ANKENY — Wonder what traffic and road conditions are like on Interstate 80 in Des Moines? Or I-380 in North Liberty, I-35 in Ames, U.S. Route 20 in Waterloo, I-29 in Council Bluffs or I-74 in Davenport?
The operators at the Iowa Department of Transportation Traffic Management Center are tasked with informing the public if a traffic accident has reduced travel to one lane, black ice has made travel dangerous or an overturned truck is spilling debris into the road. They also work with law enforcement to restore traffic flow to normal as quickly as possible.
On the south wall of the new statewide traffic command center — which recently reopened in a larger, specially designed space in the driver’s license stations and kiosks in Ankeny — 18 monitors display up to 48 video feeds of real-time traffic on the busiest stretches in Iowa’s biggest cities.
It is the nerve center for highway operations in Iowa.
From here, operators attentively monitor the screens, watching for backups or traffic incidents, and communicate with local authorities and the public.
“What’s going on there on the Des Moines Mixmaster?” Bonnie Castillo, who oversees the center for the DOT, asked traffic operators on a Thursday afternoon earlier this month.
A semi had stopped on the on ramp from I-35 to I-80, and traffic was piling up behind it on the right-most lane of I-35. Robert Pitlock, a traffic operator, noticed, too, and dispatched Highway Helper to check it out.
By the time the truck arrived a few minutes later, the vehicle moved on and traffic regained its flow.
That’s a good thing, though. The idea is to keep traffic moving.
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Pitlock was in a row of three dispatchers watching the wall screens and personal displays at their desktops as the afternoon commute transitioned into rush hour. That’s when the action typically picks up.
The operator’s focus is to detect disruptions — backups, broken-down vehicles or accidents — and also keep tabs on driver’s license and rest area security, weather, construction zones and snowplows.
Pitlock specifically works with Highway Helper, a free roadside-assistance service roaming Des Moines, Council Bluffs and Cedar Rapids-Iowa City areas. The other dispatchers focus on other areas, communicating directly with state patrol and local dispatchers.
If something happens, they log the data and post information on Iowa DOT’s 511ia.org travel information website.
The operators’ best friend are traffic incident management plans developed for key roads around the state. In an incident, the operators refer to the plans to advise the best option for a detour to divert traffic, and then notify any communities in the wake of the detour to expect a traffic spike.
“Our goal in the center is to actively manage traffic and to make the public fully aware of what is happening on the road system so they can make informed choices,” Castillo said.
Traffic management centers are a recommended strategy for managing traffic, speeding up response times, clearing incidents more quickly, and efficiently disseminating information to the public about traffic and road conditions, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
The Iowa DOT recently invested $257,000 to design the new space specific for the task. Previously the center was located in the basement of the Iowa DOT headquarters in Ames, in repurposed space the size of a large closet. During severe weather events, they now can fit all the additional staff needed to cover the event, Castillo said.
Detect, verify, respond, clear
The DOT outsources the running of the center through a three-year, $3 million contract with Schneider Electric, a French-based energy management and automation company. The contract expires in July.
Schneider’s transportation division, previously Telvent USA, also runs traffic centers in Kansas City and two in New York, and is bidding to run other traffic centers, said Keith Ellis, the project manager in Ankeny.
“We can only make so many roadways and only make them so much bigger,” Ellis said. “You can’t add capacity, but with ITS and roadway management we can manage roadways so traffic can move safely.”
Schneider staffs the operator desks, and also provides the ITS system that collects and reports the data.
The mantra is “detect, verify, respond and clear,” Ellis said.
Cameras are another key component of this traffic management system.
The Iowa DOT has 320 cameras stationed around the state — 299 in urban areas and 21 in rural locations — that feed into the center. They are placed primarily on commuter routes, said Andrea Henry, Iowa DOT spokeswoman.
Operators can select the cameras from their computers by clicking on a map and can manipulate the angle to give different real-time views. The general public can get snapshots from the cameras at the 511ia.org website.
The Iowa DOT spends about $1 million per year on camera maintenance, including for cameras with purposes beyond traffic management. The cost is $2,705 per camera, which are HD 1080p pan-tilt-zoom “dome” cameras manufactured by Axis, Henry said. The state is not adding new locations, she said.
“Currently we are only replacing cameras that fail and replacing camera installations that are removed due to construction projects,” Henry said.
By 5:30 p.m., the operators have been in touch with law enforcement on a handful of incidents.
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It’s been a quiet day thus far, though. A few stalled vehicles here and there. Water was observed over a roadway on U.S. Route 69 in southern Iowa, but it wasn’t as serious as first thought. Thankfully, all the incidents were minor.
Traffic on I-235 and 380 was now bumper to bumper, but that is normal, the staff said.
Around 5:45 p.m. on this rainy day, the displays showed two separate vehicles off the road in short order on I-380, one near H Avenue and the other near 32nd Street. There appeared to be collisions, but from the control center it was hard to determine how serious. Traffic started to pile up.
Things can go bad quickly when an incident occurs. Each minute of a traffic incident increases the likelihood of a secondary crash 2.8 percent, and might account for 20 percent of all crashes, according to the Iowa DOT.
Pitlock reached out to the Highway Helper driver, who was aware of the first incident but not the second. Highway Helper was able to direct traffic into the left lane.
Police were on scene shortly thereafter. Another minor incident.
One thing to expect at the center is never count on anything, the workers said.
“Both mornings and afternoons are usually the busiest, but you can never predict what a day will be like,” said Cole Kern, an Iowa DOT staffer who’s worked for the center for several years. “And the clearest day can have much more going on than a severe weather day, so there is no way to say from here in the center one day will be better than another.”