iCones warn motorists of slowdowns

iCones warn motorists of slowdowns
By Patrick Cassidy
March 17, 2010

SAGAMORE — Cars and trucks whizzed by a phalanx of orange-and-white striped barrels approaching the Sagamore Bridge yesterday.

Tucked against a nearby sign, one of the plastic construction drums appeared brighter than the others. Meet the iCone, a barrel nearly indistinguishable from its more beat up brethren.

But it’s what’s inside the iCone that counts.

Along with five other barrels positioned just off the westbound shoulder at half-mile intervals from Exit 2 to the bridge, the iCone is part of a new high tech system — the first of its kind in the state — to help alleviate congestion and give transportation officials a better idea of how roadwork affects traffic.

A global positioning system, a speed radar and a wireless connection transmit information on traffic conditions to an online map and electronic signs to warn motorists of delays in crossing the bridge, which has been restricted to one lane in each direction for repairs by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The bridge work has irked many motorists since it began in September. On busy weekends, backups have stretched for miles and, despite a winter respite, lane restrictions are expected to continue through at least the spring.

“It’s looking good for no return in the fall,” Frank Vilkas, Army Corps project engineer for the bridge work, said of the likelihood that the repairs can be completed by the summer.

The contractor working for the Army Corps rents all six iCones from Work Safe Traffic Control Industries Inc. at a cost of $9,600 or about $53 a day for each barrel, Army Corps resident engineer Maurice Beaudoin said.

The price might be less if the rental period was longer, but the Army Corps only plans to use the barrels for two months, Beaudoin said.

The Cape iCone system is the only one the company has up and running right now and is one of its first full deployments of the technology, Work Safe vice president Debbie Ricker said.

The smart barrels calculate the average speed of passing traffic and quickly update the map online, she said. Data collected from the barrels also can be used by state officials to meet demands from federal transportation officials for analysis of how road work affects traffic, she said.

It took about a half-hour to set up the six Cape-based barrels Monday, said iCone managing partner Ross Sheckler. “Last year, we probably did two or three dozen jobs,” he said.

The manufacturer’s online map showed other barrels yesterday on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco; one in Salt Lake City, Utah; and one outside of Syracuse, N.Y.

When viewing the online map, the barrels show up as green, yellow or red depending on how fast traffic is flowing. Orange reflects an unknown status and gray indicates the equipment was recently turned off.

By today, Sheckler expected to have everything up and running, sending close to real-time information to three electronic signs set up by the Massachusetts Highway Department on the Cape-side approach to the bridge.

“It’s not taking your speed,” he said, addressing any concerns that the barrels could be used by the police to bust speeders. The radar averages the speed of all the cars that pass in a minute, he said, noting the iCone system does not snap photos of passing motorists.

Besides alerting commuters to traffic patterns, the iCones have other possible benefits such as indirectly alerting public safety officials of accidents or other road hazards that may be causing traffic to slow down in the affected area, he said. Alerts could be sent to public safety workers if a problem is detected, he added.

“I think Mass Highway is going to use this more and more,” Sheckler said of the state’s enthusiasm for the technology.

Yesterday, state officials were testing the system and how it interacts with message boards. They hope to have the system fully functional today, Mass Highway spokesman Adam Hurtebise wrote in an e-mail to the Times.

Another one of the system’s features, Hurtebise noted, are cameras mounted on two of the message boards that link to the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority Web site.

Drivers heading off-Cape yesterday saw the iCones as a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the data could help some motorists avoid traffic delays. But, for those who can’t reschedule an off-Cape trip, the information has little value, said Sandwich resident Irene Papsy as she walked to her car in the parking lot of the Christmas Tree Shops at the foot of the bridge.

Continuing the work year round to finish it faster might be more useful, she said.

“My personal feeling is that they should do (the bridge work) when the tourists are here, too,” she said.