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Trafficking in technology

PennDot's regional office is home to a giant video screen showing road conditions in the area.

A computer screen displays a graphic of the intersection of Routes 202 and 30, showing the positions of highway cameras. Ultimately, 140 cameras will feed traffic information to PennDot's video monitors.
A computer screen displays a graphic of the intersection of Routes 202 and 30, showing the positions of highway cameras. Ultimately, 140 cameras will feed traffic information to PennDot's video monitors.Read more

Frank DiJoseph can be forgiven if sometimes he imagines that he is on Star Trek's USS Enterprise.

In the state Department of Transportation's regional headquarters, DiJoseph sits each day at the controls of the highway agency's traffic management center.

On one wall, 16 monitors - looking like 16 television screens - show scenes from the region's highways, just as they have since PennDot moved into its King of Prussia building in late 1999.

The newer adjoining wall is the futuristic piece of the room.

It is one giant surface.

But since it went into operation last November, DiJoseph has been able to display scenes from Chester County and throughout the region captured by up to 40 of the 134 cameras stationed along the highways, all at once.

As many as 40 of those images flip every few seconds, to display another stretch of highway and then another, just as the images on the 16 on the other wall flip, over and over.

It recalls the multi-image moments in the Steve McQueen-Faye Dunaway film, The Thomas Crown Affair.

From I-95 in the east to the Chadds Ford intersection of Routes 1 and 202 in the west, fully 140 PennDot cameras will soon be feeding road conditions onto DiJoseph's walls.

The walls and cameras that feed them, said PennDot spokesman Eugene Blaum, are there "so that we can try to get incidents spotted and cleared as quickly as possible, so lanes can reopen and to keep traffic moving."

The newest are almost all in Chester County, the few others near the Delaware County intersection of Routes 1 and 202.

Since June 2005, those newbies - some not yet operating - have been installed on three major roads.

Fourteen are along Route 202 between Route 30 Bypass and Route 1.

The others are on two Chester County routes that feed into and from Route 202. Seven are on the Route 30 Bypass between Routes 202 and 340, and 12 on Route 100 between Route 202 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Like most in the region, the Chester County cameras hang from what look like streetlight poles, in glass containers about as big as softballs.

The images flow into PennDot headquarters, which shares them with the Philadelphia Police Department, the Pennsylvania State Police, emergency operations centers in Chester and Montgomery Counties, and commercial traffic reporting agencies.

But are the eyes in the skies meant to help police catch road rage and speed demons, too? Blaum gave an emphatic "No."

There are two other pieces of the $13.6 million project, intended to monitor traffic on those three roads.

About halfway up 58 other new high poles are incident detectors that, Blaum said, will report whether traffic is flowing, by working like E-ZPass machines at toll booths.

And in June, PennDot will begin building 22 message boards, to advise drivers about conditions ahead of them.

All this is to prepare drivers for slowdowns during the next major construction project, when PennDot over the next few years widens Route 202 into six lanes north of Route 30.

In front of DiJoseph in the traffic center, a larger monitor on the older wall was showing a car stopped on a shoulder of the westbound Schuylkill Expressway near Gulph Mills in Montgomery County.

No need for help. A police car and a PennDot tow truck bracketed it.

But DiJoseph was keeping it up there, while the other monitors continued to flip images, because it was the only irregular situation.

Until, that is, a driver did a wheelie on southbound I-95 near Girard Avenue.

And that image went up, and stayed up until the road was cleared.

"This guy spun out of control," DiJoseph explained, and so southbound I-95 was a sight to behold - empty for the half-mile from the camera to the car. The police cars, he said, "stopped all the lanes to get him turned around."

It's not all traffic work.

One morning a few years ago, he said, "we were looking for a sniper, at the Market Street overpass at I-95."

But that seemed unimportant when another image went up on the big screen. A TV feed.

It was the morning of 9/11.

See the Traffic

PennDot shows traffic flow from 12 of its cameras in the Philadelphia region on the following Web site:



PennDot also shows traffic flowing through construction on Route 309 from four cameras there. That Web site is

PennDot spokesman Eugene Blaum says that his is "exploring the possibility . . . of expanding this public link to our cameras in the Philadelphia region" with a private vendor.

- Walter F. Naedele