If you ever wanted the power to predict a traffic jam before you’re stuck in one, wait until you see what’s coming down the turnpike in New Jersey.

By early 2011, motorists on two of America’s busiest roadways will have access to a high-tech tool that forecasts potential congestion up to 10 minutes in advance. Acquired by the Turnpike Authority, the Traffic Prediction Tool uses complex algorithms to calculate the chances of gridlock with up to 93 percent accuracy, much the same way meteorologists forecast the weather.

On the Garden State Parkway — the busiest toll road in the country, according to the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association — and the New Jersey Turnpike (which ranks fifth), drivers will soon see these alerts on highway message signs and via subscriptions, Web-based services and via the highway advisory radio.

Although drivers currently receive real-time traffic alerts, the new technology will analyze road conditions against historical traffic patterns to generate the forecasts, according to Brian Gorman, the authority’s director of technology.

“During peak travel times, we find that for every minute of significant congestion, we can create a mile of backup on the roadway,” Gorman said. “This technology allows us to post the information 10 minutes sooner and give motorists the opportunity to make appropriate decisions.”

Is traffic forecasting the future of transportation?

While the U.S. at large has yet to adopt this tool, Gorman said, Singapore and Stockholm already use the technology. To test it out, the Turnpike Authority launched an in-house pilot earlier this year. The trial examined Traffic Operations Center data from two traffic-heavy days and measured that against the system’s forecasts.

Highway officials found that the system could forecast traffic jams with 93 percent accuracy on the parkway and 90 percent on the turnpike. Why the difference? “Different roadways have different characteristics, like personalities,” Gorman said. “Each roadway’s geometries allow drivers to have different behaviors, which impacts congestion.”

The turnpike especially has unique characteristics, including a dual roadway configuration that splits into east and west spurs in the Newark area and reconnects near the George Washington Bridge. But the two roadways share a common trait: bottlenecks. In 2009, 396 million vehicles traveled on the parkway and 234 million on the turnpike, according to highway officials.

For the forecasting tool, the Turnpike Authority agreed to pay more than $652,000 in phases to En Pointe Technologies Sales Inc. of California for licensing, implementation and a year of technical support. After that, the authority will continue to pay annual maintenance fees.

Motorists will also be able to receive forecasting alerts via text message; however, Gorman said that drivers should not view texts while behind the wheel because the authority does not support distracted driving.

While the technology can’t prevent incidents, he added, a forecasting tool will help drivers make more informed decisions about how to get to where they want to go.

“We have the opportunity to provide the best route information in advance of actual congestion,” Gorman said. “Call it customer service.”

Russell Nichols  |  Staff Writer