The Drive: MnDOT to unveil new smartphone app

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 5, 2013 - 10:23 AM

Sometime this month, the Minnesota Department of Transportation will roll out a new app that will allow people with smartphones to access its 511 information website and get traffic conditions in real time. It’s the latest offering from the Regional Transportation Management Center (RTMC), a state-of-the-art facility that recently cele­brated its 10th anniversary.

Created in 2003, the sprawling center in the bowels of MnDOT’s headquarters in Roseville has evolved into the epicenter of Twin Cities traffic. It is home to the Minnesota State Patrol’s dispatch center for four of its districts, and the origin of the information on crashes, road work and freeway travel times that appear on 150 electronic overhead message boards in the metro. Banks of large TV screens allow monitors to watch traffic flow on 280 miles of highways, and a sophisticated communications network feeds data from the State Patrol and MnDOT traffic sensors embedded in pavement onto its popular 511 website

“On snow days, that site gets more hits than any other in all of state government combined,” said Freeway Operations Manager Brian Kary.

Far from just being a fancy place outfitted with the latest in technology, the RTMC benefits motorists to the tune of $150 million annually, according to an analysis by the Texas Transportation Institute. The research center at Texas A&M University arrived at that figure by evaluating the impact of services offered by the RTMC. In addition to real-time traffic on its website and live reports on radio station KBEM (88.5 FM) during rush hours, the RTMC sends out maintenance crews to fix infrastructure such as potholes, mangled guardrails and damaged bridges. It also dispatches its Freeway Incident Response Safety Team (those yellow trucks affectionately known as “Highway Helpers”) to block lanes at crash sites and to push vehicles out of traffic lanes.

The technology has improved response time, said James Kranig, an assistant state traffic engineer for MnDOT. With more than 5,500 sensors spaced every half-mile on highways to measure traffic volume, density and speed to go along with 500 cameras that provide live video feeds, RTMC officials can “identify exactly where an incident is and shave off trooper response time,” he said.

That’s key, because according to Kary, every minute that an accident blocks traffic results in a four-minute traffic delay.

The Twin Cities has one of the most complete and centralized traffic-management systems in the country, but it hasn’t always been this way. The RTMC’s roots began in the early 1970s with a single ramp meter on Interstate 35E. A lane-control system and a camera on I-94 at the Lowry Hill tunnel was added. The old Traffic Management Center (TMC) opened in 1972, but it dealt primarily with traffic incidents and had limited coordination with the State Patrol and MnDOT’s maintenance crews. Opening the RTMC brought all functions under one roof.

Tour groups often stop by, and so have transportation officials from other states. A few have even brought RTMC’s in-house innovations back to their traffic systems. Of course, with traffic nothing is ever perfect. But the RTMC has made it better.

“We get complaints, but we see them as compliments because customers do see the value in it,” Kranig said.

Follow news about traffic and commuting at The Drive on startribune.com. Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail drive@startrib une.com, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.

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