Gridlocked no more? Researchers seek a new wayMarch 14, 2014
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Sia Ardekana, a civil engineering professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, is part of a massive traffic study that could change the way we drive.
A. Lee Graham
North Texas motorists may not realize it, but since October they have traveled a “living laboratory” designed to minimize gridlock and empower commuters.
“It’s all about integration of data,” said Koorosh Olyai, a former Dallas Area Rapid Transit official who spearheaded the plan in 2006.
As one of only two cities piloting the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Integrated Corridor Management System (the other is San Diego), Dallas faced formidable odds. That’s because DART alone coordinated North Texas efforts in what Olyai described as a bureaucratic mission impossible.
“The whole point was ‘put your badges away,’” Olyai said of DART and other project partners’ respective affiliations. “Don’t represent DART, don’t represent the city of Richardson, don’t represent the city of Plano; represent the good of the people, what’s good for transportation.”
What’s good for transportation, according to Olyai, is a $12 million, multi-agency pilot program to give drivers along U.S. 75 between downtown Dallas and Texas 121online tools and overhead signs that work seamlessly in warning of traffic slowdowns and accidents.
But it’s more than that. The plan aims to connect the traffic management systems of several cities and governmental agencies and find ways for them to work as one, seamlessly coordinating technologies that, historically, have served their respective constituencies but not the entire Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“That’s the idea: finding ways for a motorist, say, along U.S. 75 to know about an accident on Interstate 30 west of downtown Dallas, for example,” said Sia Ardekani, a civil engineering professor at the University of Texas at Arlington who assisted in the project.
Ardekani and his team worked with DART, the North Central Texas Council of Governments, the Texas Department of Transportation, North Texas Turnpike Authority and the cities of Dallas, Plano, Richardson and University Park in making the commute – and planning for the daily slog – easier for North Texas motorists.
While results of the pilot program have not been analyzed – an evaluation is planned later this year – motorists can already notice a difference.
They can read traffic alerts on overhead message signs and keep track of traffic snarls in real time via smartphone technology. Information collected from road sensors that have been in operation for years is used to help provide ongoing data for drivers.
Such tools are so integral to drivers’ daily routine that many may not realize they’ve only enjoyed such navigation options since October.
They also save 981,000 gallons of fuel annually, according to Olyai. That’s fuel otherwise spent idling in traffic. “And that’s just for the 75 corridor,” he pointed out.
In fact, motorists can expect a 20-to-1 rate of return, or $20 in benefits for every dollar spent, in the program’s first decade of operation, Olyai said. That’s $270 million saved in emissions, shorter routes, fuel savings and other costs. But that’s if the program lasts 10 or more years.
“Long-term funding of the program will need to include more regional partners other than DART,” said Todd Plesko, the agency’s vice president of planning and development.
About $6.2 million of the project costs is funded by the U.S Department of Transportation, with DART paying most of the rest.
Though Fort Worth is not part of the U.S. 75 pilot project, the city and other Tarrant County entities could become involved in the future, Plesko said. Still, those on the 817 side of the Metroplex already enjoy some fruits of the initiative.
“The traveler information system definitely includes Tarrant County and Fort Worth,” said Plesko, referring to the DFW 5-1-1 system’s use of data from Ardekani’s UT Arlington research team to aid motorists.
“Mobility is a big issue in our area, and this data is critical is giving motorists forewarning and options to avoid the really bad traffic situations,” Ardekani said.
Already-dense congestion is expected to worsen. According to the North Central Texas Council of Governments, Dallas-Fort Worth motorists rack up more than 175 million miles and endure 1.1 million hours in traffic gridlock each day. That boosts travel time by more than 31 percent at a yearly cost of $4.5 billion, according to NCTCOG. Those figures are expected to double by 2035.
With freeway expansion and improvements constantly trailing user demand, solutions for congestion lie with management, not new infrastructure, Olyai said.
“Federal dollars are dwindling, and the need for additional capacity is going to be there. What we need, and what this program provides, is better management.”
More information on the Integrated Corridor Management System is available at http://www.its.dot.gov/icms/pioneer_dallas.htm