Maryland county eases the commute

Transportation managers in Montgomery County, Md., are testing technology that could take some of the delay and anxiety out of commuting.

The Department of Public Works and Transportation will solicit proposals in January for a system that directs drivers to commuter parking lots that are not full. Because of confusion, some commuters aren't taking advantage of satellite parking lots that offer bus service to subway stations.

A system that could keep count of the number of available spaces and relay that information to drivers ahead of time could improve traffic flow around the station and redistribute part of the parking load, officials said.

"If we can capture people up north and not feed them down into that heavily congested area, it will have a positive impact," Emil Wolanin, manager of the county's Advanced Transportation Management System, said of the possibilities of easing the commute into Washington, D.C.

Such a system would require video or in-ground loop detectors to count the cars entering a garage or lot. Information could be relayed to incoming motorists by signs and the county's Travelers Advisory Radio System. The county will have to choose the most useful information — spaces available, percentage of lot full, anticipated time to fill.

"If you're 5 miles out, how do you account for the number of vehicles that are in transit that are past that point?" ATMS senior engineer Bruce Mangum said. "We don't want to [tick] them off. If you give them bad information once, your credibility is shot."

The project, funded by a $333,000 federal grant and a $70,000 county match, will start at a single station by this summer, Wolanin said.

Montgomery County also is testing another project to keep commuters informed. Signs are being installed at a number of bus stops to show riders how many minutes will pass before their bus arrives. Buses are linked to a computer-aided dispatch system through Global Positioning System technology. The system will provide accurate information about the locations of buses, their average speed and any delays.

The automatic vehicle location equipment also gives the county's transportation management center the ability to give late buses priority at traffic signals.

Fifteen intersections are part of an ongoing evaluation that could be expanded to other critical intersections in the county, Wolanin said. Traffic signals will be adjusted automatically to allow buses to clear the intersections, but only if traffic flow conditions will not be adversely affected.

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