VDOT’s Chester nerve center upgraded, expanded
On an average day, more than 150,000 vehicles pass a nearly 60-year-old building sitting in the midst of the Interstate 95-Route 10 interchange in Chester. It’s safe to say that few of their passengers know that the building is the high-tech nerve center for transportation throughout Central Virginia.
The former Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike Authority building that sits amid the on- and off-ramps on the southbound side of the interstate is the home of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Richmond Traffic Operations Center.
The center – which monitors road and traffic conditions in 26 counties and four cities – completed a major expansion and upgrade of its technology last month.
Robb Alexander, regional traffic operations manager, explained that VDOT doubled the number of monitors displayed on the video wall at the heart of the center’s monitoring system. The increase allows personnel at the center to simultaneously watch up to 32 of the 54 cameras mounted along major highways across the region.
That’s an important improvement, Alexander said, because one of the center’s biggest jobs is to watch for potential problems along the roads – including county secondary roads in addition to interstates and other highways – and get VDOT resources moving to clear them up as fast as possible.
“One of our missions is to coordinate VDOT’s response to emergencies,” he said. “It can be anything from a tree in the road to a major pothole or washout to an accident – anything affecting the road network in those 26 counties.”
The agency’s first line of defense is its fleet of Safety Service Patrol trucks, which can be dispatched quickly to set up lights, emergency cones and other measures to help guide traffic away from hazards.
They also help divert traffic to keep state and local police safe as they work at accident scenes or other emergencies. “We have a very close working relationship with the Virginia State Police and local police like the Chesterfield Police Department,” Alexander noted.
Another important mission of the traffic center is to feed information to VDOT’s 511 website (www.virginia511.org), which provides real-time updates on road and traffic conditions statewide.
That system, which also allows the public to see live video from the same cameras the traffic center monitors, also got a major upgrade recently, said Sundra Hominik, public affairs specialist for VDOT’s Richmond district.
Among the website improvements: Users can now see what’s being displayed at any given moment on the electronic message signs along state highways, including the 15 overhead signs controlled from the Chester center.
For more than a decade, VDOT has been steadily increasing its use of technology to help keep traffic flowing smoothly, Alexander noted. That includes installing sensors in bridges and other locations to monitor temperatures in wintertime, which allows trucks to be dispatched to spread anti-icing chemicals before a hazard develops.
VDOT also continues to increase the number of video cameras along roadways, he said. The video-monitoring program in the Richmond district started in 2001 with just three cameras compared with the current 54. Twelve of those were added just in the past year. More are set to be added this year, Alexander said.
The operations center is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and staffing is increased whenever the weather has the potential to create exceptional conditions, like during last year’s Hurricane Irene.
Among the recent upgrades, VDOT improved its generator and backup lighting capabilities to ensure the center can keep operating if the power goes out.
When they aren’t responding to specific hazards, the center’s safety service vehicles patrol the roads and offer help to motorists with disabled vehicles.
Alexander said that’s “a secondary service” but still important to overall travel safety, because a motorist trying to perform a repair while parked on the shoulder of a highway can be a serious hazard.
A recent fatal accident involving a traveler changing a tire on I-95 near Willis Road “shows how dangerous it is,” Alexander said. “If we can get there and assist them, it’s an accident avoided.”