New Hampshire roadways have been getting smarter over the past few years. Since 2012, a growing Intelligent Transportation System has been watching drivers and collecting data. What that means, specifically, is that about 20 road surface and weather sensors and more than 70 cameras along state highways are beaming microwave signals into more than 20 miles of fiber optic cable and feeding information to the Traffic Management Center in Concord.
Most of the cameras are along the southern part of Interstate 93 and the seacoast. Road sensors tell TMC operators when roads are icy and weather updates tell them when roads conditions are likely to worsen.
“Part of the problem we’ve got now is people drive too fast for conditions,” said Denise Markow, the administrator of the TMC.
If bad weather or an accident causes a traffic backup, the Department of Transportation will have real-time awareness of the situation and can work to alleviate congestion with another piece of equipment they’ve installed — the roughly 50 digital message boards along major highways.
When the cameras and sensors are used in tandem with the message boards, it can make roads safer.
“The more information we can put out on the status of the roadway, maybe [drivers] will slow down,” she said.
Markow said the technology is meant to save the state money by creating a more efficient flow of traffic, too.
“We had an incident on I-93 northbound where a young boy exited the car he was riding in and was hit and killed on the highway. The accident happened during the evening commute and closed the northbound corridor of the interstate for hours,” Markow said.
People who were driving up from Massachusetts were running into serious traffic, so when the TMC saw the traffic on their cameras, they contacted Massachusetts and had them post a notice on their message boards.
“In a 40-minute period, the queue had dissipated from over 5 miles to just under 2 miles as travelers got the message and took alternate routes,” said Markow.
Lt. Jerry Maslan with the New Hampshire State Police says the message boards have proven useful.
“It’s forewarning to the motorists that something is either in front of you or something is coming, like a storm,” said Maslan,using the example of a snow squall in January that caused a 35-car pileup on I-93 near Ashland. The boards advised drivers to take another route.
TMC operators, of which there are seldom more than a handful working at a time, sit in front of a large screen called a Barco wall. On the far right, a real-time weather radar shows any weather events. The rest of the wall is filled with live feeds from 56 different cameras set up along I-93, the Spaulding Turnpike and other major roads.
The TMC is located inside the Incident Planning and Operations Center, where it shares space with four divisions of the New Hampshire Department of Safety: the state Fire Marshals Office, 911 Communications, Homeland Security Emergency Management and State Police Dispatch. The latter shares the same room as the TMC so information is passed seamlessly between departments.
TMC operators can now remotely control 10 variable speed limit signs on I-93, and Markow said this infrastructure of sensors, cameras, variable speed limit signs and message boards is growing every month. It’s a feedback loop of information. Cameras and sensors tell operators about accidents and road conditions, and they use message boards, variable speed limits and even Twitter to inform drivers and improve safety.
Pretty soon, they’ll add another source of data to the cycle: GPS.
“We’re buying a data layer for speed data,” Markow said.
While they are also buying five speed sensors purely for data collection on I-95, she is hoping to save money by getting most of this information from a GPS company. They are currently in talks with GPS provider TomTom to sign a yearly contract for their data.
“The idea behind it is if you drive down I-93 every morning and you see a message board that [usually] says 15 minutes to Salem, then one day it says 45 minutes, something is going on,” Markow said.
With travel time information constantly available to New Hampshire drivers, Markow hopes the state’s roadways will reach their peak efficiency, avoiding congestion before it occurs and responding to unplanned lane closures faster than before.
The GPS data and travel times will be tied to a brand new software program they expect to launch in December. The program will make the traffic management system even more automated. It will integrate a dozen disparate programs used by operators and, most importantly, it will interconnect the systems of Maine and Vermont with New Hampshire’s. Markow says there’s no other traffic management program of this magnitude anywhere else in the country. It’s a roughly $4-million project, and New Hampshire is paying $1.2 million.
“When we get the core system up and running, we will reach out to a couple vendors and say, ‘Do you want to take our data and develop an app?’” said Markow.
The app would provide motorists with the same info provided by the message boards and DoT Twitter accounts, but with the integration of GPS-informed travel times and data from New Hampshire’s neighboring states, info will be more valuable and up-to-date.
Eventually, Markow hopes to bring the southern New England states, starting with Massachusetts, into the program.
Nick King, the TMC operations manager, is looking forward to a more automated system after an extremely snowy February.
“We were run pretty thin,” said King. “Everybody was working lengthy shifts and multiple days, days off, trying to make sure we had that 24/7 coverage with enough staffing to provide the response to the events.”
As seen in the March 26, 2015 issue of the Hippo.