It doesn't take much for rush hour traffic to grind to a halt. A stalled car, an accident or road construction can turn a smooth ride into an excruciating crawl.
It's at times like these that commuters wish they had received a tip to seek an alternate route.
That day is coming.
By next spring, digital screens called Variable Messaging Systems will be stationed at several on-ramps along Interstate 71 to let motorists know how well traffic is flowing along the busy freeway.
If the flow is smooth, the digital display will show the average commuting time. If it is hopelessly congested, the sign will urge motorists to "seek another route."
Through a program called the Columbus Freeway Management System, drivers will receive instant notification from those message displays of roadway tie-ups so they can decide how to best skirt the problem.
A Web site also will provide real-time updates on road conditions and suggestions of alternate routes.
By educating drivers, transportation experts are betting they can reduce congestion and make roads safer.
"Our goal is to improve our existing infrastructure," says Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission Traffic Consultant Chris Hedden. "We can't build our way out of congestion, but we can manage traffic flow by providing you and me, the drivers, with more accurate and timely information about where we're going."
The $56 million program is a cooperative effort among the City of Columbus, the Ohio Department of Transportation and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.
Other cities, such as Cincinnati, Houston and Washington, D.C., have implemented similar programs in an effort to ease their own traffic woes.
An ongoing study by the U.S. Department of Transportation has shown that other cities with freeway management systems have experienced a 32 percent reduction in congestion and a 37 percent drop in crash rates.
I-71 represents the first of a nine-phase, long-term project to provide instant messaging to every major freeway in the Columbus metropolitan area.
Closed-circuit televisions are already able to cover most of I-71, from Polaris Parkway down to the splits at Interstates 670 and 70.
The city of Columbus has provided office space at 109 N. Front St. for a Traffic Management Center, where a transportation team will monitor the video and relay the information to commuters.
"We will be able to get more information about what's going on out there on the roadways, verify incidents, create quicker response times to those incidents and give the traveling public real-time information about what's going on so they can make instant decisions about their routes," says John Gray, Freeway Management System project manager with the Ohio Department of Transportation.
As part of the Freeway Management System, pace meters embedded in the concrete will measure traffic flow. Based on that information, stop lights at each entrance ramp will regulate the number of cars entering the freeway.
"We're trying to keep the flow on the main line even," Hedden says.
After the I-71 corridor is complete, traffic experts will begin wiring I-270 from the Route 33/161 interchange south to I-70.
Within 10 years, the entire Outerbelt and Routes 670, 315 and 33 will have complete traffic surveillance capability.
Kevin DiCola is a free-lance writer for SBN.