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State road budget allots $2.7 million to high-tech gear

By Noel Oman

This article was published August 4, 2014 at 3:58 a.m.

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Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/RICK MCFARLAND--08/03/14-- An Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department dynamic message sign over Westbound I-30 approaching West 6th St. in Little Rock Sunday. The department is enlisting a consultant to develop an intelligent transportation system to improve and monitor traffic flow.

For the first time, the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department has a line item in its budget -- totaling $2.7 million -- dedicated to dynamic message signs, traffic cameras and other intelligent transportation system equipment to monitor and improve traffic flow.

A further illustration of the newfound commitment to the high-tech gadgetry came last month when the Arkansas Highway Commission gave the agency the go-ahead to enlist a consultant to more fully develop its intelligent transportation systems architecture.

The consultant will be directed to look into developing a statewide automated work-zone information system for active and planned construction projects and come up with recommendations for a statewide traffic management center.

And in its construction projects to be awarded contracts in September, the department will require the winning contractors to develop automated work-zone information systems to operate as part of the requirement to control traffic.

In all, the department has committed $27 million over the next 10 years to intelligent transportation systems, said Randy Ort, an agency spokesman.

The moves come at the same time that the department is increasing its emphasis on maintaining its existing highway system. The budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 shifted $18 million to hire 200 additional full-time employees, purchase new equipment, and give the state's 10 highway maintenance districts more money to buy material such as sand and salt.

The new budget was prepared after an unusually harsh winter during which traffic on major corridors ground to a halt and the department's handling of the ice and snow provoked rare criticism from Gov. Mike Beebe and others.

The department's 2014-15 budget also includes a $3 million reserve fund the districts would be able to tap if they exhaust their budgets for material purchases, as one district did this winter.

The new emphasis on intelligent transportation systems fits in with the renewed focus on maintenance, Ort said.

"It is part of the big picture of taking better care of what we already have," he said.

And it doesn't hurt that the Federal Highway Administration is requiring states to develop better and more real-time information for motorists.

Until now, Ort said, the department "dabbled" in intelligent transportation systems.

Four years ago, the department was assisting in operating 47 electronic message boards concentrated in central Arkansas, thanks in part to several electronic message boards the federal government set up in the event the 150,000 people living within 35 miles of the Pine Bluff Arsenal had to be evacuated because of a catastrophic event at the facility. The arsenal's effort to incinerate nearly 4,000 tons of nerve gas wound down in 2010, at which time the electronic signs were turned over to the Highway Department.

Other signs already in place were obtained as part of a program designed to spread the word quickly about missing children. The Morgan Nick Amber Alert System is named after a 6-year-old girl who was abducted from an Alma baseball park in 1995. She was never found.

All told, the department now has 69 permanently mounted dynamic message signs across the state, 34 traffic cameras and 10 permanent locations for highway advisory radio stations available, according to an inventory Ort supplied. The department's research section has another 16 cameras, but they aren't available to the rest of the agency. The department also has some portable dynamic message boards and radio transmitters.

The dynamic message boards can be used to display traffic times, traffic advisories, unplanned incidents, maintenance or construction activities, or weather-advisories and alerts, Scott Bennett, the agency director, told commission members in a briefing last month.

The cameras can be used to observe traffic flows and verify incidents affecting traffic and can eventually be monitored from the traffic management center, he said. The radios are used to distribute more detailed information than can be displayed on dynamic message boards, including the cause of the traffic problem, possible alternate routes and expected lengths of delays.

The department also hopes to develop its cameras to the point where motorists will be able to view traffic on iDriveArkansas.com, the department's relatively new website geared toward motorists and traffic information. The cameras can currently only be viewed by department personnel. The new website, which features construction project locations and real-time traffic and weather, has already had 1.5 million visitors in less than a year of operation, according to Ort.

The traffic management center is in the early stages of development. Agency officials don't know yet where it will be built and suggest it could be built as part of a joint effort with another agency, such as the Arkansas State Police.

The department's intelligent transportation systems initiative also includes plans to deploy road weather information systems that will collect real-time weather information at strategic locations, Bennett said. The systems could collect pavement surface temperate and conditions and other weather data that the department could use to deploy winter road treatments.

The state intelligent transportation systems comes as local agencies are developing their own architecture. Metroplan, the long-range transportation planning agency for central Arkansas, recently awarded grants totaling $4.5 million that agency officials say will use technology to optimize transportation systems already in place.

The bulk of the money -- nearly $4 million -- will be used to install adaptive traffic-signal systems that will enable the lights to automatically synchronize themselves after assessing traffic in real time and communicating with other traffic signals to keep traffic flowing more efficiently. The system will be installed on University Avenue in Little Rock; Maumelle Boulevard in North Little Rock, Maumelle and Pulaski County; Military Road in Benton; and Dave Ward Drive in Conway.

Additionally, a $600,000 grant will allow the Central Arkansas Transit Authority to provide real-time information on bus arrivals for riders who have cellphones. The system also will provide enhanced Web resources for more efficient online customer-trip planning. Passengers will have the capability to view exact bus locations, as well as enroll in a subscription-based service-alert system to keep passengers informed about their selected routes.

The project will include Wi-Fi access for passengers aboard CATA buses and hardware at the downtown Travel Center to display bus route arrival and location information.

Intelligent transportation systems are the wave of the future in the era of more austere transportation budgets, said Casey Covington, a transportation planner for Metroplan.

"Our plan emphasizes low-cost improvements," Covington said. "You can get better efficiency out of what you already have and improve traffic."

Metro on 08/04/2014

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CPLK9 says... August 4, 2014 at 11:39 a.m.

"$2.7 million to high tech gear...", "$700,000 to study Tolling I-40 to Memphis..." not ONE THIN DIME TO RAIL AT ALL. So HERE'S an interesting (and sad) fact. Springfield, IL, the Capital of Illinois, home of the Lincoln Presidential Center & Library, and with a population of 117,126, boarded 197,400 passengers at its Amtrak station in 2013. Little Rock, AR, the Capital of Arkansas, home of the Clinton Presidential Center, and with a population of 196,537, boarded 21,846 passengers at its Amtrak Station. Even more appalling? The 50 mile radius metro population of Little Rock (at 977,316) is NEARLY DOUBLE that of Springfield, IL (at 567,477). So, with twice the population (but only 1/5 the Amtrak service-and it's in the middle of the night, no less), we board 1/9th the passenger count.

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