Smile. You're on TV.
If you drive on Interstate 95 inside the Baltimore Beltway or on the Beltway near Interstate 70, you and your vehicle are the stars of a closed-circuit television show.
The audience is limited. But in a control room at the State Police barracks near Golden Ring Mall, the viewers closely follow the plot.
Should a traffic backup develop, dispatchers can trace the problem, send help, and advise motorists of alternate routes.
The view is captured by shoe-box-size cameras mounted on poles high above the road. For such simple devices, they are being asked to fulfill a big role. The TV link is one of the tools that traffic engineers count on to keep Baltimore and many other cities from becoming hopelessly gridlocked.
Building big, sexy highways is no longer the way to prevent congestion. Nowadays, the answer is traffic management.
"We expect the traffic in the Baltimore-Washington area to double shortly after the end of the century from what it is today," said Tom Hicks, the State Highway Administration's director of traffic and safety. "We are not going to double the highway system. The answer is in management. It's about being traffic smart."
Building a highway may cost hundreds of millions of dollars, while traffic management may cost a few thousand.
A traffic engineer's instruments of choice are overhead signs that display variable messages, radio stations that broadcast traffic advisories, emergency patrols along the highways, High Occupancy Vehicle lanes and airborne traffic spotters.
Over the next five years, the state expects to spend $2.27 billion on highway construction, one-third less than the $3.46 billion spent during the peak years of 1987 through 1991.
Meanwhile, highway use has risen by more than 40 percent over the last decade, and likely will increase 30 percent by 2010, according to a recent projection by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.
The trend generally prevails nationwide. Notwithstanding promises by President Clinton, the government's real-dollar investment in roads likely will continue shrinking, yet more cars are being driven more miles more often than ever before.
"All urbanized areas are looking at innovative ways to move traffic more efficiently," said J. Lynwood Butner, Virginia's chief traffic engineer. "We can't build our way out of the problem."
On the Baltimore Beltway, Barry R. King scouts each morning in a yellow Ford Bronco. He reports problems directly to the traffic center at Golden Ring. Mr. King, the SHA's chief of traffic systems management, encourages others to do the same.
Mr. King and his seven employees are the major suppliers of traffic information to radio and television stations.
From Golden Ring, technicians can control the 25 variable message signs positioned on major highways and make announcements on the state's 23 low-power radio stations. Drivers are told to tune their radios to 530 on the AM dial.
A half-dozen emergency crews can be dispatched to Baltimore-area accident scenes to clear disabled vehicles and reroute traffic.
"If we weren't doing what we're doing now, things would be twice as bad," said Mr. King.
On this particular morning, traffic was backing up on the Beltway's outer loop just north of Wilkens Avenue. A 47-year-old Lansdowne man had lost control of his 1972 Chevrolet Chevelle around 11 a.m. and smashed into the median, blocking the left lane.
Spotting the mess from the inner loop, Mr. King called Rich Everd, a technician at Golden Ring, who keys in a message to Sign No. 401, just one-half mile ahead of the accident.
"Accident Ahead/Left Lane Blocked/Stay Alert," instantly appeared in 18-inch-tall characters.
The accident was cleared in 23 minutes, and traffic was soon back to normal. Did the sign help?
"The motorist saw traffic slowing and then he saw that sign. He knew he was in the wrong lane and moves over," said Mr. King. "Hopefully, this was a clear case when the sign had something to say."
The system doesn't always work so well. Frequently, the traffic operations center does not learn about problems quickly enough and motorists are never warned. Signs sometimes flash warnings long after the traffic congestion has been cleared.
To offset these shortcomings, the SHA plans to invest in sensors and computers, devices that can judge the speed and volume of traffic. Video surveillance and stationary radar or infrared units may soon be scattered around the major highways and linked to a central control room.
As part of the state's long-term speed monitoring program, there are wires embedded in the asphalt along major thoroughfares that are capable of detecting the speed and size of vehicles. The state hopes to develop software so that information from these loop detectors can be processed instantly.
This week, the SHA also plans to announce a telephone number, #77, that cellular phone users can punch to report incidents or suspicious activities along the Interstate 95 corridor.
"We have a vision, but we don't have to be Buck Rogers," said Mr. Hicks. "We have people and some devices. We've had to start small."
In the future, there will be smart cars and smart highways. Already being tested are prototype vehicles with on-board computers to give a driver the car's location, how to get where he or she is going, and what the traffic situation looks like.
Experts imagine automated highways capable of controlling cars, so that drivers can sit back and read the paper while whizzing along at 90 mph.
The futuristic vision is known as Intelligent Vehicle/Highway Systems, or IVHS. This year, the U.S. Department of Transportation expects to spend more than $225 million on IVHS development, primarily on research and testing.
"A variable message sign is limited in what it can say. Even radio stations are limited," said Gary W. Euler, chief of systems engineering for the Federal Highway Administration's IVHS office. "What IVHS should be able to do is to reach a much broader audience."
Many of the IVHS components are being adapted from existing U.S. defense industry technologies. Nevertheless, even proponents admit a nationwide IVHS system could be expensive -- perhaps several billion dollars to design during this decade and $30 billion or more to install.
That makes what Maryland and other states are doing seem like a bargain. A variable message sign typically costs about $80,000. Mr. King's annual budget is $500,000, compared to the $138 million operating budget for the entire agency.
The foundation is being laid for a new statewide operations center to be opened in July of next year. Located on Dorsey Road in Hanover across from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the federally funded $7 million center will monitor and route traffic around both Washington and Baltimore.
The need for traffic management is not limited major highways. Montgomery County has already launched an ambitious program track the traffic along secondary roads.
Gene S. Donaldson, an engineer with Montgomery's transportation department, said the county expects to install 40 to 50 video cameras a year for the next several years to monitor traffic at key intersections.
Montgomery County is the state's only subdivision to have all its traffic lights wired to a central control room. County officials plan to add six low-power radio stations and are negotiating with a Washington TV station to broadcast bird's-eye images of traffic jams as viewed from an airplane.
"You have to do this now or it will get so bad it will be difficult to catch up," Mr. Donaldson said. "We can't wait five years for the technology to be created."