Tools such as the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s 511 traveler information service can be a lifesaver for motorists. The website shows where road construction could make for a driving headache.

The system works well for communicating lane closures associated with long-running projects such as the Interstate 35W rebuild in south Minneapolis, and for road work that requires a lane closure for a full day, week or month.

But painting operations, sign replacement and guardrail repairs may require a lane to be blocked for only an hour. Those short closures don’t get posted to 511 or pushed to popular traffic apps, such as Waze or Google Maps, that rely on MnDOT data because lanes are often reopened by the time closures are manually entered into the 511 system.

Yet when lanes are closed — even briefly — they can snarl traffic and fray the nerves of drivers who get caught off guard.

A Lino Lakes company that specializes in integrating technology into work zones may have the solution. Street Smart Rental has developed what it calls a Smart Arrow Board.

When a there’s a flashing arrow directing motorists to an adjacent lane, a black box affixed to the sign broadcasts the lane closure information to MnDOT’s Regional Transportation Management Center in Roseville. That information then automatically gets posted to 511, and a construction icon pops up on the map giving travelers real-time information about when and where lanes are closed.

Minnesota was the first state to pilot the Smart Arrow Board widely. Last fall, MnDOT used the technology on about 20 trucks in the metro area, said MnDOT’s Director of Traffic Operations Brian Kary.

Street Smart’s General Manager Mike Granger gave an example of a scenario where the technology is useful: If there is a lane closure at Larpenteur Avenue that begins at 2:34 p.m., the Smart Arrow Board puts that information into 511.

“When Mr. MnDOT guy moves that truck at 3:34 p.m. when he’s done filling pot holes,” Granger said, “that message disappears.”

That would be helpful for motorists now. But the technology could be even more important if autonomous vehicles take to the highways and need that kind of information to navigate the roads. When an impromptu work zone pops up or lanes shift in an area under construction, “it gives us a way to push that information to those vehicles,” Kary said.

Kary said the technology is not active now, but it could be this summer or fall. MnDOT is evaluating costs before making it a permanent 511 feature. The agency also is setting up a timeline install the technology and figuring out how best to get information to other traffic information sources, such as Google, Waze and TomTom, since not everybody uses 511.

“It is something we want to move forward with,” he said.

E-bike challenge coming

Electric bikes, also called e-bikes or “pedal-assist” bikes because they use battery power so the rider does not have to do all the work, are still niche. But they are the fastest-growing slice of the U.S. bicycle market, according to retail sales data from the market research firm NPD Group.

The E-Bike Challenge is a consumer fair showcasing more than 30 brands of the bikes and accessories March 23-24 at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Attendees can learn about the many types of e-bikes through test rides, presentations and displays.


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