Maryland Transportation in The Fast Lane

The state is using the newest technologies to move people more efficiently

San Francisco's cable cars may be the subject of more Tony Bennett tunes, but Baltimore was actually the home of the first trolleys. In fact, Maryland has a continuing history of novel transportation systems.

Today the state of Maryland is considered a national leader in applying high-tech transportation technologies. Over the next six years, the state plans to spend at least $25 million on new technologies that will make traveling the state's roads faster and easier. Two Baltimore companies have already been awarded contracts worth more than $15 million.

Maryland's plans include a multi-million-dollar traffic management program to monitor the roadways for accidents and congestion, a communications system to monitor buses and light-rail trains via satellite, and a plan to improve driver access to timely traffic information.

"The state of Maryland is on the cutting edge of technology when it comes to transportation," said John Agro, administrator of the state Mass Transit Administration. "We are constantly keeping an eye on the future and the technological advances it holds."

The State Highway Administration is targeting congestion along Maryland's 115 miles of highway. It plans to install 22 video cameras focused on the busiest sections of road between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and 154 low-power radar units that will track how fast traffic is moving along roadways. The monitoring devices will be linked in a 24-hour communications network that will be able to reroute traffic, dispatch emergency vehicles, and inform radio traffic announcers of problem spots. The system is scheduled for completion by spring.

The $7 million Chesapeake Highways Advisories Routing Traffic program is being funded by the federal government's Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, or ISTEA. "Without federal funds, we never would be able to be as advanced," said Hal Kassoff, administrator of the highway agency. Baltimore-based Lake Falls Construction Inc. is building the traffic center.

The state is also deploying new technologies to improve public transportation. The Mass Transit Administration plans to use the Pentagon's $12 billion Global Positioning System of satellites to track and manage the agency's 200 buses and 70 light-rail cars.

Dispatchers at the MTA communications center will be able to tell whether the bus or train is following its scheduled route. And in case of an emergency, the bus or train operator will be able to push a button that sends a coded message to the communications center notifying the dispatcher of the problem, said MTA spokesman Bill Weger. The $8.1 million Automatic Vehicle Location system will be built by Westinghouse Electric Corp., which has a major presence on the southern outskirts of Baltimore. The agency is also testing automated voice buses that announce all stops and transfers, allowing the operator to concentrate on driving. In addition, the agency is experimenting with alternative-fueled buses, including those that run on biodiesel fuel and liquid natural gas.

Meanwhile, the Maryland Transportation Authority is evaluating how high-tech Intelligent Transportation Systems can improve information dissemination. Currently, the authority is focusing on enhancing the accuracy and timeliness of motorist information, including putting variable message signs at all state toll facilities to display real-time traffic info.

Also, the authority plans to display the traffic information on kiosks at rest stops along I-95. The kiosks and message signs would provide travelers with current accident and congestion information and could reroute them to less-traveled paths, said Stephen Reich, the authority's executive secretary.

The authority is also considering installing electronic toll collection at the three harbor crossings in Baltimore, at the Fort Mc Henry Tunnel, the Key Bridge and the Harbor Tunnel. Commuters would be able to drive through tolls without stopping and a smart card inside their vehicle would deduct the appropriate toll from the driver's prepaid account.

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