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Building Smarter Highways
Published Friday, August 11, 2017

Highway widening projects, bridge work and new toll plazas are often in the spotlight. But one of the coolest transportation projects in the state has flown under the radar—building a high tech communication backbone for the state’s highway systems.

It may not sound sexy, but its aim is to reduce congestion, warn drivers of accidents and other traffic hazards, make roadwork construction safer and pave the way for self-driving cars.

The latest phase in this NH Department of Transportation’s (DOT) effort is the Intelligent Transportation Systems build-out of the Frederick E. Everett Turnpike, stretching from the Massachusetts border to the I-293/NH Route 101 interchange in Bedford to Exit 15 in Concord.

“It carries 50,000 to 60,000 vehicles per day,” says Dave Smith of the NH DOT’s Bureau of Turnpikes. “It’s a major corridor in the state identified as one that would benefit from these improvements using technology that would help minimize congestion and help travelers make smart decisions.”

The $4.2 million Everett Turnpike project includes installing dynamic message signs, closed circuit television cameras, roadway detection systems, and a wireless network that will connect field devices and communicate with the DOT’s Transportation Management Center in Concord. It all works together to provide motorists with real-time traffic and road condition information.

“We want to create more efficient and safer systems to get people through the state’s highways as quickly and safely as possible,” says Susan Klasen, who heads the Center. “This technology helps people get through the corridor easier.”

Mike Costa, principal of MobilityTech, a Massachusetts consulting firm with expertise in planning, designing, implementing and operating transportation technology projects and one of three firms that will be working on this project, says the system allows for future enhancements needed to accommodate communications with autonomous vehicles. “The project will take into account emerging standards and the ability of vehicles to interact with signs and other devices along the highway,” he says.

Previous Projects
I-93 was the first corridor-wide deployment of Intelligent Transportation Systems. Elements of that project include dynamic signage, CCTV cameras and speed limit signs that can change based on conditions. Then came I-95 that uses similar devices to connect wirelessly, and allow remote control and monitoring from the Transportation Management Center.

These systems, already used in other states, warn motorists in real time of accidents up ahead, and traffic delays or construction that could lead to traffic congestion. It also alerts drivers when road conditions are poor due to weather and can help emergency personnel manage accident scenes. “We monitor highways remotely and if there is an unplanned incident, such as a crash, we can notify the public. People can sign up for text alerts,” Klasen says. “The point is to help people make decisions.”

Another project of the DOT is a partnership with the Vermont Agency of Transportation and Maine DOT to create a Regional Traveler Information System that would offer drivers travel updates online and through email and text alerts and allow for better communication among the three states.

Smart Road Construction
And, as various elements are deployed, improvements have been added. “With each project there are lessons learned and technology keeps advancing,” says Costa of MobilityTech.

The Everett Turnpike project was also awarded to Tilson Technology Management, an IT network deployment firm in Maine with network construction headquarters in Manchester, and IBI Group, a Boston-based design and technology firm that specializes in integrating intelligent systems. “We came together as a team because of the expertise each of the team members brings,” Costa says.

Adds, Michael MacCannell, director of construction services at Tilson, “Helping to make highways safer for everybody is attractive to us.”

Completion of the Intelligent Transportation System is expected in 2018. And future smart projects may include converting the Bedford toll plaza into an open-road tolling plaza similar to the one in Hampton that allows EZ Pass users to drive through without slowing down, Smith says.

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