InTrans / Mar 06, 2016

No matter the weather, Iowa DOT Traffic Management Center is a “Highway Helper”

Go! Magazine

Traffic at nightposted on March 6, 2016

Few things seem to send people into varying levels of uneasiness more than a harsh winter forecast.

And with the unpredictability of winter weather here in Iowa, our sunny, warmer, spring weather can quickly turn into something a bit more blizzard-like.

Iowans without 4×4 pickup trucks worry about driving to work in the morning while their kids dream of a potential “snow day.”

However, during the night, before storms are ready to strike, employees of the Iowa Department of Transportation (Iowa DOT) gear up for another hard day at work keeping drivers safe on the high-traffic roadways.

While those worried adults are driving in slick, low-visibility conditions, some Iowa DOT employees are deep into their twelve-hour shifts at the department’s Traffic Management Center in Ankeny, Iowa.

The Traffic Management Center is housed in an underground portion of the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) building, separated from the cacophony of the driver’s license station. It is run by both Iowa DOT employees as well as contracted help from Prairie Land Towing, a company in Wisconsin.

As it is now, the Traffic Management Center is a much-needed upgrade from its former model. “It was like working in a closet,” says Keith Ellis, project manager of the old Operations Center.

No matter the conditions of the Traffic Management Center or the roads they monitor, the station employee’s work around the clock to monitor the roadways.

During their shifts, employees look up to the south wall full of monitors, 48 in total. Most of these monitors flip through live feeds from the 316 cameras located all along Iowa’s roadways. The different roads monitored by the cameras differ in traffic density; some show Iowa’s busy interstates while others display the state’s empty highways.

Any of the cameras, though, are capable of showing an accident or simply a driver in need, to which the Traffic Management Center can send help via the Iowa DOT’s Highway Helper program.

The Highway Helper program sends specialized trucks out to drivers in need along roadways in Council Bluffs, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, and Des Moines. The trucks are equipped to help drivers with minor ailments such as an empty gas tank or a flat tire. They also assist local law enforcement by helping with traffic flow after accidents, thereby preventing secondary accidents.

Through assisting drivers along I-235, I-35, and I-80 with smaller matters as well, the Highway Helper program helps local officers focus their attention on more important matters.

Quite literally, the Traffic Management Center has a bird’s-eye view of the state via certain tech programs such as MACH (Mobile Architecture for Communications Handling). MACH is the key ingredient of the Highway Helper program, including access to real-time mapping and data regarding law enforcement and incident reports.

MACH also gives the Iowa DOT the option to dispatch officers to the scenes of accidents. Because of its access to this feature and other sensitive information, MACH is entirely unavailable to the public.

That is not to say, though, that all tech programs used by the Traffic Management Center restrict outside use.

The Iowa DOT’s main program for keeping their eyes on the roads is 511, a program useable on computers, smartphones (Android/iPhone), and tablets. You can find the link to 511 here.

Besides offering a full map of the state, the Iowa DOT’s 511 program offers up-to-date information on incidents (winter-weather related or otherwise), highway construction, and access to camera feeds and the speeds of the roads where they are located.

Another program that is a part of 511 but with its own moniker is Track a Plow. The program’s main feature is offering locational information regarding the current directions of the plow trucks during snowstorms. Track a Plow is also more tailored to give the user more immediate information on winter weather updates than 511.

Road closures, camera feeds (much like 511), and even feeds from cameras mounted on some of the plows are available on Track a Plow. A link to Track a Plow’s webpage is available here.

By allowing not just the public access to these programs but also their immediate and easy use shows the Iowa DOT’s willingness to work with drivers to make driving in Iowa safer.

I strongly recommend taking a look at the links provided before getting behind the wheel during the next snowstorm, elsewise you may find Highway Helper having to come help you.

By Alex Larson, Go! Intern

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