VDOT traffic center to keep watch on the roads

News The Roanoke TImes September 14, 2006
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Better traffic flow is the goal of a smart traffic center that the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is building on a hill overlooking I-81 just north of Exit 140 in Salem, Va., the Roanoke Times reported.

The system will eventually be able to coordinate the lights to help traffic flow faster through Salem after any sort of disruption on I-81 causes traffic to build up onto U.S. 11 and downtown streets.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine visited the site this week and said its technology offers a cheaper way to deal with increasing traffic than building wider roads.

For motorists, the center means they will have more choices and more opportunity to think about alternative routes when VDOT's electronic message signs warn that congestion awaits them on I-81. The smart traffic center can speed up the signs' reports not only when accidents happen, but when they are cleared as well, the newspaper reported.

When an accident blocks I-81, "the queue can grow from nothing to several miles in a few minutes," said Richard Caywood, VDOT's Salem district manager.

The smart traffic center's construction is being handled by Breakell Inc., a Roanoke company that has a $5 million design-build contract that allows work to proceed faster and at less of a cost, according to VDOT. The building is due to be completed July 1, 2007.

Employees at the center will have a window view overlooking the busiest stretch of I-81 in Virginia, which carries about 70,000 vehicles per day. It is also one of the most dangerous stretches, with 86 crashes occurring in a single mile of the northbound lane in 2002, according to the Roanoke Times.

Workers will have an on-screen view of traffic from dozens of cameras in 29 counties in southwest Virginia. Kaine said the technology is more achievable than building wider roads to move traffic.

Caywood told Kaine about the goal of coordinating Salem's traffic lights during I-81 incidents. For now, those lights are adjusted manually, Caywood said.

Nerve-center control of those lights won't happen immediately when the $5 million smart traffic center's building is completed. The lights at several intersections would need to be upgraded as well, according to the newspaper.

However, the smart traffic center brings other benefits to motorists. The center will help coordinate the work of first responders--police, fire and rescue units--to quickly reach the scene at accidents.

VDOT already has a smart traffic center in Salem, operating out of three cubicles with eight desktop screens at its Harrison Street headquarters, the Roanoke Times reported.

This center helped coordinate the handling and cleanup of a truck fire just north of I-581 on July 27, Caywood said. The accident blocked the northbound lanes over night, and sulfur dioxide emitted from the burning truck's cargo prompted officials to evacuate 130 homes.

The current center is operated by nine people, and VDOT officials aren't certain how many will work in the new facility. A smart traffic center with more space and equipment will be needed as volumes increase in the next 10 years, and routine weather and accidents affect more drivers, Caywood said.

Traffic on I-81 in Salem already moves in waves during football games and other special events, slowing and regaining speed between exits. That happens, "just because of too much volume for the road," Caywood said.

A smart traffic center can keep the electronic message signs updated more immediately, warning local motorists to avoid the interstate during heavy traffic, and quickly letting them know when the worst is over.

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