailers collided and jack-knifed on IH-820 in Fort Worth, blocking three of the four lanes of southbound traffic. Spotters at the command center for Fort Worth's TransVISION were the first to catch the accident and immediately posted a message on the signs in the area.
At 1.31 p.m., individuals on the TransVISION e-mail list for updated road conditions in that area received notification of the accident, with an attached image of the accident scene. Real-time video was posted to the TransVISION web site, where viewers could download still images. (Walters said users were using photos from the TransVISION site to explain why they were late to work.)
Finally, police were immediately deployed to the area -- not only to direct traffic off of the main lanes onto the frontage roads, but also to close off the major cross street in the area, letting the diverted IH-820 traffic continue without the additional impediment of a traffic light.
The panel discussion focused on the Dallas-Fort Worth region, a nationwide leader in the evolution of ITS. The DalTrans system has been implemented on 60 miles of Dallas freeway, with 58 cameras in operation. Sixty additional miles are in design and construction phases. A new, larger command center is scheduled for completion in 2004.
In Fort Worth, TransVISION has 50 miles of freeway completed, with 76 cameras in operation. There are 265 lane control signals and 54 message signs. Another 50 miles are in the design phase and will be completed as funding becomes available.
The two TxDOT districts have gone together on a joint website (http://www.dfwtraffic.txdot.state.tx.us) that combines the DalTrans and TransVISION information. The North Central Texas Council of Governments goes a step further, creating a page (http://www.dfwtraveler.com) that includes links to the DFW traffic page and to several other pages with travel information for the Metroplex.
ITS Systems is also operational in Houston and El Paso, with Laredo and Amarillo in development. Mark Olson , a traffic engineer with the Federal Highway Administration, expressed excitement about Austin's project. A command center will combine all emergency response -- including 911, police, and fire dispatch -- with the traffic management function.
Until now, the focus on ITS has been in the urban areas. But TxDOT has plans to roll it out along five of the state's major freeway corridors -- Interstates 10, 20, 35, 40, and 45. In fact, several message boards have already been installed along the IH-35 corridor between Austin and the Metroplex. The idea is not only to alert drivers to accidents along their route, but also weather conditions such as severe storms or ice.
But as this technology expands throughout the state, there remain several issues that must be resolved -- the main one being uniformity.
Because ITS is a fairly recent concept, the early projects used different technology to determine what worked and what didn't. Now the challenge becomes getting all of those systems to be compatible. That means one concept of operations, one set of data elements, one set of messages, one set of dialogues, and one protocol approach for moving data.
In fact, TxDOT engineer Al Kosik said the long-term goal is to transmit ITS information into the trip computers of new automobiles and commercial vehicles. For that to happen, there must be a rational standard for message transmission.
Fortunately, Texas has become a key player in the move toward uniformity among ITS systems, and not merely due to population. Because North Texas has experience not only with developing separate Dallas and Fort Worth Systems but also coordinating them, many of the lessons learned here are being incorporated into the new national standards. Ed Seymour , assistant director of the Texas Transportation Institute, cited the revised national message set standard -- due early next year -- as one example.
Kosik said the goal is standardize 80 percent of components within the system and subsystems; other components would be geared to specific regional needs.
Another challenge is the creation of "legacy systems." As ITS technology and capabilities improve, the challenge becomes how to adapt the previously developed infrastructure -- computers, sensors, etc. – for continued use rather than replace them at more cost.
Originally thought of as a tool for big cities, Intelligent Transportation Systems is being treated as a traffic management tool with statewide applications. Rerouting traffic around accidents on rural sections of highway and moving law enforcement more quickly to the scene would amount to angioplasty for Texas' clogged transportation arteries.
The Lone Star Report: www.lonestarreport.org