California Upgrades Video Monitoring of Highway Conditions

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The new video wall at the Traffic Monitoring Center in Oakland, CA.

Traffic jams on California’s freeway and highway systems are notorious for their complexity and scale. Solving problems and keeping traffic moving is a 24/7 job, one that requires monitoring a constant flow of real-time data.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, that data gets fed into a “Mission-Control” style center dominated by a wall of 35 newly upgraded LED video screens that stream live images from regional freeway hotspots and interchanges.

The video screens, which are never turned off, were upgraded earlier this summer both to improve image resolution and to extend the lifespan of the monitors. According to John Goodwin, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), which partially funded the upgrade, the new LED monitors should operate for about six years; older, lamp-based monitors only lasted about nine months.

The information gathered through the system is used to help pinpoint traffic and construction issues on Bay Area roadways, and is jointly monitored by the MTC, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), and the California Highway Patrol (CHP).

“Half of all traffic congestion in the Bay Area is not the result of too many vehicles and too few lanes,” said Goodwin, “But rather is due to accidents, debris spills, or a broken down car pulled over to the side of the road.” The monitoring system allows Caltrans and CHP to respond more quickly to these problems than they could through regular patrols.

Traffic sensors built into the roadway alert staff to problem areas. They then can use cameras to zoom in precisely on problem areas, and get help to accident scenes and stranded motorists, or mitigate long and frustrating waits for commuters.

The bulk of funding for the $899,000 cost of the upgrade came from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program (CMAQ). The MTC paid for 11.47 percent of the upgrade costs with funds that come in part from a surcharge on motor vehicle registration fees.