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Tech upgrades aim to curb I-4 crashes, congestion between Tampa and Orlando

The Interstate 4 corridor is targeted for connected vehicle technology, diverting motorists to other routes.
Traffic is seen along Interstate 4 in the Champions Gate area near Orlando. A portion of the road, between Tampa's central business district and southwest Orlando,  is targeted for technological upgrades to better manage traffic flow with the aim to make the highway safer and less congested.  [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Traffic is seen along Interstate 4 in the Champions Gate area near Orlando. A portion of the road, between Tampa's central business district and southwest Orlando, is targeted for technological upgrades to better manage traffic flow with the aim to make the highway safer and less congested. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Apr. 14
Updated Apr. 14

TAMPA — Transportation planners are preparing to use new technology to try to solve an old problem — traffic crashes and congestion on Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando.

The state Department of Transportation is designing a corridor management system that will relay real time information directly to motorists about congestion, accidents, work zones, weather warnings and even end-of-the-traffic-back-up locations on I-4 and alternate routes. The idea behind so-called connected vehicle technology is to improve traffic flow on the interstate and east-west alternatives without adding new lanes or acquiring new right of way.

On Wednesday, Hillsborough’s Metropolitan Planning Organization — elected and appointed officials sitting as the local transportation planning agency — agreed to amend its current improvement program to budget nearly $14.5 million for the system.

More than 150,000 vehicles travel I-4 between Tampa and Orlando daily. There were 45 fatal accidents and nearly 2,100 injury crashes in a two-year period ending in 2018. The accidents lead to delays. On average, there are two lane closures each day, and every 11 days the highway is shut down completely in a single direction.

In an effort to reduce those numbers, the corridor management system will run from the central business district in Tampa to the southwest side of Orlando at the Florida Turnpike. It includes 77 miles of I-4, 122 miles of other limited-access routes, and arterial roads equipped with 491 traffic signals.

Construction in the Tampa Bay area is expected to begin in summer 2022 and be completed in 2024.

The hardware includes roadside detectors providing wireless communication between highway and street locations and vehicles equipped with on-board receivers. Video and radar will aid automated traffic signals on alternate routes.

“It’s a little frustrating,” said Megan Arasteh, a Department of Transportation program engineer, about the I-4 congestion. “It impacts the economy and frankly, what we need is alternative routes.”

The system, when operable, will tell motorists travel times and conditions on the interstate and the alternative routes of Hillsborough Avenue, Martin Luther King Boulevard and State Road 60 in order to guide commuters to the least congested road.

But Hillsborough Commissioner Kimberly Overman wondered about the safety of pedestrians and local motorists if the system diverts heavy traffic from I-4 to urbanized streets.

“What assurances do the people in those local municipalities have that ... safety comes first as opposed to moving traffic through at a rapid rate?”

Arasteh said managing the timing of the traffic signals on those alternative routes should provide the added capacity without compromising safety.

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An unanswered question is how to retrofit cars and trucks with the onboard units that will send and receive data on cars speed and location. Arasteh said Ford Motor Co. is introducing the unit in some of its cars in 2022.

Joseph Waggoner, executive director of the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority, said his agency built 1,000 units for buses, trolley cars and volunteer motorists to use in a similar connected-vehicle project run by the authority for the past three years. That agency is partnering with the state on a portion of the system.

“It’s all about making the driver more aware of what’s happening in front of them in a very timely method,” Waggoner told the rest of the board. “It’s not about making cars go faster. That’s not the point. It’s about making the environment safer for cars, for pedestrians, for cyclists all across the board.”