Like the flip of a switch, a new traffic tool lit up on freeways in Clark County on Thursday morning.
The Washington State Department of Transportation activated a set of new travel-time signs that will give drivers real-time data showing traffic conditions on key routes in the region. The signs will coordinate with a system already operating in the Portland area, including three new signs also launched Thursday by the Oregon Department of Transportation.
“Even though they’re different systems, they share data,” said Dennis Mitchell, an ODOT traffic engineer.
Drivers will see two types of signs in the region. In Clark County, regular message boards will display point-to-point travel times to upcoming destinations — something ODOT has done in the Portland area since last year. The other type of sign, activated for the first time Thursday, show the estimated travel times to one destination for two different routes.
In Clark County, for example, a sign north of the Interstate 5-Interstate 205 split tells southbound travelers how long it will take to reach the two freeways’ southern convergence in Oregon. One number estimates the travel time on I-5; the other on I-205.
“They’ll be able to have the information in front of them before they choose,” Mitchell said.
Two other such signs in the county turned on Thursday: one on southbound I-5 at 29th Street, the other on westbound state Highway 14 just east of I-205. A fourth will be installed along southbound I-205 just below state Highway 500 next year, according to WSDOT. In addition to those signs, four regular message boards will display travel times along I-5, I-205 and Highway 14, according to the agency.
The system works using a variety of technologies, said Stan Markuson, a WSDOT system traffic engineer. Those include hundreds of sensors embedded along the highways, and Bluetooth technology that can track a vehicle — or precisely, a device within a vehicle — and the time it takes to travel from Point A to Point B, Markuson said.
For Washington, the system cost about $900,000, Markuson said. That’s a relatively low-cost improvement that still can provide a benefit for travelers, he said.
“It’s way less expensive than increasing capacity or adding a lane,” Markuson said.
WSDOT already uses similar signs around Tacoma and Seattle. But the system is new to Southwest Washington.
Drivers should note that any estimate is a snapshot, and conditions can change quickly, said WSDOT spokeswoman Tamara Greenwell.
“Each travel time is sort of a blink in time,” Greenwell said.