FDOT’s high-tech control room prepares to monitor holiday traffic

Thinking Highways
By Thinking Highways December 23, 2015 12:24

FDOT’s high-tech control room prepares to monitor holiday traffic

Operator Joshua Judge monitors DOT traffic cameras at the Florida Department of Transportation, Tampa Bay Sunguide Center. Operators watch 247 camera feeds looking for trouble on the roads of the Tampa Bay area. JAY CONNER/STAFF

Inconspicuous cameras placed atop utility poles along 182 miles of main highways and arterial roads in the Tampa Bay area feed a NASA-like control room, where scenes of traffic appear on a towering wall made up of nearly two dozen 65-inch rear projection monitors and 10 42-inch LED screens.

The traffic never stops and travels in every conceivable direction, if all goes according to plan. Occasionally it does stop or come to a slow crawl, when a wreck occurs or when a vehicle breaks down and that’s when behind-the-scene machinery kicks into motion.

It’s a critical time of year for this operation, as tens of thousands of Tampa Bay travelers head out over the holiday season for trips to homes of friends and families. Monday, the Florida Department of Transportation offered up a glimpse into the $9 million state-of-the-art video and communications system that swings into motion whenever traffic flow is disrupted.

Often before the first 911 call is made, technicians in this control room see it. They alert the Florida Highway Patrol and the Florida Department of Transportation’s Road Rangers to head toward the trouble.

Warnings are posted on the message boards along the routes leading to the trouble spot, alerting motorists of possible delays ahead and notice is sent to the My Florida 511 system which sends out text and email alerts to registered drivers so they can avoid the area and pick from a list of alternate routes.

“This is what we watch, all the roads,” said Romona Burke, supervisor with the Tampa Bay SunGuide Center, located in the DOT building on McKinley Drive in north Tampa. Transportation workers here are expected to be busy this week, as about a third of Florida residents are expected to embark on road trips to be with relatives and friends over the holidays.

“We usually have three or four people watching these screens,” Burke said. That’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Hot spots include certain stretches of the Tampa Bay interstate system, particularly on Interstate 4 at a nondescript spot near McIntosh Road in eastern Hillsborough County, she said, “where a guardrail there seems to have a magnet in it.”

By responding immediately, secondary wrecks — ones caused by people gawking at the emergency vehicles along the shoulder rather than paying attention to the traffic in front of them — can be avoided, she said. Motorists unaware of the wreck ahead will be warned by the message boards and through the My Florida 511 system, she said, and they can hop off the highway and bypass traffic jams altogether.

The DOT’s 511 project allows enrolled motorists to:

  • Create a personalized services profile to add an unlimited number of custom routes;
  • Hear travel information along those routes first when 511 is dialed from a registered cell or land-line phone;
  • Receive phone, text or e-mail alerts about incidents along certain routes;
  • Set the language preference as English or Spanish.

With gasoline prices as cheap as they’ve been in six years, transportation officials are expecting a surge of highway traffic this week and next.

“We recommend people leave earlier,” said Mark Jenkins spokesman for AAA The Auto Club South, “and identify alternative routes if they need to take them.”

Roads are expected to be congested around Tampa through the weekend following New Year’s Day, he said, as the price of a gallon of unleaded regular gas at some service stations dip below $1.90.

Prices in Florida are now the cheapest they’ve been since March 2009, according to analysts with AAA The Auto Club South.

Across the nation, AAA projects more than 100 million people will be travelling between Wednesday and Jan. 3, the highest number ever. One of every three Americans will take a trip, representing a 1.4 percent increase over last year’s travel numbers and the seventh consecutive year of year-end holiday travel growth.

Of the 100 million-plus travelers, more than 90 percent — 91.3 million — will drive to their holiday destinations, travel analysts say.

Among the vehicles on Florida’s highways over the holidays will be the black and gold Florida Highway Patrol cruisers.

Over the holidays last year, 20 people were killed on Florida’s highways in 288 alcohol-related crashes. Of the total number of crashes, 20 percent occurred on New Year’s Eve and over 2,000 crashes per day occurred on Florida roads in the days before Christmas last year.

“Troopers and other law enforcement officers will be actively looking for impaired drivers during this holiday season,” highway patrol Col. Gene Spaulding, said in a news release issued last week. “One life lost due to a preventable tragedy is one too many. If you drink, be responsible. Give the gift of being a sober, designated driver or arrange one for yourself as you celebrate the holidays.”

All troopers will be on duty, none are taking vacation time, said highway patrol Sgt. Steve Gaskins. “They will create a visible deterrent” for motorists who ignore the law.

Keeping tabs on Tampa Bay traffic flow by the numbers:

  • 170 — miles of fiber optic cable connecting cameras and message boards along the highway and the command center in Tampa;
  • 247 — closed circuit television cameras on utility poles and atop signs along interstates and arterial roads in Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Polk and Manatee counties;
  • 98 — computer compatible message boards placed over highways telling motorists of any traffic flow issues or Silver Alerts;
  • $9 million — cost of the Tampa Bay SunGuide building and all its accompanying technology;
  • 20 — number of 65-inch rear projection monitors on the wall of the command center, along with 10 42-inch screens.

By Keith Morelli

 

Thinking Highways
By Thinking Highways December 23, 2015 12:24