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Dialing up, dodging delays

You need to know whether interstate traffic is a mess, and you can't wait for radio reports. To avoid nasty surprises, you want information now.

A new dial-up traffic information service, part of the state's growing Intelligent Transportation System, is already up and running in the Orlando and Miami areas, and it is coming to the interstates in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

When operations begin in the Tampa Bay area in about 18 months, motorists will be able to dial 511 from their cars or from their homes and be connected to a voice recognition system.

Speak the name of a place. It can be a street, an intersection, Busch Gardens, Tropicana Field or hundreds of other locations. The call will be routed automatically to a taped report on traffic conditions in that area.

Updates will be nearly instantaneous during times of heavy traffic. On weekends and overnight, updates will come every 20 minutes. Beyond your cell phone charges, the service is free.

The Florida Department of Transportation is planning coverage of the interstates and possibly some other major roads in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Eventually, the Intelligent Transportation System will cover Florida's entire interstate system, and someday it will cover the nation.

Four states, Minnesota, Nebraska, Utah and Arizona, already have statewide 511 systems. The western part of Virginia and a small area of northern Kentucky also are active.

How well does it work?

"We had an accident last week on I-4 in Seminole County that left a car hanging over a railing," said Alan Edwards, vice president of Traffic Management Inc., which operates the 511 system in Orlando for the Florida Department of Transportation. "The interstate was closed. At one time, that would have backed up traffic all the way into Orlando. As it was, the backup never got out of Seminole County.

"Having the 511 system up and running saved anywhere from 8 to 10 miles of backup."

In addition to getting reports from police agencies throughout its coverage area, the 511 system in Orlando uses real-time cameras to watch the highways and speed sensors on the roads that detect when traffic slows down, which helps calculate the length of travel delays.

Cameras and sensors will be installed in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties as the interstates undergo reconstruction. That process won't be complete when 511 goes into operation here in about 18 months, but it is expected to be fully operational by 2006.

"At first, we're going to have to rely on other sources of information," said Bill Wilshire, the ITS coordinator for the region. "We'll get reports from the FHP and from sheriff's offices and local police. We'll have updated road construction information. We will use existing cameras that have been installed by local jurisdictions."

Wilshire said coverage is planned for interstates 75, 275 and 4, and FDOT hopes to include U.S. 19, Dale Mabry Highway and the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway.

"Some areas of the Crosstown and Dale Mabry already have cameras," he said, "and they are in the works in Pinellas County for Gulf-to-Bay (Boulevard) and U.S. 19."

In and around Orlando, the ITS system recognizes almost 1,000 different streets and locations and breaks them down into six zoned messages. All cell phone users except Verizon customers can access the system. Verizon does not offer it. Beginning this week, all land-line companies will offer it.

The coverage areas stretch along I-4 from the Polk/Osceola county line to South Daytona, down I-95 to the Bee Line Expressway and the length of the Bee Line. Camera coverage is extensive, and the speed sensors are set a 10th of a mile apart.

"There isn't much that can escape our attention," Edwards said.

The system costs $413,000 a year to operate, including the 20 employees of Traffic Management Inc.

Edwards says the system averages 10,000 calls a day during the week and about 4,500 on weekends.

"Of course, we get big spikes if there's an accident," he said.

There is no limit to the system's capacity.

Eventually, the ITS statewide system also will include a series of computerized roadside signswarning motorists of bad weather, construction or accidents ahead.

Two of those boards already exist on I-275, and there is one I-175 in Pinellas County, though for the time being their messages are largely confined to parking instructions for events at Tropicana Field.