The next step in the ‘smart road’ is coming to the Everett Turnpike

Monitor staff
Published: 5/21/2017 11:01:34 PM

We’re all familiar with streets and roads, and turnpikes and highways – but are we ready for the “highly instrumented roadway”?

We’d better be, because it’s coming to the F.E. Everett Turnpike.

“This lays the foundation backbone,” said Carl-Henry Piel, director of IBI Group in Boston, a design and technology firm that won part of a $4 million contract to connect up the turnpike between the Massachusetts border and its end at Exit 13 in Concord.

The project, expected to take about a year and a half, is the latest step in changing highways from passive swaths of asphalt to interactive systems that both take information from and provide information to drivers to make trips easier – to use a buzzword, it’s another step toward a “smart road.”

This project will involve installing 13 new cameras and four more electronic message signs, as well as connecting into four existing Road Weather Information Systems that can, among other things, measure the roadway’s coefficient of friction to detect black ice.

What’s really significant, however, will be the creation of a communications network mostly using small microwave transmission towers rather than buried fiber-optic lines, which means less disruptive construction. The system will have the bandwidth to handle present capabilities as well as whatever devices are added in the future to justify that “highly instrumented highway” term.

“We’re building with every intention of its future expansion, planning for the future while not knowing everything that’s coming up,” said Michael MacCannell of Tilson, an IT company that is part of the project.

“It’s the power strip, the communications strip. They’re building the power strip and we’re plugging into it – and as more things come along we can plug more things into it,” said Susan Klasen, who oversees the Department of Transportation’s Traffic Management Center on Route 106 in Concord.

The center will receive data from new and existing equipment along the network, adding to the information it already gets from traffic cameras, microwave “motor vehicle detection systems” that can report the number of vehicles and their speed, and weather centers installed along highways around New Hampshire.

The center also gets information from the state police and other emergency services. And sometimes the center’s information is indirect; for example, Klasen said, if the detection system in a certain location suddenly shows that average speeds have fallen sharply, they know that something is amiss, such as an accident, even before they go looking.

The center uses all this information to give advice to emergency services, DOT repair crews and plow truck drivers. It also sends information to drivers via messages displayed on more than 50 digital signs, telling of weather alerts, the drive time till the next exit, warnings of accidents ahead, or just pre-holiday reminders not to drink and drive.

It’s also sending information to websites and increasingly to mobile devices, although transportation officials are reluctant to give drivers more reason to look at their smartphones while behind the wheel.

This kind of two-way communication is key to developing the “smart road” that can handle more vehicles efficiently and quickly, MacCannell said, and the system will be ready to assist self-driving vehicles, which need help understanding the world around them.

“Many states are taking advantage of the technology, but it’s still – in terms of the highway system – it’s still pretty new,” MacCannell said.

Since novelty can be uncertain, Piel said that redundancy is a key design component.

“In the communication backbone itself, where the high-bandwidth links are, you’ll have twin paths for the information, so that if you’ve got a problem with piece of equipment, problem with an antenna, you don’t lose your communication,” he said.

The Everett Turnpike won’t be the only road getting this treatment. The expansion of Interstate 93 in southern New Hampshire, for example, includes laying extra conduit for cabling so that any future needs can be more easily met.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of the monthly Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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