Holiday to go

Workers monitoring Maryland's roads, tunnels and bridges have technology to ease stress for Thanksgiving travelers

November 26, 2008|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,michael.dresser@baltsun.com

From a starkly utilitarian building lodged between the coal heaps and salt piles of industrial Canton, Rebecca Pindell will have the best seat in town today to view the traffic mess on Maryland's highways on the busiest travel day of the year.

Pindell will be watching the passing parade at the state's toll facilities and other roads on a bank of TV screens at the Maryland Transportation Authority's operations center at the Fort McHenry Tunnel.

And if anything interrupts the free flow of traffic on the three bay crossings around Baltimore, she will be poised to send help instantly.

The authority's refurbished operations center is part of the behind-the-scenes infrastructure of transportation in Maryland that is put to the test each year on the day before Thanksgiving.

This year, AAA Mid-Atlantic is cautiously projecting a small decline in highway traffic volume from last year.

The organization is being cautious because its projection is based on a survey of drivers' intentions conducted last month - when gasoline prices were almost double their current levels.

Ragina Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA, said that the Wednesday before Thanksgiving continues to be the most congested travel day of the year - closely followed by the Sunday after the holiday. But she said more people appear to be traveling early to avoid those peak days.

"People are definitely spreading it out more and more," Averella said.

At Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, officials were expecting about 77,500 passengers to pass through the terminals today and about 79,500 Sunday. The average daily passenger traffic is 57,000.

BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean said the airport's forecast of 486,000 travelers for the week ending Monday amounts to a 2 1/2 percent drop from last year's Thanksgiving week. He noted that some airlines have cut flights under pressure from a slowing economy.

Dean said there is no need for travelers to arrive earlier than the 90 minutes ahead of departure usually recommended for domestic flights.

"BWI operates really very efficiently. The security checkpoints seem to move well even on busy holiday periods," he said.

Amtrak was expecting to carry 128,000 passengers in the United States today, 65 percent more than an average Wednesday. Based on strong reservations figures, it was expecting no drop-off from its ridership of 665,000 during last year's Thanksgiving week.

"We think a lot of people tried the train when gas prices were particularly high and saw how convenient it was and stayed with Amtrak," said railroad spokeswoman Karina Romero.

The state transportation authority was expecting to roughly match its toll collections of last year, when 161,669 vehicles passed through the Fort McHenry Tunnel on the day before Thanksgiving.

Katherine E. Raynor, director of traffic management at the authority's central operations center, said she and her small staff will be ready for anything from stalled cars to crashes to fires in the tunnel.

(There's a red button on each operator's computer screen, which will begin executing a predetermined fire plan for each tunnel tube instantly.)

If a motorist coasts to a halt in the middle of the Fort McHenry Tunnel because of an empty fuel tank, Pindell will hear an alarm from an instant detection system and can pinpoint exactly where traffic starts backing up.

With a few clicks of a computer mouse, she can close a lane, notify the transportation authority police and dispatch a "vehicle recovery technician" to get the stranded motorist back on the road.

If the day is bright, she can control the lighting at the tunnel's entrance to ease the impact on motorists' eyes. And if you dash from lane to lane, cutting off other drivers, there's an excellent chance that Pindell will spot your movements and arrange for a uniformed welcoming party at the tunnel's end.

"We're constantly monitoring the radio for the transmissions that come from the police," the 21-year authority veteran employee said. "Then we just wait for the next thing to happen."

Raynor said the center, which also controls operations at the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel and the Francis Scott Key Bridge, is staffed around the clock. Two other centers control operations north of Baltimore, where the authority supervises the John F. Kennedy Highway and the U.S. 40 bridge over the Susquehanna River, and to the south, where it oversees the Bay Bridge and U.S. 301 bridge over the Potomac.

Each of the operations centers can take over from another at any time, and the three centers share images from their facilities.

The authority's centers tie in with the State Highway Administration's "Chart" system, which monitors traffic conditions in real time. From their computers, employees at the center can directly update variable message signs around the state - for instance to divert traffic from a closed tunnel to another route.

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