Crashes Still Slow Wisconsin Freeways, So Some Planners Push For 'Smarter' Roads

Nov 7, 2019

Another snowfall this week has reminded people of the challenge of wintertime driving. Plus, there are still plenty of accidents not related to the weather.

For example, Interstate 94 in Racine County was shut down for hours Wednesday morning due to a huge crash. Law enforcement says the crash was started by a Kenosha man driving with a suspended license. Fox 6 reports that the 31 year-old was later issued citations for failure to maintain control of the vehicle, operating while suspended, non-registration of auto, and not having insurance.

Wednesday's closure of I-94 in Racine County, shown from the WisDOT 511 site.
Credit Wisconsin Department of Transportation

But over the long run, transportation planners and advocates hope for greater safety through so-called "smarter" roadways. And maybe less air pollution, too. 

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) says using technology to improve roads goes back at least 40 years, to when stop and go lights were added at some freeway on-ramps.  

"We were one of the first states to do ramp metering to improve traffic flow on our mainline freeways," says WisDOT Traffic Systems Supervisor David Karnes.  He says Wisconsin has since added travel time reporting, overhead message boards, and a 511 website and mobile app with real-time traffic information.

Karnes says in addition to the interstate highways, his big focus now is getting data from cameras and sensors on the more than 1,000 traffic lights the state owns and operates. About 275 of them are what Karnes calls traffic-responsive, or adaptive.

"Adaptive uses algorithms to take real-time data and put that back into the loop of traffic signal operations, to make determinations on how signals operate," Karnes explains. "Traffic responsive is very similar to that, except it's using predetermined timing plans that we've developed."

Inside WisDOT's Traffic Management Center in downtown Milwaukee.
Credit Courtesy of WisDOT

Karnes says WisDOT is also trying to get ready for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles. Connected vehicles are connected to the Internet and may eventually be able to warn other connected vehicles about dangerous situations. Autonomous vehicles would eventually be driverless. Foxconn may use them near its planned factory in Racine County.

READ: C'mon Along In A Self-Driving Vehicle To See If The Future Is Just Down The Road

Karnes spoke Tuesday at a Milwaukee forum organized by the Midwest Energy Research Consortium (M-WERC) and the group Wisconsin Clean Cities. Several communities also gave presentations.

Milwaukee Sustainability Director Erick Shambarger says the city is looking at more than gas-fueled car travel, and is planning for electric vehicles, buses, the streetcar, bicycles, scooters, and pedestrians. To help all of them, Shambarger says the city's 76,000 streetlights may soon be "smart."

Erick Shambarger speaks at Tuesday's forum, held at Johnson Controls in downtown Milwaukee.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

"We want to make them more efficient with LEDs, but they also represent an opportunity to incorporate sensors and other things. Think about your smartphone and all of the apps they have. We could in theory have those on all our street lighting systems," Shambarger said.

In the Green Bay area, Brown County Executive Troy Streckenbach says one thing he's looking at developing is a smart freight corridor. But Streckenbach says there are some questions to consider. 

"Is anybody talking about the ethics around data collection? Are we putting in policies from the state to the localized side? In terms of how we manage that data, who owns the data?" Streckenbach asked the forum.

READ: The Balancing Act Of Big Data & Experts

In Racine, which is aims to be a Smart City, Chief Innovation Officer William Martin says he wants to make sure residents know what's going on.  

William Martin speaks during Tuesday's forum.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

"We are actually going into the neighborhoods to continue what we started in September, to take those kinds of concepts and ask people in those neighborhoods to give us yet another aspect about that," Martin said.

While all the technology for smart transportation isn't ready yet, and many issues are unresolved, Lorrie Lisek, of Wisconsin Clean Cities, says she's optimistic for success.

"If we don't start acting on some of these initiatives, we're going to be left behind, because we're seeing it happen all over the country. And I think it's a collaboration of bringing all this education, so we can make the right decisions for the public," Lisek said, adding that one of her practical goals is to see less idling of vehicles at stoplights, so less air pollution is emitted.  

Alan Perlstein, CEO of M-WERC, argues smart transportation could be a job creator. He says one reason Amazon didn't want to locate in Milwaukee's Century City development near 35th and Capitol is that it took too much time to get to I-43. 

"We could use smart technology to make that distance not a barrier and therefore leverage all the talent that's there," Perlstein said.

Smart technology didn't prevent the accident on I-94 Wednesday in Racine County that shut down both directions of the freeway for hours. But for those people who were plugged into all the modern advisories, it gave many a chance to find alternate routes. 

Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.

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