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Can technology prevent another Interstate crisis?

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Stacy Vogel
February 24, 2008
— When North Dakota wants drivers to stay off the Interstate, it simply closes gates on the ramps.

In Illinois, digital message boards alert drivers when there is a back-up or traffic incident.


Cameras.


Radio networks.


Traffic alert systems.


Could tools such as these help prevent major weather-related backups in south central Wisconsin?


The region has seen more than its fair share of weather-related crises on the Interstate in this winter. On Jan. 6, thick fog caused 15 crashes on Interstate 90/39 near Madison. The crashes led to a 5-mile backup that lasted more than eight hours.


During one of the state’s worst snowstorms ever Feb. 6, drivers spent hours motionless on the Interstate between Janesville and Madison. Many were forced to spend the night in their vehicles.


A few days later, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation told cars to stay off the Interstate as blowing snow in Rock and Dane counties caused dozens of runoffs and large backups in the Stoughton area.


Gov. Jim Doyle ordered a study of the Feb. 6 incident, examining the breakdown in communications between agencies and the delay in reacting to the crisis.


The report, released Thursday, suggests more training and protocols for law enforcement agencies but doesn’t discuss changes to the Interstate system in general.


One exception is a paragraph in which the Wisconsin DOT suggests looking at additional tools for the Interstate, including “cameras, traffic detectors, dynamic message boards, road weather information systems or other tools useful in winter weather monitoring and response.”


In fact, the DOT already uses such tools on the Interstate, but mostly in the Milwaukee and Madison areas, said Todd Szymkowski, deputy director of the Traffic Operations and Safety Lab at UW-Madison.


In Milwaukee, sensors placed every half mile or so on the Interstate track traffic volumes and speeds, allowing officials to post travel times on message boards and control traffic flow on onramps. A network of cameras in Milwaukee and Madison lets news programs show up-to-the-minute traffic conditions.


Those sensors don’t exist in Rock County or other more rural areas of the state, but the state and the University of Wisconsin are forming a plan to put them in place, Szymkowski said.


Szymkowski’s lab is working with the state to create a “511” system in Wisconsin, something that’s already in place in several other states.


“The idea is you should be able to dial 511 on your phone and say where you are, and they should let you know what is ahead, whether it’s congestion or construction or an accident,” Szymkowski said.


Wisconsin hopes to have the system in place by next winter, he said.


The 511 program is one tool advocated by Intelligent Transportation Systems, a federal program dedicated to improving safety and efficiency on the nation’s roads through advanced information and communication technology.


Other tools promoted by Intelligent Transportation Systems include:


-- Electronic digital message boards, such as those that exist in Milwaukee and through much of Illinois, North Dakota and other states.


Digital signs have existed in Chicago for decades, said Aaron Weatherholt, traffic operations engineer with the Illinois Department of Transportation. In recent years, the state has received federal grants to put the signs in Rockford, Springfield and other Illinois cities.


The signs tell drivers estimated travel times and let them know when to get off the Interstate in times of congestion or bad weather.


“They’re definitely a wonderful tool for incidents or incident management that may occur, whether natural or manmade incidents,” Weatherholt said.


The Wisconsin DOT already has temporary digital message boards it can put up in times of emergency, but they weren’t put out until the morning after the snowstorm that halted traffic on the Interstate on Feb. 6.


Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi didn’t know why the signs weren’t used earlier in that storm, but they were used during weather incidents Feb. 10 and 17, he said.


-- Automated road closure gates.


North Dakota has had a system of 47 gates on the Interstate and four-lane highways since 1987, said Brad Darr, maintenance engineer with the North Dakota Department of Transportation. The state shuts the gates when it decides to close the Interstate.


“When our operators can’t keep up and we suspect the roads are going to be blocked, we can be proactive and shut them and keep people from getting stuck on the roads,” he said.


The state only shuts the gates in extreme cases, about once every two years, Darr said.


-- Traffic cameras.


A few years ago, the Wisconsin DOT bought traffic cameras similar to the ones installed in Milwaukee and Madison for use in Rock County. Poles and wiring were installed throughout the county, but the cameras were never put in place.


In the state report on the Feb. 6 snowstorm, Rock County Sheriff Bob Spoden said the cameras could have helped officials see how far the traffic backup on I-90/39 extended. The report found agencies were slow to react to the crisis because they didn’t realize the magnitude of the backup until hours after it began.


Busalacchi believes the cameras weren’t installed because of a funding shortage and will look into the matter, he said.


“I think if we’ve got the infrastructure set to go on (the cameras), we implement that,” he said. “This corridor between Janesville and Madison is very busy.”


Of course, these technologies all cost money. For example, even if the cameras for Rock County have already been purchased, they can be expensive to maintain, Szymkowski said.


The state must decide how much it’s willing to spend for technology to help in an emergency that, in the case of the Feb. 6 snowstorm, only comes around every 20 years or so, he said.


“What may seem to the average citizen as an easy decision, we’re kind of struggling with right now,” he said.


Debate over closing the interstate

Automatic closure gates won’t do the state any good if it never closes the Interstate in the first place.


The debate about whether or not to close Interstate 90/39 during the snowstorm Feb. 6 caused tension between agencies that day and controversy last week following the release of a state report criticizing the response effort.


According to the report, several law enforcement officials and dispatchers suggested closing I-90/39 during the day-long backup, but the Wisconsin State Patrol didn’t consider it.


“Suggestions of closing the highway during this event were met with the persistent assertion ‘Wisconsin does not close highways,’” Brig. Gen. Donald P. Dunbar of the Wisconsin National Guard wrote in the report.


Dunbar criticized the logic.


“The decision to close the Interstate should not be made lightly, but if it is the right decision in terms of public safety, then we should not hesitate to take action,” he wrote.


Frank Busalacchi, state transportation secretary, said after the report was released that the Interstate should have been shut down around 1 p.m. the day of the storm. People might not have liked being prevented from going where they wanted, but at least they would have been safe and warm, he said.


But Rock County Sheriff Bob Spoden said he doesn’t think closing the Interstate would have helped. It would have forced drivers onto town and county roads, which in many cases were even worse than the Interstate, he said.


“Now what you’re doing is sending people over who don’t know that route into an unknown area that hasn’t been prepared or plowed,” Spoden told WCLO Radio.


The sheriff’s concerns are valid, said Brad Darr, maintenance engineer with the North Dakota Department of Transportation.


North Dakota has gates on Interstate ramps and four-lane highways that shut when the state closes the roads.


The state considers the decision to close the Interstate very carefully, and only does so once every two or three years, Darr said. When it does close the Interstate, it directs drivers to the nearest hotels.


“It’s a judgment call,” he said.



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