Killer Roads: Signs, cameras installed on I-75 meant to keep drivers informed, safe

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Watching the road for I-75 drivers

Workers monitor traffic cams, message drivers with ...

Second of a three-day series

The cameras are rolling, and so far, the traffic is, too.

It’s been almost three weeks since the new Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) on Interstate 75 went live. It cost $35 million to build the almost 50,000-square-foot center at the Daniels Parkway rest area and install the system on the not quite 100 miles of I-75 from the Broward County line to the Charlotte County line.

Carlos Bonilla, ITS operations manager for the state in Southwest Florida, said the center will pay for itself in savings for motorists.

“Delays in traffic cost millions of dollars,” Bonilla said. “Sitting in traffic costs money, especially for the trucking industry.”

That’s the idea behind what the state calls the SWIFT Sunguide Center, Bonilla said, but not the whole idea.

“It’s to make sure everybody gets home safe,” he said.

SWIFT is the Southwest Interagency Facility for Transportation. The new building will eventually house the Fort Myers contingent of Florida Highway Patrol troopers and the local Motor Carrier Compliance Office as well.

“We’ve got 25 people on our side,” Bonilla said.

The building is hurricane-ready with a generator and fuel capacity to keep it running for four days if a major storm knocks out power.

The center itself is the control room. Controllers watch 40 monitors that keep an eye on the highway, using the information they gather to program 26 dynamic message signs to relay road conditions to motorists. The system uses 79 closed circuit cameras posted along the interstate — every two miles on Alligator Alley and every mile to the north — to keep an eye on conditions. There are also 111 in-road sensors checking speed to alert monitors to congestion. There are even weather-monitoring sensors to tell the operators about wind and rain.

Bonilla said it’s expected to cost about $1 million annually to operate the system, with another $1 million for maintenance.

“Our main focus is to monitor traffic on 75 and report any incidents to the travelling public,” Bonilla said. “Then they can make a conscious decision whether to move off I-75.”

There will be three or four people monitoring 40 closed circuit TV screens 24 hours a day, relaying the information to the signs and to the state 5-1-1 traffic information line. The highway patrol will also man the control room. The operators can also dispatch road rangers to deal with incidents or obstructions.

But that doesn’t mean Big Brother is watching, Bonilla said. The cameras produce only live shots, and those shots are not recorded. And while the FHP may use information to station troopers in trouble areas, there is no way to track individual cars or drivers.

“There will be a lawyer call and ask for a recording, but there isn’t one,” he said. “The capacity needed to store all that video would just be tremendous.”

There’s been very little so far to warn motorists of. The fiery fatal truck crash on Alligator Alley on January 26 rerouted traffic through the rest area, and there were no secondary crashes. Bonilla said the signs can greatly reduce those incidents where one crash produces a back-up that causes a chain reaction.

“Drivers that know there’s congestion can slow down or even get off the highway and go around,” he said.

ITS has a big future in Southwest Florida, according to Florida Department of Transportation spokeswoman Debbie Tower. Charlotte County is due for an ITS system, and construction of the field equipment has already begun. The Charlotte system will also be run from the new center at Daniels Parkway. The system will eventually push north into Sarasota and Manatee counties. The Southwest Florida system will someday include more than 200 cameras along the interstate.

Steve McDonald of Alva said he drives the interstate regularly. He said he’s seen the new signs, but didn’t know what they were for.

“I assume they’ll help when something happens,” he said. “I haven’t seen much really meaningful yet, but there’s hasn’t been anything major happen.”

There are already seven Intelligent Transportation Systems operating in Florida, with two others under construction. Bonilla said they are not unique to Florida, and have been in use in the northeast for years.

“It’s been proven that the way the system works provides a cost savings,” he said. “It shortens delays so you’re not sitting and burning fuel. But the real important thing is safety.”

DATABASE: Collier County traffic fatality statistics 2006-2008

DATABASE: U.S. Highway Deaths 1994-2008

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