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Streamlined info for DOT, drivers the aim of planned traffic management system

Inside the state Department of Transportation's Traffic Management Center. Live video feeds from about 120 cameras mounted above New Hampshire highways are monitored daily for crashes, delays or construction work. Departments of transportation in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont are working on a new traffic management system that will allowthe departments to more quickly get information about road closures, construction and traffic flows to drivers. 
(IAIN WILSON / Monitor staff)

Inside the state Department of Transportation's Traffic Management Center. Live video feeds from about 120 cameras mounted above New Hampshire highways are monitored daily for crashes, delays or construction work. Departments of transportation in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont are working on a new traffic management system that will allowthe departments to more quickly get information about road closures, construction and traffic flows to drivers. (IAIN WILSON / Monitor staff)

Inside the state Department of Transportation’s Traffic Management Center in Concord on Friday morning, transportation management communication specialist Doug Kerr needed to get the word out: Road work in Littleton could result in delays.

It was 8:30, near peak commute time, and the map of New Hampshire roads on one of his three computer monitors showed pockets of disruption – accidents, construction, commuter traffic.

To share the information with drivers, Kerr, a DOT employee, needed to put it in a content management system and plot the work site on a publicly available digital map using mile markers and crossroads. He’ll post warnings on the DOT’s Twitter account and, if the delays or impediments warrant it, identify nearby roadside message boards and enter messages warning drivers.

In short, getting relevant, real-time information to motorists can seem like a long process. This is slated to change in less than 18 months.

Transportation departments in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine plan to launch a cutting-edge regional traffic management system to streamline information gathering and increase the speed the DOT can share information with motorists. The three states have contracted with Southwest Research Institute of San Antonio to develop and implement the system at a cost of $4.6 million.

Federal Highway Administration money will pay for the five-year contract. Once the new system is in place in January 2016, police and fire departments and highway crews will be able to more efficiently respond to traffic accidents and weather conditions that rapidly change road conditions and traffic patterns. The system will be cloud-based and entirely online and will give drivers real-time information about accidents, construction and traffic flows.

“It’s going to become so much more quicker and more accurate. All in all, it’s going to be a huge, huge improvement,” Kerr said.

In New Hampshire, the system will be based at the DOT’s Traffic Management Center on Smokey Bear Boulevard, essentially central command for monitoring the state’s roads. Video feeds from about 120 cameras perched above New Hampshire highways play on a 30-foot by 12-foot screen at the front of the room. On one feed, cars whiz through the Hooksett tolls on Interstate 93, while on a separate feed vehicles head north on Interstate 95 near Salem. The new system will still rely heavily on the monitors, which were installed in 2012 and have three primary functions, said Denise Markow, director of the traffic management center. They monitor weather and road conditions, safety on roads and bridges, and daily traffic operations.

The new system will bring with it three primary changes, Markow said. State police dispatch, which operates in the traffic management center, now have to relay the information – what, where, when – to the DOT. The new system will link the two, automatically inputting information to engineers at the DOT. “We won’t have to wait for a call to come in to us,” Markow said. “It will help reduce the incident notification system.”

Automated technology will allow engineers to locate all message boards within a set radius at the click of a mouse, allowing them to set text on several of the almost 45 message boards at once. Drive times, which are currently unavailable, will be found on the message boards, letting drivers know how long and how far they are from a set location.

All this means drivers will get information faster and in turn, create informed drivers. If a traffic jam on Interstate 89 in Vermont has backed up traffic in New Hampshire, the regional system can inform drivers on both sides of state lines, and the DOT hopes to share message board abilities across state lines.

“With all the New England states being so close together, it really makes sense for them to be on the same program,” said Patrick Moody, spokesman for AAA Northern New England, which covers New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. The organization supports the system because it will streamline the communication process and allow response times to be quicker, he said. “It makes for more informed motorists.”

The new system will feature three components, including an Intelligent Transportation System – which the DOT will use to input information – a traveler information system to provide real-time traveler information with texts and email subscriptions, and a data fusion hub, which will facilitate the exchange of information between the departments of transportation and private third parties.

“The data fusion hub is like a holding tank. We don’t have that now,” Markow said. “The private sector will be able to take much more advantage of this data.” As an example – while the state isn’t developing an app for traffic, someone who is interested can mine the data from the data hub and use it for GPS or an application to benefit commuters.

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or iwilson@cmonitor.com.)

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