Originally created 03/01/05

Officials plan traffic system upgrades



Suppose in the year 2025 a semi-truck plows into a guardrail on Interstate 20, backing up cars for miles.

Augusta-Richmond County Public Works employees would see the accident via satellite camera, dispatch the appropriate emergency personnel and reroute drivers using an electronic message board - all in minutes.

When such an accident happened in 2004, vehicles were diverted to North Augusta roads unable to handle interstate traffic levels. But in the future, Georgia and South Carolina officials collectively would be able to create a detour.

This scenario is a glimpse into what's being planned to monitor the increasing growth on local roads. Adding cameras and message boards is part of an overall Intelligent Transportation System that will bring the region more in line with Atlanta in terms of traffic management and public safety, according to Paul DeCamp, Augusta-Richmond County planning director.

"We realized that it's expensive to simply add new travel routes everywhere," Mr. DeCamp said. "ITS provides the opportunity to utilize technology to make better use of our existing road networks."

A sophisticated fiber optic network will wire the cameras and message boards to a central transportation control center that will be housed in the upcoming Public Works and Engineering building on Richmond Hill Road. Overall, 113 miles of fiber will be installed in three phases over a 20-year period, the most complex component of the system.

Public Works staff members are requesting that phase one - in which 40 miles of fiber is added to Washington Road, River Watch Parkway, Gordon Highway and Wheeler Road over five years - be included in the special purpose local option sales tax package the Augusta Commission is now considering. The price tag: $2.95 million.

Engineering Technician Kevin Comstock said the fiber optic wiring will be much more practical than the hard wire cables currently in place.

"Hard wiring has a life of 20 years, and some material out there is stretching that," he said. "Fiber is much more reliable and not susceptible to corrosion ... and it can carry more information faster."

THE CAMERAS THAT WILL anchor the system are slow-scan surveillance models featuring near-instant feeds.

There are eight cameras up and running along River Watch Parkway and Washington Road, but these are used mainly during Masters Week to monitor heavy congestion to the golf tournament, and they have a much longer delay time.

Mr. DeCamp said a $1.65 million project scheduled for 2007 will entail purchasing and uploading 10 of the high-tech cameras along River Watch and Bobby Jones Expressway.

An unknown number of cameras will be installed along I-20 between Lewiston Road and the South Carolina state line, but Mr. DeCamp said the specific locations are undetermined.

The footage the cameras capture will not be saved; instead it will be transmitted to televisions inside the command center so that those monitoring the roads will know if there's been a major wreck or a congestion problem.

"Then we can do one of two things," Mr. Comstock said. "We can adjust the timing of the traffic signals or we can put out messages."

The message boards will go up at Peach Orchard/Bobby Jones, I-20/Belair Road and I-20/Welcome Center in 2007.

Mr. Comstock said the electronic signs will make it possible for traffic engineers to directly communicate with CSRA motorists for the first time.

"WE'LL BE ABLE to quite literally tell them to go the other way," he said. "We could then call up TV stations and get that information out, eliminating a problem before it becomes one."

In the end, all wires will lead back to the transportation control center, with Georgia Department of Transportation and local engineers overseeing the equipment inside.

Mr. Comstock said construction of the $1.2 million facility will begin next year.

When it's all in place, there will be more benefits than just fluid traffic flow.

"There are a lot of things that are tied into this," he said. "If we can move traffic more efficiently it reduces the likelihood of having an accident ... and it reduces time, money, pollution."

In the meantime, members of some agencies that may tap into the network - transit, public safety, health care providers and railroads - are forming a subcommittee to oversee the implementation of ITS.

"They'll advise the local government about priorities and funding options ... and monitor changes in the industry, because equipment is changing all the time," Mr. DeCamp said.

Reach Dena Levitz at (706) 823-3339 or dena.levitz@augustachronicle.com.

Future Traffic

Transportation officials predict traffic will increase over the next 25 years. The numbers represent average daily traffic:

Washington Road between Cumberland Drive and Belair Road - 14,836 (1999) - 38,791 (2025)*

River Watch Parkway between Interstate 20 and Jones Street - 11,327-20,837 (1999)- 34,088 (2025)*

I-20 at Savannah River - 48,150 (1999)- 97,799 (2025)*

15th Street from Milledgeville Road to Government Street - 24,080 (1999) - 36,932 (2025)*

*Projected traffic

Source: The Augusta Regional Transportation Study's current Transportation Improvement Program