Information superhighway expands its smarts in South Florida
By Catherine Lackner
In its quest to untangle South Florida's snarled traffic, the Florida Department of Transportation is expanding its Smart Route System, said Angel Reanos, transportation department operations engineer.
Smart Route, a state-funded initiative introduced last May, delivers real-time traffic information through a network of roadside signs, phone lines and a website.
Fourteen signs distributed in Miami-Dade County along Interstate 95, State Road 826, Florida's Turnpike and other major arteries warn travelers of delays. The transportation department's Miami office, which covers Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, is in the process of extending the sign network into the Florida Keys and along portions of SR 826.
Eventually, Mr. Reanos said, there will be 15 signs in the two counties.
He said the concentration of signs is heaviest now near the Golden Glades interchange, where I-95, the Florida Turnpike, state roads 826 and 9, and US 441 converge.
"We have all of the approaches to the Golden Glades interchange covered because that is an area of concern," Mr. Reanos said. "We need drivers in that area to be particularly aware of what traffic conditions are."
Accident reports flow into the department office and central computer center from police, from 30 "road rangers" the department employs to help stranded drivers and from motorists, he said.
"We may confirm an incident with a law enforcement agency if it's reported by a motorist," Mr. Reanos said.
There's also a network of 40 closed-circuit cameras mounted atop 10 tall poles throughout Miami-Dade County, he said.
Drivers can check a designated website before they leave home or can call for information on various roads. Within six months, callers will be able to access the system by dialing 511 in Miami-Dade, Monroe and Broward counties, Mr. Reanos said.
The billboards will still be important, he said because "actually, not everyone has access to a cell phone."
Some drivers are confused or frustrated because the signs are left blank when there is no traffic delay posted, he said.
"We leave the signs online, but empty, when we don't have any information, rather than to run ads on them - which we can't do by law anyway - or post a message like 'buckle up.' We feel if we did that, the signs would become more like billboards."
Drivers would get used to the messages and visually tune them out, he said. "People would lose interest and we would lose the impact of the signs."
Eventually, the state will have a central uniform computer center.
"If we had to evacuate our center because of a hurricane or for some other reason, they could take over and run the whole system," Mr. Reanos said.
Of more than $396 million funded statewide for the electronic systems, $110 million is committed, meaning work is under way or being bid.
The department recently broke ground on a command center adjacent to its offices at 1000 NW 111th Ave., Mr. Reanos said. When completed next year, the center is to house the transportation department, offices of the Florida Highway Patrol and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and possibly another law enforcement agency.
"Basically, it will host all of the equipment we need to run the system," Mr. Reanos said. "It's a state-of-the-art facility of about 32,000 square feet, with a video wall and servers, along with the computer equipment."
Also in the works, he said, are 27 more cameras, four added signs, upgraded software and detector stations - sensors on the roadway that detect traffic slowdowns.
The next phase, to be completed in 2005, will place eight more arterial signs and nine freeway signs throughout Miami-Dade and Monroe counties and incorporate 28 "trail blazers," automated signs that warn of road closures and direct drivers through detours.
Response has been encouraging, Mr. Reanos said. In an early advertising campaign, he said, messages posted on the electronic signs from 6:30-9 a.m. and 4:30-7 p.m. urged callers to "call before you drive" for information on accidents and construction delays.
"Before the campaign, we were getting 300 to 350 calls per day," Mr. Reanos said. "After the message went up, the call volume doubled and, by the end of the campaign, we saw a four-fold increase in the number of calls."
Details: (305) 914-3838, in Broward, (866) 914-3838 or on the Internet at smartraveler.com.