A tale of two smart work zones

Please welcome back JP Story as our guest blogger today!

How Kansas DOT got a better smart work zone for an order of magnitude less money

The Department of Transportation in Kansas let two smart work zones in 2016. One which you’d call “typical” and one that was very different. In this post we look at how changing your approach to smart work zones can be a net positive for your state.

The number one reason more work zones are not smart work zones is because they are expensive.

According to the district engineer, Southern Illinois spent an average of $640,000 per smart work zone in 2014/2015.

If a smart work zone costs between half a million and million dollars, its no wonder more states don’t do it. It’s no wonder states are hesitant to specify them in on more projects. And it is certainly no wonder why every work zones isn’t a smart work zone…at least at those kinds of prices.

It was the same in Kansas, earlier this year. There was a letting on February 17th of 2016, a 20 million dollar project that would have a major impact on traffic in Wichita. Five bridges would be rehabbed along I-235, the major ring road of the city, and preliminary analysis suggested that significant queues would form. To mitigate risk of rear end collisions, and to help inform the motorists of delays, they included a smart work zone with end of queue warning and travel time automation.

As expected, the price came in at between half a million and a million dollars. The deployment (lump sum) at $570,000 and maintenance of $146 (each day of the project). What they got for that is 15 sensors, 10 signs, and 5 cameras. For logic, they got a travel time and queue warning system. Seems like your typical kind of smart work zone.

The thing is, it doesn’t take ripping apart and replacing five bridges to impact traffic. Sometimes working on just one bridge can have a negative impact. Let me introduce to you the 119th Street bridge in Kansas City.

Seems like a real run of the mill quick project, anticipated to last no longer than 3 months. The low bid for the project was awarded to Pci Roads for $420,106.66. Let me emphasize this fact, the entire project cost less than a typical smart work zone. Ask anyone in Kansas City, US-69 is terribly congested with commuter traffic, on a good day. Traffic analysis told KDOT that this bridge work would lead to terrible backups. But how on earth can you put a smart work zone on a project when the total cost of the project is under half a million dollars?

Kansas DOT reached out to us and wanted to turn smart work zones on their head. They saw the trend of half+ million dollar projects and wanted to do something different. We advised them on the same things we wrote about earlier this week, that smart work zones are easy.

  • Any PCMS can be a “Smart” PCMS. Let the local guys place their own signs.
  • Use your permanent infrastructure. AKA use what you already have.
  • Use what is safe.
  • Get innovative with how you pay for it.
Use Local

To recap, PCMS are commodity hardware. A “smart board” PCMS is simply a sign with a modem on it for remote communications. Nothing more. You know what you already pay for these signs – just look at your past bid tabulations. That is what we did in Kansas and came up with a very accurate estimate of the signs. Traffic control companies all have message boards already – there’s no need to bring in any kind of “special” message board. They own, maintain, and setup these message boards every day.

Use what you have

We utilized the permanent KCScout sensors in the area to reduce the sensor cost. The data flows freely to our server and we use it in the calculations to automate the message boards. Its a one-time integration that took about a week. After that there is zero cost. Many states and counties already have some traffic sensors used for traffic studies – those too can be put to work on a smart work zone, saving you tens of thousands of dollars.

Use what is safe.

There’s no need to place obstacles in the lead up to your work zone. We used break-away posts that are crash tested to mount our sensors. Oftentimes you can mount them on the posts for advanced warning signs that would be there any ways for the normal maintenance of traffic!

Re-think your payment model

We’ve seen what the low-bid process leads to when it comes to smart work zone “packages”. A half million dollar “thing” that is hard to quantify and even harder to justify for anything but the most major of projects. We want to change that. To that end, we recommend you use the low-bid process on commodity items like PCMS, and have the contractor place them. It works great. For the non-commodity items, like the traffic sensors, you can utilize the micro-payments route for sole-sourcing a competent vendor. And the same goes for the software that ties all the disparate pieces together into a cohesive system.

All said and done.

KDOT maximized efficiency on this smart work zone by implementing the above measures. The results were drastic. The bid tabulations of the 119th Street Bridge project tell the story. A $58,500 lump sum deployment vs a $570,000 deployment for the 5 Bridges “typical” smart work zone. It is also cheaper to maintain for the contractor, so the each-day payment for upkeep was only $130 each day vs $146. By changing their approach, and partnering with a software vendor on the front end, KDOT achieved an order of magnitude cost savings on this project. A partnership can leads to a very different, much better working relationship versus the low-bid environment. Is this what you want from your next smart work zone? Give us a call today if you’d like to learn more.

What Do Automated and Connected Vehicles Need to Know About Work Zones?


On July 20th, Ross Sheckler of iCone made a presentation to the Autonomous Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco. The title of his presentation was “What Do Automated and Connected Vehicles Need to Know About Work Zones?” His message was very important. It was well-received by those in attendance, but the group that needs to hear this is many times larger than the 100 or so people in the room that day. So we will try to make his main points in today’s post.

Remember, most of the attendees were not work zone people, though a few of us were there that day. Most work for automotive manufacturers or component manufacturers. They produce navigation systems – some in use today and some that will guide autonomous vehicles in the future. Those cars will drive through our work zones, yet the folks who produce them know very little about temporary traffic control. So Ross began by pointing out that the map changes 1,000 times per day due to work zones. 1,000 times per day workers change the law, and 10,000 times per day warnings are posted. His point being, of course, that we must find a way to inform these systems.

Mr. Sheckler also explained that most closures are never reported. And of those that are reported, most don’t occur on the dates and times they are scheduled. He went on to say that the most dangerous closures are probably those unreported ones. He used the example of a short term utility closure on a rural road with bad line of sight.  The people doing that type of work often do not worry much about traffic control. They might place a 10 foot taper of cones and a ROAD WORK AHEAD sign, but even that is somewhat rare. Automotive systems must be able to recognize these work areas and react appropriately.

And when traffic control is reported, it only shows up in navigation apps as “roadwork”. It does not say it is a lane shift, or multiple lane closure sure to cause queuing. It does not say the entire geometry has changed by moving traffic over into the oncoming lanes separated by concrete barrier. And it does not tell you if the work is causing traffic to slow or stop. A shoulder closure is reported the same way as a full roadway closure with detour. Yet one does not affect traffic at all while the other may affect travelers’ choice of routes.

His point is that by reporting these changes as they occur it gives drivers the opportunity to avoid the area altogether. But the information must be posted as the changes occur and it must be accurate. If it is, drivers will learn to depend on it and change their routes. But if they get erroneous or inaccurate information, they will continue to drive along their intended path.

Ross finished by listing the details that are important to navigation apps, and this applies to current apps as well as future autonomous driving systems.

  1. Work zone status: scheduled versus equipment on sight and ready to work versus workers present.
  2. Map changes including lane shifts, capacity reductions of any kind, or roads closed.
  3. Queue details including slow or stopped traffic, delay times, early or late merge systems, and location of merge point.
  4. Presence of active flagging operations including location.
  5. Presence and location of attenuator trucks, especially when the attenuator is in the down or active position.

These are all details a system will require to make informed routing recommendations. And if the work does cause significant impacts, we prefer they avoid the area altogether. It is safer and more efficient for everyone involved: travelers, contractors, and for the owner/agency.

Our industry can supply this information today. So please encourage system designers to engineer with that in mind. We can all avoid a future full of expensive, time consuming, and even dangerous problems by getting the word out now.

ATSSA Innovation Update



The American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) Midyear meetings were held this year in Chicago, August 24th through the 26th. The Innovation Council meeting was especially interesting. Council Chairman Scott Covington along with several council members continue to work to make our voice heard in the automated & autonomous vehicle world (see August 1st post).

This year’s meeting included two great presentations. The first was by Lee Cole of Oldcastle Materials. Oldcastle is a large road building contractor with operations throughout North America. They suffered a series of work zone crashes that injured and even killed their workers and Mr. Cole was charged with finding a way to mitigate work zone intrusions.

The result is a system they call AWARE: Advance Warning & Risk Evasion. It was developed by the military to reduce casualties from roadside bombs and shoulder fired rockets. But the same tracking software was adapted to track vehicles approaching the work zone and through several complicated algorithms, determine if those vehicles would pass by safely, or if they might travel into the work area.

They are testing the system with eight paving crews this summer and hope to expand the program soon.  The system appears to be very cost-effective. And it is designed to avoid false alarms while  still giving workers time to get out of the way when intrusions do occur.


The second presentation was made by Jon Kruger, District Construction Director for Indiana DOT. Mr. Kruger began by saying his focus is on building roads. He didn’t know anything about work zone ITS systems a couple of years ago. But when they began work on several miles of I-94 near Chicago, he was asked to look at ways to mitigate impacts to traffic. They chose a queue warning system and it has worked out very well.

He now requires these systems on most of his paving projects. He said they do so 70% for safety and 30% for the data they generate. He said queue lengths are very unpredictable. He saw a big discrepancy between predicted queue lengths and actual. Volumes varied widely and alternate routes played a big role in that by drawing traffic away from the affected areas. They have even adjusted work windows when their real time data shows it is justified.

Neil Boudreau, the state traffic engineer for Massachusetts DOT agreed with Jon saying that they use the data they collect on each project to build a database. Eventually they will learn what happens when a certain type of project is performed on a particular route, or in a particular area. They then hope to have a more precise idea of when lane closures should be allowed and when they should not.


If you are involved in traffic engineering or with autonomous and automated vehicles, consider becoming involved with the ATSSA Innovation Council. They have become the point at which those two worlds interact with our work zone communityto make our roads safer.

The Automated Vehicles Symposium from a Work Zone Perspective


The Work Zone ITS Blog attended the Automated Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco July 20th. We came away with a very positive impression of the state of this practice. In previous posts we have expressed a concern that autonomous vehicle (AV) design must take work zones into consideration early in the process. That now appears to be the case. Work zones were mentioned in many of the plenary sessions along with the need for their systems to operate safely within them.

Breakout Session #20 – “Physical Infrastructure, Work Zones, and Digital Infrastructure” discussed this issue in more detail. Ross Sheckler of iCone explained the special problems inherent in work zones. We will get into his presentation in more detail in a future post, but he opened a lot of eyes. Audience members were asking questions, taking abundant notes, and were otherwise very engaged in the topic.

This means, of course, that we have their attention. It is good that we as the work zone industry have gotten involved. Now we need to make the most of it by making ourselves heard in this and other AV events.

As you may be aware, there is still a lively debate over two topics: 1) DSRC versus 5G communications, and 2) Whether automakers should include level 2 automation in production vehicles. Both of these topics are important to the work zone industry.

Let’s start with the communications issue. 4G is the digital wireless network you already use for your smart phone.  This is what we use today to control message signs and to upload portable sensor data.  A faster version known as 5G is rolling out in many areas. DSRC or Dedicated Short Range Communications is a radio spectrum (5.8 ghz) set aside, at least for now, for the exclusive use of the transportation industry. DSRC is faster and doesn’t have the latency problems associated with 4G. Vehicle to vehicle warnings occur instantly so if a car tells the one behind it that it is about to stop, the one following will get that warning soon enough to stop safely as well.

For most work zone applications 4G/5G works just fine. So manufacturers will likely stick with that. But if DSRC becomes more popular changes to our systems may become necessary. Work zone system designers should take this into consideration.

Level 2 automation is more of a problem. It is a suite of systems including adaptive cruise control, lane keeping, etc. that allows drivers to relinquish control for a period of time, say as they are driving on a freeway from one town to another.

The Tesla driver killed recently was using level 2 automation. He died when his car ran under a big rig turning in front of him. But he could as easily have run through a work zone. So this stage in automation must relinquish control automatically when approaching work zones. And it must do so early enough for the driver to take control and drive for enough time to regain his or her situational awareness. Human factors studies are just beginning to look at this, but it is clear this may take a minute or two. So on freeways, control would have to switch to the human driver at least two miles prior to the work zone.

How this will be accomplished is not yet clear. If all work zones are logged in real time into a central database such as a travel time system, it could be used to toggle control. Or perhaps a device mounted in the first message sign (normally located a couple of miles upstream of the work zone) could do the same thing.

These are all important and must be settled before AV technology can become mainstream. Events like the Autonomous Vehicle Summit will help move these conversations forward. So get involved and ensure that work zones are part of the discussion.

Will Pokémon Go Kill DSRC?

PokemonIf you have been paying attention at all during the past few days you have heard about the new game Pokémon Go. It is what is called an augmented reality game. It is wildly popular. Tens of millions have already downloaded the game in its first week. They wander around looking at a Google Earth image of their location that allows them to see and perhaps capture mythical creatures known as Pokémon.

What I found interesting is that the game is written. It works fairly well and will only get better with time. It is available in both iOS and Android versions. This will be a huge boost for 4G/5G V2X communications and may be a nail in the coffin for DSRC.

Think about it! Instead of Zubats, Pidgey, or Paras (varieties of Pokémon), imagine placing work zone devices in this virtual reality. Virtual cones and arrow boards would mark the exact spot where a work zone taper begins. Message signs could display the messages currently displayed on the corresponding message signs in the real world. And all of that information could be displayed in real time in vehicles approaching that location.

This could also be done in what you might call the opposite direction. Augmented WorkzoneA traffic control technician could be sent into the field with his S7 Android phone. Once he gets to the work area he wakes up his phone, clicks on the work zone app, and a Google earth image of what he is looking at in the real world pops up. But that image shows the work zone already set up. It might show the messages for the message signs. It would be very easy to place each advance sign where it belongs. Just look at the buildings, trees, etc on the virtual display and place the ROAD WORK AHEAD sign in the real world where it shows on the virtual display.

Traffic control plans would become a virtual reality file that designers would use to fit their plans to the real world conditions. Once done, it should work perfectly in the real world. It is like Computer Aided Design/Computer Aided Manufacturing – what you draw is what you get!

But I digress from my earlier point and it is an important one. Augmented reality is here. It is working on digital phones on 4G networks. There is no reason to start over again and do the same thing for DSRC. Granted, there are some applications where latency is an issue, like warning the vehicle behind you that you are about to stop, where DSRC still has advantages. But, thanks to Pokémon Go, I don’t believe infrastructure features such as we will need for work zones, will be working through DSRC.

Why Aren’t Queue Warning Systems Used On Every Project?

Those of us that have been in the work zone ITS industry for several years understand that agencies don’t change quickly. New technology must be tested and evaluated before it is used on a more regular basis. We get that. But we are now at the point where queue warning systems should be included on every project where frequent and dynamic queuing is expected.

WZcrashesStudies by the Texas Transportation Institute have shown a reduction in rear end crashes of as much as 45%. Crash severity is reduced as well. Other states including Illinois have also seen a dramatic decrease in crash frequency and severity.

These systems are inexpensive and the benefits are substantial. Avoid just one lawsuit by using queue warning and that savings will more than pay for the cost of the system. So it does not matter how long the project lasts. Projects lasting only a few days could deploy a system for something like $700 per day.Projects months long would pay something like $10,000 per month. Those prices include the sensors, message signs, communications costs, design, set-up, etc.

One law suit will cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.  It really is that simple. And that doesn’t take into account all of the other benefits. Fewer crashes mean the project is completed faster. Motorists are happier with the DOT because they aren’t experiencing long delays. And you will have the data to meet the Federal Work Zone Safety & Mobility Rule requirements for work zone performance measurement.

There has been progress. Texas is moving toward statewide use of queue warning systems. Illinois is also. Several other states are working on following suit. But most states only use them on special high impact projects. Some don’t use them at all.

So, I really do want to know. What is holding you state folks back? Why don’t you use these everywhere? I sincerely want to know. Please comment on this post. Let’s talk about it. Perhaps as a group we can find ways around the road blocks you face. And together we can significantly reduce the single largest cause of work zone fatalities nationwide.