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Command Center Keeps Eyes On Road - Data On Traffic Conditions Are Analyzed So Problems Can Be Fixed Quickly

By Elisa Crouch
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Wednesday, 1/9/2008

Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, copyright 2008.

They arrive bleary-eyed, armed with cell phones, coffee mugs and laptop computers.

By 5 a.m., the people inside the Missouri Department of Transportation's command center start working toward a common goal: a successful rush hour without a big piece of Highway 40.

As the morning drive heats up, the noise level in the command center ramps up. Drivers cruising area roads call in with their drive times. State troopers e-mail information on crashes. Maintenance workers report potholes and debris. A screen that covers half the wall shows a map of the freeway system - a tangle of lines, dots and colors indicating speeds recorded by 250 traffic sensors.

Missouri transportation officials are handling the Highway 40 closure as they would a major disaster. Part of this involves forming a command center where they analyze the region's traffic as never before. St. Louis County, St. Louis, Metro and the Highway Patrol are part of the process, inside a MoDOT building at Highway 141 and Highway 40 (Interstate 64).

They reach the same conclusion after each rush hour.

"It's not the gridlock we were expecting," said Stephanie Leon Streeter, deputy director of St. Louis County's highway department.

Streeter is among the few who've been arriving at the command center daily at 4 a.m. She sits at a round table in back and powers up her laptop. Within minutes, she's connected to traffic cameras along Clayton Road, Forest Park Parkway and Hanley Road.

By 6 a.m., she's receiving regular dispatches from drivers clocking travel times along county streets. And then comes the steady stream of information on bottlenecks and problem intersections, and the back-and-forth with engineers about how to fix them.

Streeter starts the day tired, she said. But after arriving at the command center, her weariness doesn't last long.

"The energy of the room, you forget that," she said.

Commutes have gone smoothly since Highway 40 closed, thanks in large part to the drivers' adjusting their work hours and avoiding routes that become problem spots. Another piece of the success, transportation officials say, is MoDOT's ability to respond quickly to problem spots. That's where the command center comes in.

"It's a very intense operation," said Denis Bigley, manager of maintenance and traffic operations for the transportation department. "No matter what pops up, we can address it urgently."

clocking drive times

On the roads, Jeff Bohler, who normally does design work for MoDOT, drives the roads, clocking travel times. He'll drive the 10.5 miles of Lindbergh Boulevard between Highway 40 and Interstate 270 for four hours every evening through Friday.

It's a tedious job, he acknowledged. Then he started the red stopwatch. The trip to I-270 took about 19 minutes.

"That's about what it's been," Bohler said, before pulling over to call the command center with his travel time.

Transportation officials use drive times to find traffic signal problems. Engineers also crunch data from roadside sensors to figure out how much additional traffic is using other interstates.

Today, they'll continue gathering the information. Some in the command center won't start as early. Streeter, for one, said she was coming in at 5:30 a.m. instead of 4 a.m.

As for the rest of the command center, MoDOT will disband it once officials think traffic patterns are stable. They'll continue collecting information, but without everyone working from one room.

"I'm not confident we're there yet," said Ed Hassinger, MoDOT's district engineer for the St. Louis area. "We're not going to relax. I don't want the public to think they can either."

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