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I-91 traffic billboards not up to speed

CAROL LOLLIS
T
Timothy W. Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission in Springfield says the smart sign traffic information system is a project that has not yet lived up to its potential in the western part of the state.

CAROL LOLLIS T Timothy W. Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission in Springfield says the smart sign traffic information system is a project that has not yet lived up to its potential in the western part of the state.

NORTHAMPTON — The Interstate 91 corridor in Holyoke and Springfield was riddled with weather-related accidents Monday morning but commuters traveling from the north reported no advance warning.

Four years after a system designed to include 17 electronic billboards displaying traffic information from more than 30 adjustable closed-circuit cameras along the I-91 corridor, local motorists are still waiting for that system to live up to its billing of providing useful information about traffic conditions.

While the Massachusetts Department of Transportation has made advancements to its traffic alert systems statewide, improvements to the real-time message-board system on the I-91 stretch between Holyoke and the Vermont border appear to be lagging. For the most part, travelers pass by a series of seven or eight portable messaging boards with occasional information, but often find no alerts when traffic problems occur just miles down the road.

On Monday, sleet and icy road conditions caused multiple accidents in Holyoke and about a dozen minor motor vehicle accidents in the greater Springfield along I-91, Interstate 291 and Route 47, according to the Massachusetts State Police.

The accidents occurred in about a two-hour span beginning around 6:50 a.m. They caused delays and backed up traffic in areas along I-91, including in Holyoke with a temporary lane closure, but no real-time information was available to commuters heading into those messy conditions from the north. Other incidents have preceded this week’s road delays, including lane shutdowns and traffic fiascoes related to short-term construction projects that have come without warning.

“This is one of those projects that everyone wants to get done but keeps getting pushed back for lack of adequate funding,” said Timothy W. Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission in Springfield. “Everybody’s frustrated about it, including the folks at MassDOT and the District 2 office.” That state highway office is in Northampton near the Hatfield line.

Brennan said the so-called intelligent transportation system is often discussed by the Pioneer Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization, the governmental body that approves federally funded projects in Hampshire and Hampden counties.

He said he hopes the upcoming I-91 viaduct deck replacement project in Springfield becomes a catalyst for completing the real-time traffic information system for commuters north of Holyoke. The $200 million deck project is scheduled to begin later this year.

“I think it’s just been a matter of getting sufficient resources to connect the technology,” Brennan surmised.

State highway officials, however, say the real-time messaging boards are functional. The boards along the northern I-91 corridor provide information about traffic problems, though not all minor accidents rise to the level of message alerts, they said.

“They’re not used for every crash,” Michael Verseckes, a MassDOT spokesman said Tuesday. “The incident will have to rise to a certain level for these (message boards) to be activated. The system is functioning as it’s supposed to,” adding that, “there’s always room for improvement on our end.”

Verseckes did say the traffic information captured by the many cameras installed along I-91 and fed to state highway offices and other agencies has been a major improvement for coordinating highway, public safety and emergency personnel responses when problem occur.

“This is absolutely leaps and bounds beyond what was in place before,” he said.

Project unveiled, shelved

On Nov. 6, 2008, local, state and federal officials gathered in Northampton to celebrate the start of a 26-month project to provide real-time traffic information along 58 miles of highway in the area, including all but the four northernmost miles of I-91 in Massachusetts. The project was tied to a $30.7 million fiber-optic cable subsequently laid along sections of I-91, including $8.1 million in federal money secured by former U.S. Rep John W. Olver.

State highway officials said motorists would be able to rely on instant information by 2010, alerting them to accidents or other problems on the road, which in turn could prevent secondary accidents and suggest alternative routes.

Many Valley motorists have expected more than the system they see in place.

There are some ways to find out road conditions — by logging on to a state website. But that site is not equipped to give information about road conditions north of Holyoke because cameras north of Exit 14 in Holyoke are not yet feeding into the website.

Officials say the cameras that were installed are up and running, and the feeds are sent to its Highway Operations Center in Boston and District 2 office in Northampton. Incidents are monitored on those cameras and images from many of the cameras are fed with still shots every eight to 10 seconds on Mass511.com, the state’s traveler information system.

A 511 call-in system allows users to customize travel alerts for weekday and weekend travel and provides real-time detailed traffic information for all major routes in Massachusetts.

The cameras installed along I-91 about four years ago start from the south near the Connecticut border and extend to Bernardston, but many are not feeding into the state’s website because bandwidth issues have limited the amount of video the state transportation department can post, according to MassDOT.

“We just don’t have the capacity to have all the cameras up and running and streaming live,” Verseckes, the transportation department spokesman, said.

Given the limited bandwidth, he said, the state had to make choices about which cameras to feed to the website. The ones south of Holyoke on 91 and around 291, he said, “are just the cameras that would have the most value to people.”

In January, MassDOT announced it was overhauling how it streams live traffic video when it hired TrafficLand, an aggregator and distributor of live traffic video. The company is expected to serve live video from approximately 350 MassDOT roadside traffic cameras to the department’s website, www.massdot.state.ma.us. The number of cameras is expected to grow by year’s end.

Lawrence Nelson, CEO of TrafficLand, said in a statement that the real-time video from the cameras will be “a valuable resource for commuters and others under normal conditions, and from our experience working with other states, we know it will be invaluable during severe weather events.”

“We want to make this technology more readily available and accessible to people to put it to the best use,” Verseckes said. “It’s a way to totally reinvent how it’s done.”

According to MassDOT, the fiber-optic backbone installed along I-91 several years ago has allowed for the portable message boards used today for traffic incident management, weather-related and public safety information such as Amber Alerts.

He said MassDOT is phasing out these message boards and moving toward fixed signs on the roadside as part of a series of improvements that also include use of Bluetooth sensor technology that will provide motorists with information about expected travel times to destinations along the state’s highway network.

“We will be moving to a permanent system ...” Verseckes told the Gazette. “The I-91 corridor is certainly part of that plan.”

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