I-75 warning signs on prairie a year off?
Site getting them at all is not a done deal; cameras are going up
Published: Sunday, August 5, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 4, 2012 at 10:34 p.m.
A series of deadly crashes in smoke and fog on Interstate 75 in January led to state funding for signs alerting drivers about hazardous conditions, but they likely won't be installed until next summer at the earliest.
The Florida Department of Transportation first is doing work that includes studying the places where warning signs are most needed statewide. The plan raises the possibility that the location on Paynes Prairie where the crashes happened might be left off the list.
Dense fog and smoke from a wildfire on the prairie led more than two dozen vehicles to crash on Jan. 29 on the interstate south of Gainesville. Eleven people died in what is believed to be the deadliest accident in state history.
State Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, was the main proponent of placing signs at the prairie to warn of unsafe conditions. He's critical of the idea that permanent signs might not be put there until a year and a half or more after the crashes.
"I don't know why it would take that long. I don't know why they haven't bid these things out now," he said.
In the wake of the crashes, Perry proposed $1 million in funding for signs at Paynes Prairie. House Speaker Dean Cannon suggested that Perry broaden the plan. In March, lawmakers approved the use of $4 million in gas tax revenue for signs at locations statewide where visibility problems have led to crashes.
The Department of Transportation commissioned two studies to determine the best places and technology for the signs and other warning methods. While there's a chance that I-75 at Paynes Prairie might not make the list of top places for signs, preliminary data suggest it would be among locations with the biggest visibility problems in the state.
Transportation officials told The Sun that doing the studies, designing the signs and installing them likely would be completed about nine months from now, although it might happen sooner. Perry said he has been told it might take as long as a year.
The signs would include electronic boards allowing warnings and other messages to be displayed as part of a state-of-the-art transportation system. The system would include cameras now being installed on I-75 - a project planned even before the deadly crashes - and possibly fog-detection equipment to automatically prompt alerts.
"These projects would be accelerated as fast as we can do it," said Mark C. Wilson, state traffic operations engineer for the Department of Transportation.
But he said a timeline of about nine months is hard to avoid because the signs "are not stocked items off the shelf. They're custom-made."
The department has started a preliminary design for the Paynes Prairie signs if the location is chosen, he said. They likely would be cantilevers sitting over the edge of the interstate on both ends of the prairie, he said. Another sign is possible on the north side of Gainesville.
Perry said he'll give the benefit of the doubt to the department but said its officials didn't make clear to him that the statewide funding would lead to studies before signs are installed.
"What I thought was a firm commitment now is a commitment based on a study, and I wasn't told that to begin with," he said. "I'm not a pessimist saying we're not going to get it, but it certainly wasn't the way it was communicated to me last session."
Report faults FDOT for delay
The Jan. 29 crashes led to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation critical of the Florida Highway Patrol for its decision to close and then reopen I-75 amid the smoke and fog.
Problems included a lack of training in a weather index used to predict fog, poor communication about the Paynes Prairie fire and a failure to monitor changing conditions.
The report also faulted the FDOT for a delay in bringing road closure materials to the scene. As smoke and fog became an issue, FHP first contacted the department about 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 29 to ask for help closing I-75 and U.S. 441.
Department personal arrived on I-75 with cones and other materials at nearly 3 a.m., about a half-hour before an FHP lieutenant decided to reopen the interstate. Fog and smoke again clouded the interstate around 4 a.m., leading to the devastating string of crashes and another closure.
The FDLE report found that the Department of Transportation failed to meet a goal of responding within 60 minutes of being notified of an incident after normal work hours, as required in state and Alachua County policies.
FDOT Secretary Ananth Prasad told The Sun last week that the department has reinforced its protocols to make sure workers are on call and can respond quickly to an accident scene.
But he said it's not as easy as just picking up cones and heading there.
The department has a local yard with materials on Northeast 39th Avenue in Gainesville, but he said a worker on call might live in a different city entirely.
"What we need to do is make sure we can respond quickly," he said.
One possibility is putting cones and other materials closer to the interstate. Phil Mann, the city of Gainesville's traffic operations manager, said he's working on a project to put cabinets with cones at I-75's exits in Gainesville.
Law enforcement and others then could access the materials close to accidents on the interstate without waiting for FDOT, Mann said. He said he has talked with the department about putting them at interchanges throughout the state.
"It's really simple and cheap to do," Mann said.
Cameras provide eye on I-75
Mann also is part of a project that is putting a dozen cameras on I-75, which is under way and is expected to be done and running within 90 days.
It's part of an $18.2 million project that has been putting traffic cameras throughout Gainesville since 2008, half funded by FDOT and the rest by city and federal sources.
The cameras can be viewed in Gainesville's transportation center at the public works facility on Northwest 39th Avenue, as well as by the Gainesville Police Department, the local 911 center and the Transportation Department's Jacksonville center. Other law enforcement and fire departments eventually will have access. "You have the possibility of so many different agencies looking that your odds are increased of instant awareness," Mann said.
The cameras can be used to make decisions about guiding traffic during hazardous conditions and after crashes as well as during busy football game days. The plan for I-75 cameras preceded the crashes - traffic engineer Matt Weisman said he was scouting locations a week before the accidents happened.
One camera is being placed at the north end of Paynes Prairie, one in the middle and one at the south end. If signs are installed there, the cameras would allow people to view fog or other issues on the interstate and put messages on the boards. Mann said protocols haven't been determined about who would be authorized to display messages.
Weisman said he hoped fog-detection devices would be installed that automatically put warnings on the signs. Perry had the same hope, fearing that leaving such messages up to the human element risks someone missing a problem in a sea of screens.
"It doesn't seem like a very technologically savvy way to monitor without some kind of auto alert," Perry said.
Fog detectors might aid effort
FDOT commissioned two studies, paid through its research fund rather than the $4 million appropriation, to look at the best ways to detect visibility problems.
University of Central Florida researcher Mohamed Abdel-Aty, who directs a transportation safety technology program there, is studying what equipment is used in other states to detect fog. An example is the detection equipment used on Interstate 10 across the Mobile Bay, which automatically lowers the speed limit during fog.
Abdel-Aty also is looking at Florida crash data from the past decade to identify and prioritize locations with the biggest risk of crashes in low visibility. The study will make sure devices could be used effectively, he said.
"This is a very sensitive issue, because you are intervening and affecting the traffic in a certain way," he said. "You want to make sure that you are absolutely doing it in the right way."
Florida State University meteorology professor Peter Ray is studying ways to predict when there is a high probability for fog. It's difficult to forecast when weather measurement equipment is sometimes located far from where fog happens, he said.
The study is expected to be done in the spring. It will look at the type and placement of equipment to allow forecasters to most accurately predict fog, he said.
"If you cry wolf too many times, then the forecast loses meaning," he said.
Technology to help prevent crashes and direct traffic is used in metropolitan areas of the state in what are known as intelligent transportation systems. Areas such as the Florida Turnpike use speed-detection equipment with software that allows automatic messages about wait times and delays to be displayed on signs.
Wilson, the state traffic operations engineer, said FDOT had proposed the installation of speed-detection equipment along I-75 in Alachua County and other areas of the interstate as part of its five-year plan. Funding for the work was lost in the economic downturn, he said.
Temporary fixes possible on I-75
As FDOT waits for the studies and other work to be done on the message-board signs, Wilson said there are other options in the meantime. The department would bring portable signs to I-75 at Paynes Prairie in the case of fire, he said.
While the area waits for signs with boards allowing a variety of messages, he said the studies might lead the department to place signs first at Paynes Prarie with a single alert message and flashing beacons. Those signs would be easier to build and install, he said.
He noted that the delay in the permanent message-board signs is a result of the legislative funding being directed at a statewide effort, with the department secretary then commissioning the studies to determine the best locations and technology.
Prasad said it's clear that there are issues on I-75 at Paynes Prairie as well as Interstate 4 in Polk County, where a similar string of deadly crashes in fog and smoke happened in 2008. He's trying to prevent a third time when such an incident might occur, he said. "We're trying to make sure we can do everything possible to prevent the next set of accidents," he said.
Perry said he's pleased the sign project is moving forward, but that it's taking more time than anybody hoped.
"It may work out exactly the way we want. It's just taking a whole lot longer," he said.
Contact staff reporter Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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