Electronic freeway signs to have a local feel during pilot program

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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Letter to WSDOT on electronic signs

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WSDOT response on electronic signs

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Clark County is poised to host a pilot program that expands the use of electronic signs along freeways.

Sheriff's Sgt. Shane Gardner and Max Ault, former legislative assistant to Rep. Tim Probst, noticed local signs often contained the same ongoing messages about DUI patrols and sign testing. They thought the signs were underutilized and that local authorities should have more control over messaging.

The Washington Department of Transportation controls electronic signs around the state, using them to publicize Amber Alerts, bridge lifts, construction and accidents that are blocking lanes or causing congestion. Each sign is changed individually.

After sending a letter to WSDOT Secretary Paula Hammond in January about expanding the regional use of these variable message signs, Ault was nervous the letter would be dismissed, even with signatures from local police chiefs and legislators. Hammond's reply, however, showed support.

"While we haven't done this from a regionalized perspective, we would be interested in working with you to pilot a possible expanded use of VMS similar to our involvement on statewide efforts, supporting your area's specific traffic safety priorities and efforts," Hammond said in the letter.

Statewide, WSDOT is deploying a new Blue alert system, similar to Amber alerts, that enlists the public's help in finding suspected cop killers.

The department is also working with the Oregon Department of Transportation to provide freeway travel times for rush hour commuters.

A strategic local program could serve as a statewide catalyst for improved transportation communication.

Other states around the country already have similar programs in place. In the Midwest, for instance, dynamic message signs along major freeways give drivers location-specific travel times and emergency and safety information.

Hammond explains that overusing signs can create a "numbing" effect, where drivers begin to ignore the messages. At some sign locations, motorists slow down, resulting in unexpected traffic clogs. The department has also received complaints for displaying messaging considered unrelated to immediate traffic conditions.

What the expanded use will look like depends on the collaboration among WSDOT and local officials. Gardner and Ault hope the signs can provide road conditions, offer safe driving tips and warn drivers about crime trends.

Ault envisions nationwide consistency among message systems to help motorists traveling from state to state, so they can expect the same type of localized information anywhere they go.

"All in due time," he said.

Patty Hastings: 360-735-4513; http://www.twitter.com/col_cops;patty.hastings@columbian.com.