New Weapon in War on Congestion : Freeways: Caltrans unveils nerve center that will tell motorists where traffic is moving and where it isn't.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On an average trip to the office in San Diego County, a commuter will spend five to seven minutes stuck in traffic, barely moving because of accidents, lane closings or obstructions on roadways, California Highway Patrol statistics indicate.

That translates to more than an hour per workweek, which would mean 50 or so hours lost per person a year to traffic.

By 2005, state transportation officials expect the length of that wait to triple, and they're taking steps now to prevent it.

On Monday, they unveiled "their newest weapon in the fight against traffic congestion" in San Diego County: a high-tech Traffic Operations Center.

The center, nestled in a 700-square-foot building on Sunset Street in Old Town, will have computers and electronic equipment to monitor traffic flow throughout the county, said Steve Saville, spokesman for the California Department of Transportation.

Dispatchers at the nerve center hope to relay traffic information to commuters and CHP officers faster than ever before, Saville said.

"We are trying to gather the information as fast as possible and disseminate it as fast as possible," Saville said.

The new monitoring system gathers information as traffic enters the freeway network at various on-ramps. Electronic meters keep a count of the number of cars at 80 ramps around the county, and the information is logged into a central computer at the traffic center, said Joel Haven, chief of Caltrans' traffic systems branch.

The computer can calculate how fast traffic is flowing and where accidents have occurred, Haven said.

Operators will be able to call up graphics on a computer screen that show traffic speed. That information can be relayed to the media, CHP officers and even motorists themselves if they are within range of one of Caltrans' highway advisory radio stations, said Don Day, another Caltrans spokesman.

"We'll have CHP officers and Caltrans people in one room," Day said. "The intent there is to improve communications between the agencies."

The computer's ability to pinpoint accident locations should speed CHP response time, Day said.

CHP Commissioner Maury Hannigan, who attended Monday's unveiling ceremony, agreed.

"The patrol has a critical role in making these programs work," Hannigan said.

Traffic center operators will also control the changeable message signs that regulate the use of reversible lanes on Interstate 15, Day said.

Officials at both agencies talk about the center as just one component in a traffic-management plan for the decade.

Caltrans would like to expand its ramp-monitoring efforts to include more of the county's freeways and install similar monitors every half-mile along freeways to detect congestion, Saville said.

Caltrans officials hope that center operators will eventually be able to monitor the freeways by a closed-circuit television system and relay the information to computers on private vehicles, Saville said.

In the interim, Caltrans has plans to provide more reversible lanes and staff more advisory radio stations, Saville said.

The two agencies have spent about $20 million on equipment linked to the traffic center so far, and completing all of their traffic-management plans will carry a total price tag of $73 million, according to Jim Larson, another Caltrans spokesman.

"This is the future of traffic management, and we've all got to work together to make that happen," Saville said.

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