New phone line, Web site answers commuter questions

Robin Huiras

University commuters fighting their way through traffic congestion now have a useful weapon to battle rush-hour gridlock.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation, SmartRoute Systems Inc. and Lockheed Martin unveiled the SmarTraveler Information Service on Tuesday. Comprised of a telephone number and World Wide Web page, the service allows people in the Twin Cities access to traffic and parking information throughout the entire metro region.
The service line, the first of its kind in the Twin Cities, offers up-to-the-minute road and travel conditions and route-specific information, said Andy Brown, a MnDOT representative.
Funding for the $4 million project is being divided between MnDOT and SmartRoute Systems. Over the next two and a half years, the public transportation department will give $3 million to the privately owned SmartRoute Systems. The private company will then contribute an additional $1 million to the project.
“The idea is to make it self-sustaining in the long run,” said Bill Gardner, general manager for the Twin Cities’ SmartRoute Systems.
Anyone with access to a touch-tone phone, cellular phone or the Internet can use the service. By phone, travelers simply need to dial the number of the desired highway plus the star key; Internet users can click on the route they want to travel and immediate road conditions are relayed.
The system transmits information on traffic, construction and weather delays and offers updates on special events and public transit.
University needs will also be met with the new service, said Bob Baker, director of Parking and Transportation Services.
“We have a very large commuter population and from a computer usage standpoint, a large percentage of the University population has access,” Baker said.
The implementation of the system in the Twin Cities follows four others already in place around the nation. Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Boston boast similar services.
“Congestion levels are worsening and peak (travel) periods are getting longer,” Gardner said. “Better information is needed by travelers so they can make better choices.”
The system in Boston, now in its fifth year, receives about 15,000 calls a day. Gardner hopes to see the same response in the Twin Cities.
“It’s the travelers themselves that really want this,” said Gardner. “It gives people a little more control over their lives.”
In the near future, parking information will be available as well. Most garages and ramps downtown and at the University will be connected via fiber optics and automatically transmit availability of the service. The University recently wired all of its garages to a control system that monitors the availability of parking spaces in specific ramps.
The travel information is transmitted to the center through a system of roughly 265 surveillance cameras, aircraft and drivers with mobile phones.
“SmarTraveler will recruit callers — individuals with cellulars to report incidents and travel times,” Gardner said. “A lot of technology is involved, but eyes and ears as well.”