High-tech tools in fight against gridlock


ROCKVILLE -- Montgomery County, home of Maryland's worst traffic congestion, is also home of the future of local traffic management.

From an 11th-floor command center in a county office building, technicians manipulate rush hour, altering the timing of 700 traffic lights, instantly tracking and rerouting 200 buses and sharing with local TV stations pictures from almost 100 video cameras trained on highways and intersections.

A single-engine plane equipped with video and infrared cameras cruises above the county's 3,000 miles of roads, its spotter scouting early signs of trouble and radioing information to emergency vehicles and the county's Web site and cable TV operation.

"We have to use the roads we have more efficiently," says Emil Wolanin, who heads the county's Advanced Traffic Management System. "We're stealing seconds here and there."

Time matters in suburban Washington, which is second only to Los Angeles in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Especially during morning rush hour, it doesn't take much to bring things to a standstill: a fender-bender on I-95, a large puddle on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, even someone changing a tire on the Capital Beltway. Things are not any better on smaller roads such as Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues or Route 29, which brings Howard County commuters into Washington.

"Our roads are already at capacity, so it only takes a few cars bailing off of [Interstate] 95 to put other roads into overload," says Lon Anderson of Potomac AAA. "If you've got a situation that blocks traffic for 10 minutes, our rule of thumb is it'll take 50 minutes to recover, if it ever recovers before rush hour ends."

State Highway Administrator Parker F. Williams says that because 60 percent of all urban congestion is the result of accidents, command centers such as the one in Montgomery and the state's center in College Park are vital in keeping traffic flowing.

"With these centers we can quickly detect an accident, assess how to clear it, dispatch emergency vehicles and notify commuters. By reducing by 30 percent the time from detection to clearing, we are saving significant dollars in terms of lost productivity of people trapped in traffic," he says.

Montgomery's Advanced Traffic Management System was designed to act as a traffic decongestant. But while an accident this spring on I-95 in Howard County just south of Route 216 shows the power of the system, it also reveals how far the region still has to go.

When the southbound lanes shut down at 6:40 a.m., traffic quickly stacked up. By 7:20, traffic was backed up to Route 100, and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and routes 216 and 32 were near a standstill.

Rush hour deteriorated to the point where a frustrated Howard County commuter called a radio station with her own "back way" to Washington.

Overhead in MC-10, Montgomery's leased plane, spotter Mike Kinney radioed the command center to add 30 seconds of green time for the traffic lights on Route 29. Traffic began moving.

But in Howard, which cannot tweak the timing of lights, motorists who sought relief on Route 29 soon found themselves in a backup as bad as the one on I-95.

"It makes you feel helpless when you're up here and you can't do anything about it," Kinney says.

Montgomery is the first local jurisdiction in Maryland to establish a transportation management center, but other metropolitan areas in the state, such as Prince George's and Baltimore counties, are expected to follow suit.

The Montgomery County traffic management system began almost 20 years ago with 10 computerized traffic lights.

Now, technicians have more than $20 million in equipment -- some of it paid with federal money.

Their efforts are concentrated not just on commuting motorists.

The command center adjusts the traffic lights around shopping malls during the holidays and can smooth out snarls at major events such as the U.S. Open or Kemper Open.

Montgomery County even loaned its portable monitoring equipment to Baltimore-area officials during the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1995 and after a bridge collapse on I-695 last year.

The center also takes some of the kinks out of mass transit traffic.

Technicians watch the progress of the county's Ride-On buses, which are equipped with global-positioning equipment, on computerized maps.

"Look, he's 6 1/2 minutes late," says Hal Silverman as the dot representing Bus 554 turns red on the screen. "He's doing 16 mph, and he's lost another half-minute."

Silverman begins holding the green lights for the bus as it rolls south on Rockville Pike. He also sends the driver a computer message that flashes on a screen in the bus: "Pick up handset."

After conferring by radio, Silverman knows the problem is slow-moving traffic, and he also learns that the driver is low on transfer tokens. A call to the depot ensures a fresh supply will be waiting.

"We need to make mass transit predictable," Wolanin says. "If we're going to be successful in getting people out of their cars, mass transit riders have to have confidence in the system."

He says the county has other management projects on the drawing board: message boards in the bus shelters to tell riders when the next bus will come along and signs at the entrance to urban areas such as Bethesda to tell motorists which parking garages are full and which have spaces available.

Williams, with the State Highway Administration, says skeptics who criticize the traffic-management centers as a waste of money don't realize how much more expensive roads are.

"We've done a pretty good job of using what we have. These [centers] aren't a panacea," Williams says. "But ask yourself, 'What would things look like if we didn't have these systems in place?'"

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