Dr. Traffic

Command center works to keep Charlotte-area interstates moving

Staffers at the Metrolina Regional Transportation Management Center monitor live video from the region’s interstates.
Staffers at the Metrolina Regional Transportation Management Center monitor live video from the region’s interstates.

Tucked away in a building off of Statesville Road is a three-person team working to keep us rolling along on the Charlotte region’s interstates.

“One person stranded on the side of the road can almost shut an interstate down,” said Tim Kirk, regional engineer for N.C. Department of Transportation’s Intelligent Traffic System. “It usually takes several hours for the traffic to recover.”

The job in the control room at the Metrolina Regional Transportation Management Center is to prevent that from happening by being proactive and reactive, Kirk said.

To prevent congestion or help clear it, those in the control room can send alerts to media outlets for traffic reports. They also can post alerts on digital highway signs.

Other times, the command center staff might send a tow truck to clear a wreck or vehicle that has stopped on the interstate. Then they might need to quickly remove debris from travel lanes, with the help of the nine-member Incident Management Assistance Patrol.

If there’s a police chase on the interstate, the command center might be called to help authorities keep tabs on who’s moving where.

The control room is also a resource when emergency responders need to pinpoint the location of someone who is waiting for help.

The network for monitoring the interstates includes radios, cameras and contact with 911 dispatchers and other emergency response agencies. It’s part of a $15 million-a-year transportation management effort by NCDOT statewide.

Locally, the Intelligent Transportation System’s technology captures images from 130 cameras spread out across about 150 miles of interstate.

Those cameras feed live video from interstates 77, 85, and 485, as well as interstates 40 and 77 in Statesville.

(Charlotte Department of Transportation has a similar operation with about 400 cameras that keep watch over roads in the city limits, Kirk said.)

NCDOT’s cameras in Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Gaston and Iredell are especially important. Six of the top 10 areas for congestion in the state are in the Charlotte region, Kirk said.

I-77, for example, handles up to 170,000 vehicles a day in some locations, making it the area’s busiest highway, Kirk said.

There’s still more work on I-485, where about 50 percent of the loop has cameras now. That’s mostly along the left side of the loop, from Exit 1 in the Pineville area to Exit 31 from the University City area.

Having a team watch over the highways from the command center is also important for the economy. Commercial vehicles make up 10 to 12 percent of traffic, Kirk said.

Still, no one expects to see miracles when they peek behind the control room’s curtain. Here, it’s all about technology and teamwork.

Karen kmsulliv@charlotteobserver.com, @Sullivan_kms