High-Tech Highways: Using Technology to Transform and Improve Traffic Conditions in West Alabama Featured

15 May 2019 Brandie Bowden
Workers monitor and study traffic in the Traffic Management Center (TMC) of the University of Alabama’s Center for Advanced Public Safety (CAPS) office. Workers monitor and study traffic in the Traffic Management Center (TMC) of the University of Alabama’s Center for Advanced Public Safety (CAPS) office. Alabama Department of Transportation

Residents of Tuscaloosa and Northport have had plenty of practice navigating construction zones, and that seems to have increased even more over the last year. The orange cones and barriers are not the only way that transportation agencies are trying to make our roads better.  

A major transportation project in the works, led by The University of Alabama, will create a more positive commuting experience for drivers in the area in a much more subtle way – but with even greater impact. Thanks to an $8 million grant, and additional matching funds from federal, state, and local agencies, UA researchers will be able to study and improve traffic control systems in West Alabama.  

“We will use technology to assist our tech center to better manage traffic,” said Alex Hainen, an assistant professor in UA’s Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering, and a researcher on the project. “We want to be able to have eyes on the situation to see how traffic is doing and we want to be able to manage it better.” 

This project involves the development and deployment of technologies including cameras, sensors, communication units, and other tools that will collect data from the road network in West Alabama. The areas include McFarland Boulevard, Skyland Boulevard, AL Highway 69 South, and secondary roads in and around Tuscaloosa. The biggest addition will be Interstate 20/59 between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. 

“There will be about 25 sites between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham that will measure traffic volume, speed, classification, how many cars travel each lane, even types of vehicles,” said Hainen. “Tuscaloosa is a gateway to freight and people; we want to make sure people have good access to jobs, healthcare, etc.” 

Improving ALGO User Experience 

The purpose of the project is to improve traffic control systems in the area and make that information available sooner to citizens. The technology will collect traffic-related data that can be researched and analyzed to optimize traffic flow and increase safety.  

ALDOT already has the ALGO Traffic app that allows users to see real-time traffic data they can use to determine routes for a commute. Data collected from this project can update in this app to improve the user experience further.  

“It’ll provide a safer driving experience for motorists,” said John McWilliams, Public Information Officer for the West Alabama Region of ALDOT. “With more data being fed into ALGO, it’ll help us manage traffic signals more efficiently and reduce drive times.” 

Short-Term Improvements 

Some of the benefits commuters will see from the short-term efforts of this project include more effective sequencing of traffic signals, easier flow of traffic during peak travel times, and faster notification of obstructions or problems along a route. Machine-learning will be used to pre-determine problems in an effort to eliminate complications before they arise.  

All these improvements will create a better experience for commuters in West Alabama. This is good news for residents like Elizabeth Philip, who frequently make the drive from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham. Philip, a Graduate Research Assistant at UA, drives to Birmingham every other weekend. She says up-to-date information about the traffic conditions would be helpful. 

“The on-going construction on the road to Birmingham is really what makes the commute unpleasant,” Philip said.  

The increased response time of agencies to hazards will help to minimize the side effects of the construction efforts and make a smoother drive for Philip and other drivers on the road. 

Long-Term Goals  

Long-term, it seems this network could pave the way for automated driving.  

“We’ll also be deploying dedicated short-range communication radios, or DSRC radios,” Hainen said. “Those will be used to communicate from vehicle to vehicle, vehicle to infrastructure, and it will really be the next generation technology that will allow cars to cooperate with one another and to manage from a system level.” 

Hainen explains that the vehicle-to-infrastructure communication occurs when a car responds to a situation on the road, i.e. slamming on the brakes because traffic has stopped. The system registers that response and alerts the agencies that there is a problem that needs addressing.  

The vehicle-to-vehicle communication would be the same concept, except a car registers the action of cars further down the road and can adjust accordingly. For example, if a car loses control over a patch of ice, the cars on the road behind it will get that information and know before the driver that there is danger ahead. The goal is to greatly increase reaction time to hazards on the road. 

Modernized Technology 

The agencies involved in this project read like a bowl of alphabet soup, but they are all working together toward a common goal: improving the transportation system in West Alabama. The grant recently awarded to UA makes this project possible. 

The 3-year project will cost a little over $16 million. In late March, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) awarded UA $8 million towards the improvement effort. The federal funding will go through UA’s Advanced Connected Transportation Infrastructure and Operations Network (ACTION) initiative, a multi-agency partnership formed last year that includes UA’s Alabama Transportation Institute (ATI), the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT), the Tuscaloosa County Road Improvement Commission, and other stakeholders in the area. Another $8 million from local and regional agencies will double the amount received from the grant and establish the budget needed for the project.  

Dr. Shashi Nambisan is the Executive Director of ATI and principal investigator on the grant. He joined UA in 2016 as leader of UA’s transportation research efforts, bringing more than 27 years of experience in transportation and infrastructure systems to the University. The efforts by Nambisan and his team played a significant role in getting UA to a place to receive this award. 

“The collaborative culture that exists in Tuscaloosa was important,” said McWilliams. “Tuscaloosa has grown by 10.9% since 2010 and is the fastest growing major five city in Alabama, so Tuscaloosa and its motorists needed the grant.” 

Senator Richard Shelby announced the awarding of this grant.  

“It is outstanding news that DOT has awarded UA funding for Alabama’s advanced technology initiative,” Shelby said. “The program will address transportation needs in west-central Alabama that are critical to improved quality of life and economic vitality.” 

UA’s ACTION initiative is one of only 10 recipients to receive this type of grant this year from the Advanced Transportation and Congestion Management Technologies Deployment (ATCMTD) program of USDOT’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The ATCMTD program provides funding to improve the performance of transportation systems, reduce traffic congestion, and improve public safety through state-of-the-art technology. 

ATI will spearhead the work on this project that includes a team from UA, with representatives from the Center for Advanced Public Safety (CAPS), the University Transportation Center for Alabama (UTCA), and the Center for Advanced Vehicle Technologies (CAVT). 

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