Tired of being stuck in rush hour bumper-to-bumper traffic? If you’re in Virginia, some relief may be on the way.

A pilot project that uses electronic message signs to display travel times for various locations along Interstate 66 between the Capital Beltway and Gainesville will begin Aug. 22. Virginia officials hope the signs reduce congestion and stress for commuters, allowing them to make a decision on whether to stay on I-66 or use an alternate route to get to their destination.

The I-66 Travel Times pilot project will be administered by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) over a period of two months. It involves three different signage locations on the I-66 corridor.

“The main goal is to provide motorists with reliable information well in advance of decision-making points,” said Jennifer McCord, spokesperson for VDOT. “If they see something like ’10 miles, 10 minutes to I-495,’ then they know traffic is moving well. But if they see ’10 miles, 30 minutes to I-495,’ they ... can take an alternate route or [change] their travel plans.”

The signs will be active from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends and pilot project will initially involve signs at the following areas:

• I-66 East, just east of Route 28 to display the travel time to I-495

• I-66 West, just west of Route 50 to display the travel time to Gainesville

• I-66 West, just west of Route 7100, to display the travel time to Gainesville

McCord said that VDOT decided not to run the signs overnight, since there are fewer cars on the road and the information wouldn’t be as accurate. The project will be evaluated by VDOT officials and by the public during the two month trial. Motorists can submit feedback online or via phone.

Computing the Times

The data to compute the travel times comes from Inrix Inc., a traffic information provider. Inrix gathers data from a variety of sources, including road sensors, anonymous data from commercial vehicles and information from embedded in-car communications systems, such as Ford Motor Company’s SYNC.

The company also has a free smartphone app called Inrix Traffic, where people are provided traffic information in exchange for the passive, anonymous data the company uses to compute travel times. The app is available for download for the iPhone, Blackberry, Android and Windows 7 devices.

“Simply put, at the core, whether it is an embedded device in the vehicle or a mobile handset, we get a timestamp, a location, latitude and longitude, a heading with some degree of precision and an instantaneous speed,” explained Rick Schuman, vice president of public sector for Inrix. “We literally get tens of billions of those readings a month and we aggregate and analyze all of it.”

Schuman said the average speed and travel times are put together for each road segment the company monitors and sent to customers, such as VDOT.

McCord explained that once traffic controllers at the Public Safety Transportation Operations Center in Fairfax County, Va., has the data from Inrix in its traffic management system, a software program designed by Open Roads Consulting allows VDOT to have the average travel times automatically displayed on the electronic signs. The software costs the state approximately $435,000, and according to McCord, the rest of the pilot project uses existing resources. The state already had an existing agreement with Inrix to use the company’s data and the Operations Center will provide the staff to monitor and control the signs.

The signs are refreshed every five minutes to account for any new information and can also be manually operated if a problem arises.

“It’s all automated. However, there are pieces built into the software that can take those messages down if there is a more important one that needs to be displayed,” McCord said, referring to accidents or problems on the roadway. “If there is something that looks off with the data, if the travel times are way outside of a normal range, [the software] flags it so our operators know to look at it.”

A Look Ahead

If the project is deemed a success, VDOT hopes to expand the signs throughout the state. In addition, McCord revealed that VDOT hopes that in the future it can expand where they get travel time data from, adding “something like a Bluetooth sensor that would pick up an anonymous signal from cars.”

In addition, the state hopes to tie the travel times into its existing 511 system so that people can view travel times before getting on the road entirely.

“We know it is not the number one way to reduce congestion on I-66, but it is a way to inform motorists and help them make a decision on their route,” McCord said.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.