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States roll out plans for ‘smarter’ roads

Not all the highway improvement projects states plan to pay for with federal stimulus money involve widening roads, fixing bridges or repaving highways. Nearly half the states plan to use some of their new funds to pay for high-tech gadgets that will reduce congestion, help the environment and create jobs quickly.

At least 22 states have told the federal government they want to make their roads “smarter” by installing traffic cameras, creating express toll lanes, improving traffic signals and alerting drivers about accidents or delays ahead, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Such projects are “quick, they can move forward very fast, they create jobs and they’re effective in the short and long term,” said Jaime Rall, an NCSL analyst.

States are under the gun to tell the federal government how they plan to use $26.7 billion in federal stimulus money for transportation. They have until June 29 to commit half of that money to specific projects, so states are focusing on projects that can get started quickly.

Three-quarters of the money committed by states so far will pave or re-pave roads. Some of the money can go to passenger and freight rail efforts, too. The Obama administration announced earlier this week that another $1.5 billion in transportation stimulus money can be used for innovative road projects.

But included in the mix already are dozens of efforts to use technology to make roads function better. The “smart road” improvements include signals for on-ramps in Colorado, new E-Z Pass toll booths to allow drivers to pay without stopping in Delaware and traffic lights connected to fiber optic cable to reduce bottlenecks in Utah.

Technology improvements, in particular, have a bigger bang for the buck for the economy, the federal government points out, because more of the money goes straight to workers’ salaries. Only 20 percent of material-intense projects such as laying roads or fixing bridges typically goes to payroll, according to a January analysis by the U.S. Department of Transportation. For technology upgrades, about 50 percent goes to paychecks.

States can start and finish technology projects quickly compared to more intense road-building efforts, because technology projects aren’t subject to the same rigorous environmental review required of other plans. In fact, “smart road” projects can help the environment by cutting down exhaust from cars and trucks waiting in traffic.

A Georgia effort to minimize delays by stalled vehicles, breakdowns and roadway debris helped motorists save 6.83 million gallons of fuel a year, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported. For the environment, that meant an annual decrease of 262 tons of the acid-rain-causing nitrous oxide and 2,457 tons less of carbon monoxide, which can be harmful to humans.

Open-road tolling, which allows drivers to pay tolls electronically without stopping at a toll booth, reduces crashes and vehicle emissions. The New Jersey Turnpike’s EZ-Pass system saves motorists 1.2 million gallons a year, according to the federal agency.

Technology can also help ease the suffering of drivers stuck in construction zones. That’s especially important for this summer, when thousands of projects funded by federal stimulus money will be under way.

Portable electronic signs can reduce crashes where lanes merge and slow traffic. Permanent electronic message boards can advertise alternative routes to keep traffic away from construction zones.

One of the biggest projects on the drawing board is a $74 million undertaking to upgrade 72 miles of roadway on the I-95 corridor in and around Philadelphia. The thoroughfare, crucial for the nation’s fifth-largest city, handles 120,000 to 170,000 vehicles a day. Pennsylvania officials hope the three-stage project will help minimize traffic delays and reduce pollution.

Workers will add 59 closed-circuit video cameras to a network of 175 cameras that already feed into the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s regional traffic control center in King of Prussia, a Philadelphia suburb. Also new will be 39 new electronic signs that can display travel times, alerts about accidents and Amber Alert information to warn drivers about missing children and other emergencies. Dozens of vehicle sensors and travel-time detectors are also part of the project, which should be finished by the end of the year.

Technicians at the King of Prussia hub work around the clock, looking out for accidents and delays. If a car pulls off to the side of the road with a flat tire, for example, technicians can dispatch a tow truck. Meanwhile, the electronic signs will tell drivers about upcoming congestion. The message boards also can alert motorists about construction and suggest alternate routes.

Quick responses are crucial, said Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokesman Charles Metzger, who pointed to an industry rule of thumb that says every five minutes of a traffic disruption causes a half-hour of delays.

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