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The smart highway

Over budget, behind schedule, the 'big brain' would allow instant communication between controllers and drivers - if and when it works

By Raphael Lewis, Globe Staff, 3/24/2002
Dozens of video screens display tunnel traffic conditions inside the Big Dig operations control center in South Boston in November. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

Getting out the news
See how the Integrated Project Control System will keep the roads safer, cleaner, and more efficient.

When transportation planners first unveiled designs for a downtown Boston Expressway in 1930, they billed the elevated highway a "central artery." But despite the blood vessel imagery, the steel-and-asphalt leviathan they soon created shared little with the frustrated humans who used it.

When the new Central Artery fully opens in late 2004 or early 2005, the roadway will finally have a touch of humanity. Thanks to a $200-million-and-climbing investment in a so-called "Intelligent Transportation System," the project will be endowed with an electronic brain, a central nervous system, lungs, eyes, nostrils, a sense of touch, even a voice.

Called the Integrated Project Control System, or IPCS, the Central Artery's electronic monitoring mechanism will constitute the nation's largest, most sophisticated, and most expensive system, allowing highway operators and engineers to respond in real-time to collisions, car fires, and traffic jams, with plenty of help from computers that will do much of the thinking for them.

Anyone who has driven Boston's Central Artery has probably concluded that it would take a rocket scientist to cure the city's traffic woes. So that's exactly who the state turned to for the job.

Honeywell Technology Solutions Inc., one of NASA's top contractors, and the company now building a $1.2 billion Satellite Control Network for the Air Force, won the Big Dig brains contract in 1999, saying it could build the system for $104 million. But last week, the firm told project officials that it will need an additional $91 million to finish the job, due to innumerable delays and complications. One problem stems from an early decision to build the tunnels before plans for the IPCS were complete, so that construction work could begin, but that decision has resulted in costly, time-consuming retrofits of tunnel conduits and numerous redesigns.

While the company and project officials haggle over the money, there are also significant concerns that the IPCS will not work as planned. In the Ted Williams Tunnel, which opened in 1995, several gadgets have never worked properly, thanks in large part to the hasty construction of the system in an effort to bolster then-governor William Weld's ultimately failed bid for a US Senate seat.

This time, however, the project has little choice but to get it right: The Federal Highway Administration has made it clear that new portions of the Big Dig will not open unless the ventilation system in the tunnels, and the IPCS components that operate them, are in working order. The systems, after all, are the only means available for drawing smoke and or other harmful air contaminants out of the tunnels.

But if the IPCS works as planned, the technology now being built makes the current Central Artery look like the ancient Silk Road.

Beneath the pavement, 1,500 magnetic "loop detectors" will monitor the progress of each vehicle passing above to gauge traffic flow, determine if a car has suddenly stopped or dramatically slowed -- which could mean there has been an accident -- and provide traffic counts to aid in planning. While the loop detectors could easily detect a speeder, project officials insist that state troopers will not have access to the data.

On surface roads, light beams will scan trucks to make sure they can fit in tunnels, warning drivers with a series of flashing lights and message signs if they cannot. If the trucker fails to stop, a traffic light signal farther down the roadway will turn red and will not return to green until a state trooper manually overrides it.

Inside the tunnels, 151 infrared scanners will examine air quality samples, triggering massive fan systems if the level of unhealthy gases rises too high. No road system in the nation has ever used such an intelligent air quality control process. Overhead, 425 closed-circuit television cameras will pan across nearly every inch of the gleaming new road system, instantly recording accident alarms tripped by the loop detectors or other devices.

The electronic signals, carried over hundreds of miles of fiber- optic cables that will snake below and above the tunnel tubes, will be relayed to the $15 million Operations Control Center in South Boston, which resembles a small version of NASA's Houston Control. There, a team of highway managers will sit before a massive wall of computer and video monitors, ready at a moment's notice to dispatch police and firefighters, tow trucks, and ambulances positioned along the Artery.

All the fancy gadgets are not merely bells and whistles, says Bruce Kuechler, an operations manager for the Big Dig's management consultant, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff. They will make it possible for the Central Artery, which currently carries 190,000 vehicles a day, to handle the projected 245,000 a day that will use the highway in 2010 with much greater ease.

"The Central Artery's not just going to be bigger than the current road system; it's going to be smarter, and that means we'll be able to handle even more volume still," said Kuechler. "If you can tell the traveling public quickly about things they need to know, the system works more efficiently.

"You can't end traffic jams, but you can sure make them shorter and easier to end."

That is, if the gadgetry performs.

Loop detectors, which are basically hexagon-shaped electrical wire implants that create a magnetic field that vehicles pass through, are extremely delicate. The technology has been around since the Kennedy era, and most traffic lights come equipped with them, but if not installed properly, they can fail to sense when vehicles pass through the magnetic field. Perini/Powell, the joint venture that performed the Ted Williams Tunnel work that Honeywell is now doing elsewhere on the project, has already replaced 65 loop detectors in and near the tunnel, and more will be dug up soon, officials said.

In addition, the ventilation system in the Williams tunnel, as well as the air quality monitors, have never performed adequately, problems that have led the project's managers to choose entirely different technology for the next phases of the Big Dig.

Michael Lewis, the Big Dig's project director, says that nearly all of the glitches in the Ted Williams Tunnel are nearing repair, and the entire system should be working in time for the planned November opening of the Turnpike connection from Boston to Logan International Airport.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which began at Logan, have highlighted another crucial use of the IPCS system, officials say. Boston drivers will be able to learn at a moment's notice of an attack, a major emergency, or a natural disaster.

Chief among the tools the IPCS will bring is a radio interrupter that will allow the highway's operators to break in over AM and FM radio broadcasts to communicate with drivers inside the tunnels, as emergency crews from 10 dedicated stations along the Artery enter the roadway from dedicated ramps. The tunnels will also be equipped with cellular and radio antennas, so drivers have a link to vital information as they ply the subterranean roadways.

And hundreds of digital message signs, speed limit signs, and lane indicators will inform and prepare drivers miles in advance of incidents, warning motorists to slow down, change lanes, or follow detours.

If the sophisticated system does work properly, drivers will hardly notice it, officials point out. Fender-benders, engine fires, jackknifes, and the other fodder of traffic reports will still take place with predictable regularity on the new Central Artery, but the traffic management system is supposed to whittle down the delays they cause significantly.

"You're getting the state-of-the-art in Boston, but if it's a normal traffic jam because of volume, there's not much [intelligent transportation systems] can do," said James Cheeks, who develops intelligent transportation standards at the Washington-based Institute of Transportation Engineers. "You can manipulate the lanes, you can tell people about accidents, but you can't widen the highway."

Raphael Lewis can be reached at

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 3/24/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

© Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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