Virginia DOT Seeks Infrared Sensors to Keep Traffic Flowing

After redesigning a tunnel that lowered an underpass, semi trucks that clipped their roofs would force traffic to stop while they turned around, causing major delays. But sensors could send a message warning trucks too large to fit to avoid the underpass.

by Jordan Pascale, The Virginian-Pilot / January 26, 2016

(TNS) -- Traffic delays cost everyone time and money.

In 2014, drivers sat in 15.7 million hours of delay on Virginia interstates, costing $376 million in lost productivity, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

VDOT officials are using everything in their toolbox to reduce those numbers – anything from high-occupancy toll lanes to getting more people on public transportation to construction solutions to technology.

One of the biggest disruptions in the state is caused when an oversized truck tries to enter the westbound Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel from Norfolk to the Peninsula. That tunnel is a foot shorter than the newer eastbound tunnel and trucks taller than 13 feet, 6 inches can’t fit.

If they ignore multiple height restriction signs and try to go through, traffic has to stop in both directions so the rigs can turn around or proceed through the taller, eastbound side. It can take up to 15 minutes to get traffic moving again.

It happened 1,600 times in 2015 – an average of more than 4 times a day – and causes headaches for drivers waiting in traffic.

VDOT is asking the Commonwealth Transportation Board for $900,000 to install high-tech detection systems on westbound I-64 before trucks even get close to the HRBT. An infrared beam is attached to a pole at a set height and trips flashing signs and an audible alarm for drivers with trucks that are too tall.

Drivers currently have to pull over to an inspection station to determine if the vehicle can continue or needs to exit and find an alternative route. Setting up detection systems earlier would avoid the 15-minute fiasco at the mouth of the HRBT.

The upgrade is one of a slew of technological projects across the state that would cost $75 million. Another $7 million project would upgrade tunnel traffic safety systems to improve throughput and reduce bottlenecks at the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel. It would add dynamic signs that could tell drivers to merge now or slow speeds because of traffic problems.

A $14.5 million project would add cameras, sensors and variable speed limit signs to manage traffic headed toward the HRBT.

Layne lectures planning group on funding law, transportation needs

Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne proselytized on the benefits of HB2 funding at a Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization meeting Thursday. HB2, signed into law in 2014, is the new process that uses data to figure out the best bang for taxpayer dollar in transportation projects.

Some notes:

HB2 fully funds every project to completion. In the past, money would be given toward a study or environmental work only to be left out in the cold when it came to funding construction.

Its gives planners more time than ever, five months, to examine the project scores and get public input.

Layne says it’s the most transparent, objective process out there, with little room for backroom dealings or administrative interference.

Hampton Roads had some of the lowest cost/benefit scores in the state, largely because of the number of water crossings it submitted. Layne called it an inherent disadvantage because the cost to build a bridge or tunnel is many times higher than a regular road that moves the same amount of people.

On tolls: “There’s no way to deliver this plan without tolls ... that doesn’t mean we can’t be smart about it,” Layne said. “Tolls should be about policy and traffic management, not revenue generation.”

Finishing up

During the technology discussion at the Commonwealth Transportation Board, members and staff talked about the increase of Google Maps and the 511 mobile app to get traffic information. At one point they suggested getting rid of the 511 phone option in the next few years as usage declines. Calling for traffic info is totally out of date, but you can’t overlook non-smartphone users or those who can’t afford them.

The Federal Highway Administration is updating and asking for public comment on its Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. That’s the huge document that outlines what size a stop sign needs to be and calculates how much “walk time” an intersection needs. The manual is geared toward traffic engineers and planners, and is about as wonky as you can get, but it is kind of interesting to take a peek into the reasons our environment is built the way it is.

Get this: 47 percent of Hampton Roads commuters work in a city outside where they live. That puts Hampton Roads 13th highest out of 381 metro areas in the U.S. in share of commuters that leave their home community to travel to work. More on that next month.

©2016 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.