Interstate 210 (I-210) is a 12.4-mile-long bypass of I-10 in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
One of the defining features of this route is the Israel LaFleur Bridge. Built in 1962, this four-lane bridge is 140 ft tall, making it one of the tallest structures in southwest Louisiana. Measuring 8,500 ft in length, it spans the Calcasieu Ship Channel and Prien Lake and carries approximately 80,000 vehicles per day. After 54 years of operation, a major reconstruction project kicked off in 2018 to maintain the bridge’s integrity and extend its life. Kiewit Louisiana Company (Kiewit) is the prime contractor on the project.
Performing work 24 hours per day, six days per week on a bridge has many challenges, especially when portions of it remain open to traffic throughout the duration of the project. As expected, the work has led to an increase in traffic congestion along I-210, I-10, and the surrounding area—and an increase in traffic usually results in an increase in crashes. However, according to Dick Gremillion, Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness for Calcasieu Parish, the overall volume of recorded vehicle crashes during the project has been much lower than expected.
“In my 23-year career, I’ve never been involved in a major construction project that has gone as smoothly as this one, in terms of emergency response,” Gremillion said. This can be directly attributed to the many hours of planning that the project team had prior to the start of construction. On-site tow trucks that are able to quickly respond to and clear crashes, 24/7 presence of multiple state/local police, and the smart work zone systems in place to provide real-time travel information to motorists are three critical pieces of the puzzle. Most of the accidents that have occurred have been fender benders; as of this writing, there have been no major injuries to date.
Figure 1. The size and scale of the I-10 / I-210 smart work zone is unlike any other ever deployed. Overall, the project has required the installation of over 180 pieces of smart work zone equipment, which is intercommunicating 24/7.
WHAT IS A "SMART WORK ZONE?"
A smart work zone, as it applies to managing traffic in work zones, consists of integrating various traffic control devices (i.e., changeable message boards, speed sensors, static signs with flashing lights, incident detection cameras, bluetooth detection devices, radios, and other technologies) with one another in an effort to calm traffic and provide real-time roadside messaging to motorists as they approach and/or travel through a highway work zone. As Gremillion mentioned, a contributing factor in the low number of crashes within the I-210 work zone and alternative routes in and around the Lake Charles area can be attributed to the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (LaDOTD) specifying a smart work zone in the traffic control portion of the project. Due to their documented success in improving work-zone safety, smart work zones are increasing in popularity across North America. As automotive companies continue to develop connected and autonomous vehicle technology, the ability for these vehicles to receive real-time data within work zones will become even more important.
Just as no two highway construction projects are identical, the same can be said about smart work zones. The ability to design and deploy a combination of traffic safety devices that match the specific needs of a project is a major factor in the increase in popularity of these systems in work zones across North America. Whether it is a bridge replacement on a rural two-lane highway that moves 80 cars a day, or a massive project like the I-210 project that sees tens of thousands of cars per day, the beauty of smart work zones is that they can be easily deployed and tailored to each job.
“We have definitely seen the value in smart work zone systems,” Erich Jones, Kiewit’s on-site project manager, said. “The advanced warning provided to motorists miles before our work zone and the multiple static signs located at the bridge approaches demand attention and result in more alert drivers. These are proven systems that enhance work-zone safety for all stakeholders. The LaDOTD did an excellent job defining a comprehensive smart work zone system that’s operational 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The collaboration between all partners involved with the project has been outstanding and is critical to ensuring the system operates as designed, leading to increased safety for everyone within the work zone.”
AN INTEGRATED SYSTEM
Four of the most common smart work zone applications—queue detection/warning, alternative route messaging, travel time messaging, and traffic camera trailers—are incorporated into the Lake Charles project. Let us take a look at how each application is configured and its impact on overall work-zone safety.
Queue Detection/Warning Systems: For this project, traffic speed sensors are positioned 1/8 to 1/4 of a mile “upstream” or past a “Slow / Stopped Traffic When Flashing” trailer. Due to the traffic density, limited-sight curves, bridges, and overpasses on this project, a speed sensor + I/O radio device was custom-engineered to communicate instantaneously with two flashing signs when slow or stopped traffic is detected, providing advanced warning to motorists and reducing rear-end collisions. In traditional queue warning systems, the distance between sensors and signs is increased, and cellular communication, with 40-75 seconds of “lag time,” is acceptable. The project has 53 queue warning systems, each set-up consisting of a sensor communicating with two flashing trailers.
Alternative Route and Travel Time Messaging: Traffic speed sensors and traffic data collection devices calculate average travel time through the I-10/I-210 corridor and communicate with changeable message signs to provide alternative routes and/or the time it will take for a motorist to travel through the work zone (i.e., “10 MILES / 12 MIN”) to motorists when certain conditions are met. This information allows drivers to decide whether to change routes and, hopefully, calm tempers. Twenty-three changeable message signs that contain alternative route and/or travel time messages—positioned 2 to 20 miles prior to the actual work zone—are being employed on this project.
Traffic Camera Trailers: It is hard to go anywhere these days and not be on camera. Work zones are no exception. Oftentimes permanently mounted traffic cameras and the poles they are mounted on are removed as a result of construction, but thanks to the use of solar-powered, trailer-mounted PTZ cameras, project managers and DOT officials can view traffic conditions and construction progress in real-time and make operational decisions as applicable. Some smart work zones include cameras with advanced software that can detect specified activities such as wrong-way drivers and stalled vehicles, and notify authorities through automated alerts. Four camera trailers are used on this project.
Street Smart smart work zone traffic safety equipment located on I-10 and I-210 in Lake Charles. Speed sensors, message boards, traffic cameras, and other technologies are deployed along the corridor.
THE LARGEST SMART WORK ZONE EVERY DEPLOYED
Traffic Solutions Inc. of New Orleans is responsible for a large portion of the day-to-day management of traffic control and lane closures for the entire project. They selected Street Smart, a nationwide rental provider of traffic safety equipment and smart work zones, to provide smart work zone equipment and integration services. “It was very apparent from the start that I-10 would see a significant increase in traffic volumes due to the bridge work on I-210,” Glen Eggers, lead project manager and estimator, said. “In order to help minimize issues, an extensive detour for both eastbound and westbound traffic on I-10 was developed. We knew that the smart work zone system would be a critical piece of the project in order to direct as much traffic as possible to these detour routes and to effectively manage the traffic traveling through the work zone. Overall, the project has required the installation of over 180 pieces of smart work zone equipment. This equipment is intercommunicating 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
The size and scale of this smart work zone is unlike any other ever deployed, as evidenced in Figure 1. “Our team has been partnering with traffic control companies just like Traffic Solutions across North America for over 20 years to provide turnkey smart work zone planning, equipment, and monitoring,” Mike Granger, president of Street Smart, said. “When we reviewed the initial requirements of the Lake Charles project, we were blown away by the sheer volume of smart work zone equipment that was specified within the traffic control plan. To be perfectly honest, it seemed like way too much equipment for the job, but after the initial pre-construction site visit and actually driving through the various limited-sight curves, overpasses, and bridges within the proposed work zone, and seeing the volume of cars traveling the I-10 / I-210 loop and surrounding each day, it was apparent that the traffic engineers did their due diligence and designed an appropriate smart work zone for the project. It was no small feat to configure, deliver, and deploy the equipment, and there were many agencies and companies involved.”
To date, over 35 states have implemented smart work zones on highway projects. Adoption rates and frequency of their use varies from state to state, but a common denominator is increased safety for motorists and roadway workers within work zones. As agencies work to fight against the growing epidemic of distracted driving, particularly within construction work zones, expect to see more smart work zones across North American highways.
All photos: Chris Lognion, MediaPost