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Where Trouble Meets the Road

Traffic congestion costs business an annual $100 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Bad traffic also leads to costly accidents and loss of life. The Utah Department of Transportation has for years taken a proactive approach to the problem—using CCTV to aid emergency response, give drivers real-time information, and gather data on traffic patterns. The state is currently upgrading the system to improve its capabilities and enhance the state’s return on investment.

UTAH BEGAN its traffic surveillance project in 1997, when an analog CCTV camera and fiber-optic transmission was put in place by the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) as part of the reconstruction of Highway I-15, a ma­jor north-south artery that runs through Salt Lake City. Known as the Advanced Traffic Management System (ATMS), it won the praise of both the citizenry and government.

Within five years of installation, the approaching end of the technological components’ lives required UDOT to plan a replacement system. It would include technology that was a blip on the horizon when the analog and fiber-optic system was created—digital video carried via IP Ethernet.

The state has about 40,700 miles of road in its highway system, about 14 percent of which is in the vicinity of Salt Lake City and Ogden. The CCTV system is concentrated in the urban areas. Among UDOT’s responsibilities are snow removal, bridges, repairs, building, and maintenance.

The department’s Traffic Operations Center, which houses UDOT’s general administration, community relations, port of entry administration, labs, and vehicle maintenance is in Salt Lake City. There are also four regional offices and three district offices located from Ogden, north of Salt Lake, to Provo in the south. Personnel in each regional or district office oversee administration, construction, and maintenance of all state roads, highways, and freeways within their areas.

The original ATMS was based on that used at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. It included approximately 265 CCTV cameras placed at intersections, crossings, and open stretches, as well as some commuter transportation hubs. The video is carried over fiber-optic cable to the Traffic Operations Center.

The system is monitored by UDOT staff on 14 monitors at six consoles from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. After hours, the system is watched by the Utah Department of Public Safety’s dispatch center, which is housed in the same building.

The real-time information gathered from the cameras makes a huge difference. According to an integrated-traffic engineer at the UDOT Traffic Management Division in Salt Lake City, Sam Sherman, “For every minute faster we can remove an incident, four or five minutes are saved on incident recovery.” He adds that a UDOT analysis has shown the average incident duration has decreased by approximately 20 minutes since the system was installed. Although UDOT “doesn’t quantify the benefit of cameras alone, we strongly believe that they are instrumental in helping.”

Basically, he says, a picture is worth a thousand words. When incidents were reported before the ATMS was created, the dispatcher had only a description of the accident location to relay to the responders. Now, in most cases, the dispatcher can see the area and lead the responders to the correct spot more effectively.

“It’s so much easier than trying to describe to someone,” Sherman says. Dispatchers can also see hazards that might adversely affect the responders. For example, if the dispatcher sees on the monitor that snow is blowing sideways, it indicates high winds and lessened visibility.

The bird’s-eye views that cameras provide also allow UDOT to program its 69 variable message signs to deliver up-to-the-minute information to motorists. These electronic signs warn of road closings, accidents, inclement weather, or other issues. They tell motorists how to avoid potential problem locations when possible. To maximize their effectiveness, the signs are left blank when conditions are normal and only used when there is a problem.

UDOT also uses data from the cameras to evaluate and reprogram traffic signals in real time to improve traffic- flow problems that arise from situations such as accidents and road detours or special events such as football games and parades.

The cameras are also linked to UDOT’s CommuterLink Web site, which allows Internet users to view the most recent image from any camera. The graphic interface includes a map of the area with clickable icons signifying each camera, as well as icons for reported incidents, construction, and localized severe weather issues such as icing or snowstorms.

Viewers can narrow the field of focus to Ogden, Salt Lake City, Park City, or Provo. Additionally, the camera feed is available to Salt Lake’s city and county emer­gency management centers, the Utah Transit Authority, police, and other agencies.

Time for change. The original analog video was—and still is—sent to an enormous video matrix switcher with 300 inputs and 200 outputs, but the matrix had reached full capacity by the end of 2002, leaving no room for expansion. Moreover, while the switcher had worked well during its youth and middle age, as it grew older, its many components began to falter.

At the same time, replacement parts had become difficult to find, says Michael Van Orman, IT analyst with the information system support group at the operations center. That made the system vulnerable, because the loss of just one irreplaceable component could bring the entire system down.

None of this was a surprise. “Most consumer electronics have a 3-to-5 year life. The matrix switcher…had already exceeded the manufacturer’s prediction,” Van Orman states.

Planning. The planning for the replacement system began in 2002 with an in-depth study of available technologies. The study was conducted by several staff committees that represented the different groups and divisions that used the system, as well as some individual consultants.

Their vision was for “a digital environment, incorporating digital video over an IP multicast network,” says Sherman. It would encompass MPEG 2 digital video encoders and decoders, Internet Protocol (IP) Ethernet switches and routers, terminal servers, and the software to support it.

So what does all of that mean to the user? MPEG (which literally stands for Moving Picture Experts Group, but which essentially refers to a standard digital video format) uses less bandwidth than the traditional analog format. Ethernet is the transmission medium. One of the benefits of the conversion to Ethernet was to eliminate the need for replacing the aging matrix switcher—an approximate $1 million cost.

The plan was to eliminate the switcher altogether.

RFP. The committees charged with picking the new system ranked and weighted several issues. These included durability, scalability, life span, interoperability, and cost.

Durability. “Utah has approximately 160 freeze-and-thaw cycles per year,” Van Orman states, adding that both searing heat and freezing cold are regular conditions within the state.

Any outdoor equipment such as the Ethernet switchers and routers and MPEG 2 encoders had to be able to stand up to the weather, to dust, and to roadway vibrations. As part of the process, the committees determined a maximum and minimum temperature and a range of conditions under which the components had to reliably operate.

Scalability. Scalability was also critical. UDOT wanted to increase the number of monitored roads and intersections and perhaps take the system statewide, potentially adding hundreds of cameras as the system moved outside of the Og­den-to-Provo corridor to the vast stretches of state highway.

Life span. The life spans of the new equipment needed to be longer, making it easier to secure replacement parts and to regularly receive service by knowledgeable technicians. As part of the request for proposal (RFP) specifications, UDOT would insist on a five-year equipment warranty. To this end, the financial and corporate stability of the vendor was also important.

Interoperability. A third factor was interoperability. The reason for that concern was that it was clear from projected budgets that a new system would have to be phased in, with components purchased over several years. Some of the old parts of the system would have to remain in place during that phase-in period. Thus, new hardware and software would have to coexist and interoperate with the old system until it was completely phased out, Van Orman explains.

Cost. Cost was also an important criterion—“insofar as it did not affect the other performance criteria,” says Van Orman. Projected budgets would be tight, but everyone recognized that it would ultimately cost more to buy cheap and that the system’s reliability could be impaired if cost alone drove the selection process.

The RFP was put out in August 2003. As bid proposals came in, the prod­­ucts were thoroughly vetted. “Hardware was run through rigorous testing before it was bought,” says Sherman. “All of the vendors had problems to resolve.”

In November 2003, contract awards were distributed to multiple vendors that had made modifications in their equipment to pass the testing process. Among the products chosen were MPEG 2 digital encoders by VBrick of Wallingford, Connecticut, and Teleste of Turku, Finland, both designed specifically for transportation surveillance and monitoring applications. The encoders, linked to the analog CCTV cameras that the system would retain, would deploy a streaming digital signal across the existing network infrastructure to the Traffic Operations Center.

The VBrick product, known as VBrick’s Security, Surveillance and Monitoring (VBSSM) appliance, and Tel­este’s EASI IP MPEG 2 Video/Audio/Data Networking platform can function in the extremes of temperature found in Utah. The encoders, which are mounted in housings near the cameras, compress the analog video in real time and transmit it digitally over an IP network. Video is displayed on the operation center’s monitors using MPEG 2 decod­ers that decompress the data.

According to Van Orman, the MPEG 2 encoders save considerable bandwidth and maximize the potential of the existing fiber-optic cable system. The analog stream required one fiber per camera. With MPEG 2, a single fi­ber-optic strand can now carry the digitally encoded video streams of 10 to 15 cameras. “We can expand without laying more fiber-optic cable,” Van Orman states—a huge cost savings.

Purchasing. The first new components—120 digital encoders, decoders, and IP Ethernet switches and routers—were purchased earlier this year. To date, the routers, switches, and approximately 40 encoders and decoders have been installed. “There’s more than 200 to go, but we’re doing it slowly because of the budget issues,” says Van Orman.

A complete switchover of all cameras is expected to take about five years, with failing units taking precedence. In the meantime, the hybrid environment must function seamlessly, with the goal that the monitors and camera operators not notice a difference between the converted and unconverted video. Thus far, this has been the case, Van Orman says.

Software. The software that runs the system was, and will continue to be, proprietary. It has been modified by UDOT IT engineers to create a stable “hy­brid environment” until the day comes when all cameras are transmitting through the IP Ethernet routers and switchers, at which point the elderly matrix switcher can finally retire, Van Orman explains.

The customized features of the software allow camera operators to choose any of the system’s cameras to view and control, and also give them a choice of customized camera sequences. According to Sherman, the software is thus far working well, with no serious issues.

Van Orman states that the hybrid system is functioning well, with only occasional glitches and outages that don’t surpass what is expected in any system. The new hardware has not yet been tested by a full cold winter, however.

ROI. UDOT has performed elemental cost-benefit assessments on the ATMS system. It estimates that for every dollar spent on the system, $16.70 is saved; those savings come from a combination of reductions in lost production time caused by traffic delays and reductions in fuel use. The environment also benefits from the reduced emissions of cars idling in traffic. But in pure economic benefits, Salt Lake City gains approximately $179 million annually.

As of this writing, quick clicks around the map on the CommuterLink Web site shows that snow tires are advised near Ogden on SR-226 to Snow­basin, and that there’s heavy fog on SR-16 through Randolf and Wood­ruff. Traffic is heavy on I-15 at the 9000 Street Southwest exit, but for most commuters who rely on the ATMS to “Know Before You Go,” it’s a straight shot into work this morning.

Ann Longmore-Etheridge is associate editor of Security Management and editor of Dynamics.