County seeks grants for control system to ease traffic burden

November 21, 1994|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,Sun Staff Writer

Howard County drivers may one day be able to scope out their morning commute ahead of time via cable television.

Although the system is at least five years away, the county has requested federal grants to build a traffic control center in Ellicott City that eventually would make information about local road conditions available 24 hours a day on a public-access TV station.

"People would be able to determine the least crowded way for them to travel while still drinking their morning coffee," said George Frangos, an engineer in the county's Department of Public Works.

Showing live pictures of the county's major intersections on cable television is just one of what highway engineers call "intelligent transportation systems" being considered by the county as it tries to find ways to handle Howard's increasing traffic without building new and bigger roads.

Other ideas include: kiosks in Columbia Mall to provide information on public transit and road conditions, better synchronization of traffic lights to smooth traffic flow, and a system to allow fire and rescue vehicles to change red lights to green before entering intersections.

"One of the benefits of [such systems] is that you don't have to add as much road capacity," Ed Stollof, a traffic consultant hired by the county, said at a Public Transportation Board meeting last week. "You can . . . gain some measure of capacity without adding pavement."

The most significant -- and most expensive -- proposal is the construction of a traffic operations center on county-owned land in the 9500 block of Old Annapolis Road, said C. Edward Walter, chief traffic engineer in the county's Department of Public Works.

If the county is able to solve its conflict with the state over funding for the $1.1 million project, the program could be in operation by 1999, providing the capability to monitor traffic conditions at up to 200 intersections and 500 road links, Mr. Walter said.

Using a system of cameras and remote sensors, the county would be able to coordinate traffic lights to manage traffic tie-ups as they happened and respond more quickly to accidents and broken signals, he said.

"We don't totally know what we want because we have not yet gotten the money to employ a consultant," Mr. Walter said. "When we get it designed, I believe that what we have done already will fit in pretty well."

Eventually, the system of traffic cameras and remote sensors would feed data to a 24-hour local cable channel that provides viewers with up-to-the-minute conditions on the county's major roads, said Carl Balser, the chief of the county's Transportation Planning Division.

Montgomery County already has a similar cable television system that works well and is widely watched, although no specific viewing figures are available, Mr. Frangos said.

"Eventually, we would combine it with the system already in place in Montgomery County and show people their entire commute" to the Washington, D.C., area, he said.

To provide even more information to drivers, the county also is considering setting up kiosks at places with many pedestrians, such as Columbia Mall.

Such kiosks could provide updates on current traffic conditions as well as public transit schedules and maps, Mr. Stollof said. They even could sell bus and train tickets.

Among the other proposals briefly discussed at last week's transportation meeting was the synchronization of traffic lights to smooth out the flow of cars.

The county also is working to ensure that its traffic control systems are compatible with those adopted by the state and neighboring counties, permitting coordination along the entire Interstate 95 corridor, Mr. Balser said.

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