Adapting Existing Technology to Unusual Traffic Problems

The work zone ITS industry has produced many creative ways to help mitigate the impacts to traffic from work zones and to protect workers from that same traffic. But often the problems we solve aren’t the same ones we set out to address. This is true for most industries when they encounter new technology.

According to author H. W. Brand it was true for the movie industry as well. When the first “talkies” were released, “Sam Warner (of Warner Brothers’ fame) convinced his brothers to purchase a technology that allowed the attachment of sound to recording film.” “The initial appeal was that sound would permit theaters to dispense with the orchestras that played accompaniment to otherwise silent films.” Today we can’t imagine movies without the sounds of explosions, gun fire, and, of course, dialogue.  But they were focused on the economic benefits of the technology and so missed what we all see as the obvious artistic advantages.

The same is often true in our industry. Our technologies are more mature now, though new ideas are introduced every day. But too often we miss good opportunities to improve the safety or efficiency of our roads because we don’t have a prepackaged system ready to deploy.

In fact, we do have them ready. We just don’t think it through far enough. Most of our systems use sensors to measure traffic flow, then compare that data to a set of rules, which then trigger outputs like messages to message signs, or alarms at a traffic management center. So it does not matter what your traffic concern is, a system can probably be created to address it. And while such a system could be called “custom”, it won’t normally be saddled with the costs and lead times normally associated with custom systems.

Redding Map

A good example was a demo project done for Caltrans a few years ago. They were closing one of their busiest ramps in Redding for reconstruction. The plan called for them to send traffic to alternate ramps. But no one of those was capable of handling the volumes at the closed ramp. Road-Tech proposed a simple solution. A sensor was placed on each of the alternate ramps. And portable changeable message signs directed traffic to the best alternate. As traffic backed up on the first alternate ramp the sensor detected the stopped traffic. That caused the system to change the message signs to recommend the second alternate ramp. If that ramp backed up traffic was sent to a third alternate ramp.

It was simple, inexpensive, and worked very well. The only problem encountered was public outreach efforts scared everyone away. So the volumes were never as high as expected. But this does show what can be done with the tools we already have. No one talks about alternate ramp systems. But it turns out we had one ready to go. We just didn’t know it.

Next time you are faced with a traffic problem, try to imagine a rule. That rule would say, “If traffic does X, make Y happen.” So if traffic slows I want to change the message signs to warn of STOPPED TRAFFIC AHEAD. Or if average traffic speeds exceed 75 MPH, I want to send an alarm to the police department. If you can come up with a rule, a solution is probably already available. Keep that in mind and you’ll be surprised what can be done!

The Illinois Model for Procurement of Work Zone ITS

Yesterday I had the pleasure of sitting in on yet another Smarter Work Zones webinar from the Every Day Counts folks. This was lucky number 13 in this wonderful series and looked at procurement of work zone ITS. You can download the recording in a few days at: https://www.workzonesafety.org/swz/webinars

Early in the webinar an attendee, Charles Martin, made a statement in the chat box that I thought helped focus the discussion. I believe he once worked for Maryland SHA and that experience and perspective showed through when he said, “I find that the most complicated issue to determining how to fund adding SWZ’s often it is not one project driving the need, but rather several. One may have Fed-aide, and others may not. (N)one of the projects may have funding to add ITS.”

The webinar that followed may not have answered his concerns completely, but it did offer several innovative options that should work in most situations.

Todd Peterson of FHWA began by giving an overview of procurement methods and explained that the best option depends on the type of work zone ITS you plan to use. Jerry Ullman of Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) ran through the different contracting methods that three states (Massachusetts, Texas and Iowa) have used and shared some lessons learned. Finally, Matthew Daeda of Illinois DOT went into detail on his state’s approach and that’s what we will talk about today.

Illinois uses a two level approach to procurement of work zone ITS. For larger contracts and longer term projects they try to identify the need as early in the process as possible. This is usually accomplished as a lump sum line item in the bid documents. Details regarding the types and quantities of devices are included in the special provisions. When they know they will have serious traffic impacts, they include WZITS and other mitigation strategies in the bid documents.

They will also add WZITS under change order when impacts are greater than expected. Again this is done with the same language they use when it is included in the bid.

Illinois

But for smaller projects and short duration traffic impacts, they are now using an on-call contract. Each district advertises a bid for this on-call service. Districts 1, 8 and 9 already have three year contracts in place. Districts 2, 3 and 5 have or will soon have contracts in place. Districts 4, 6 and 7 will follow suit very soon. The on-call work zone ITS is paid for using HSIP funding.

These on-call contracts are intended to provide queue warning for projects with a duration of two weeks or less. In District 1 (Chicago) and 8 (St Louis) the vendor supplies 4 changeable message signs and 4 sensors. In more rural District 9 the vendor supplies 1 changeable message sign and 4 sensors. Each district adjusts the quantities to fit the needs of that district. District 9 includes rates for monthly rentals. Districts 1 and 8 only include daily and weekly rates.

This contracting method offers several advantages:

  1. The state only pays when the system is needed.
  2. They work directly with the vendor and that greatly improves communication.
  3. Staff has direct access to the system data and to make changes.
  4. By bidding for each district local companies are more likely to win, thus reducing response time.

Mr. Daeda offered several lessons learned. He said that one vendor installed software in their TMC that did not work well with their firewall. In the future he would like to require vendors to install and test any software before getting a notice to proceed.

He would like a pay item for supplemental devices. Then he could add more sensors or message signs when they are needed.

When deployments run over a month, they currently pay for a month at the monthly rate and for additional days beyond that at higher daily and weekly rates. Mr. Daeda wants to change that going forward to be at a percentage of the monthly rate once the system has been out for more than a month.

Matthew plans to clarify language regarding relocation of devices. And there have been times when he wished he could add camera trailers.

In our last blog post, “The State of the Work Zone ITS Industry”, we talked about the many ways in which 2015 was a landmark year. This webinar is a perfect example of that. These EDC events just keep getting better. The speakers were all on topic and very professional. The webinar service worked without interruption. And the attendees asked great questions.  If you haven’t watched them yet, you are missing out on a great experience!