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Technology renders costly freeway traffic signs obsolete

Reported by: Tom Hawley
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Updated: 11/25/2013 6:20 pm
You've seen the signs, even if you weren't sure what you were looking at. We're talking about those large, rectangular signs near freeways. They've been up for about a decade, but have never really lived up to their potential. And now, it looks like the millions and millions of dollars they cost to put up could be wasted.

LAS VEGAS (KSNV -- The large, rectangular signs near freeways that have been up for about a decade are becoming obsolete before it even started.

The Trailblazer System theoretically had all the kinks worked out in 2010, five years after the planned deployment date. But the roots go back much earlier to when freeway engineers were first getting excited about something called Intelligent Transportation Systems.

Brian Hoeft inherited the Trailblazer System a couple of years ago when he became director of “FAST” -- the Freeway and Arterial System of Transportation -- which is a grab bag of different its solutions.

“In the ‘80s, ‘90s, as the ITS concepts started to emerge, you knows the idea is, ‘Let's say your freeway is closed, and you need to get off the freeway and get routed back onto the freeway.’ That was the concept, and back then, there was limited technology, limited devices to do that,” Hoeft said.

In May 2010, officials were confident all the kinks in the system were worked out and would be deployed during the next freeway emergency.

But the Trailblazers never have been used for freeway accidents -- and it's not like there haven't been situations that fit the bill.

In August 2010, a chemical spill shut down the freeway for hours. In summer 2012, multiple jackknifed trailers did the same. Whatever the technical issues, there are faster, easier understood ways now to get the information out.

“A lot of times we get it from our in vehicle navigation systems,” Hoeft said. “And we get it from (television) reports and radio reports and Internet updates and social media tweets.”

The only concrete use of Trailblazers can quickly point to is carefully planned roadwork closures.

“One of the things we have geared up for during the F Street construction is to have them available in case where was a sustained full freeway closure during the construction,” Hoeft said.

But it will never be anything on the fly. It's a lot of hardware and software that mostly sits dark and gathers cobwebs.

“I don't foresee expansion of that anytime soon, and we're going to evaluate other options for them,” Hoeft said. That could include demolition of a system bypassed by consumer electronics advances long before it was even complete.

If the system comes down, it will be handled by the Nevada Department of Transportation, who designed and built the signs in the first place.


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