Keeping cars moving Traffic: Since building more roads often isn't an option, Maryland has turned to computer technology to keep commuters going.

March 20, 1997|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

In a darkened command center near Glen Burnie, Lorraine Rineker has the world of the Maryland commuter at her fingertips.

Backups near the Wilson Bridge, an accident on Interstate 95, slick roads in Western Maryland? She can see or track them all on the computers and television monitors around her. With a telephone, radio or computer mouse, she can warn motorists of delays, coordinate detours and notify crews to clear a fender-bender.

As light snow slowed morning traffic yesterday, Rineker kept a watchful eye from her post at the State Highway Administration's Statewide Operations Center. The $7 million center is ground zero in the brave new world of "intelligent transportation systems" -- a tangible example of the effort to use technology to manage traffic problems that years ago would have been solved with asphalt and concrete.

Despite its bureaucratic name, the center more closely resembles the bridge of the star ship Enterprise than the typical government office.

"It's the wave of the future," said state Transportation Secretary David L. Winstead.

Faced with dwindling space, environmental concerns and tighter transportation dollars, many government officials in Maryland and elsewhere acknowledge they can no longer build their way out of congestion and the unslacking demand for roads.

From 1980 to 1995, for instance, road usage in the Baltimore area jumped 57 percent while new miles of pavement grew 3 percent, according to the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

Although Maryland has not abandoned road construction, officials look to the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operations center to make the most of what the state already has.

Working with state police, operations technicians such as Rineker use high-tech gadgetry to spot potential traffic snarlers -- accidents, road debris or disabled cars. Then they call highway cleanup crews to the scene and relay detour instructions to motorists through electronic signs and radio reports.

The goal? To reduce congestion and the need for costly new lanes by clearing roads more rapidly. "Sixty percent of nonrecurring congestion is caused by traffic accidents or stalled cars," Winstead explained.

Saves money

Transportation officials say the program has saved commuters an estimated $30.5 million annually in lost time and fuel and has reduced secondary crashes by 5 percent.

Other cities and states have similar centers, but Maryland boasts the only statewide post. Few drivers know it exists.

"People might realize that traffic is flowing more smoothly, but they don't realize why," said Nancy S. Johnson, editor of ITS World, a trade magazine.

The weapons in Maryland's arsenal include:

Surveillance video cameras in key spots, such as Interstate 695 at Interstate 70, along with 50 monitors that measure average speeds on interstates. Together, the devices enable technicians to detect sudden slowdowns that might signal an accident.

Crews can be dispatched to the scene to investigate and, if they find a problem, to clear the road.

Sensors the size of hockey pucks that are embedded in roadways. They measure pavement temperature and moisture and relay the information over telephone lines to a central computer -- vital information on snowy days. Using laptops computers, engineers in field offices use such data when deciding about plowing and salting.

Yesterday, the computer showed that crews had salted Mount Carmel Road (Route 137) at I-83 in Baltimore County -- the pavement was wet at 31 degrees but not frozen.

But one tool is decidedly low-tech. The center depends on the eyes of highway administration drivers who rove the major interstates during rush hours, call in problems on two-way radios, and even start cleanup efforts. Police patrols are also vital.

"Without the people on the road taking care of the incidents, the technology would be useless," technician Charlie Moss said.

The operations center is tucked away in a nondescript industrial park across from Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Watching TV

At its heart is a large room with a two-story wall of television monitors, which display live video of spots along I-95 and the Washington and Baltimore beltways.

The 18 screens, which range from 21 inches to 120 inches in size, formed a tableau of commuter frustration and ease yesterday. On some, traffic was at a near standstill while on others, cars were moving at a reasonable clip. The images were transmitted from cameras mounted on poles at 22 locations.

The snow, which didn't stick to major roads in the metropolitan areas, caused some delays but otherwise the morning rush hours were "pretty good," Rineker said.

A week before, she oversaw a more typical March morning commute. The weather was sunny and 45ish. Video monitors showed traffic flowing smoothly west of Baltimore on I-695 but crawling (as usual) on the Washington beltway near the Wilson Bridge.

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