Security converges with traffic management

steve Titch visits Houston TransStar regional hub using Milestone IP Video
By Steven Titch

Texas Department of Transportation officials are reminded of their mission daily. The five goals of the TxDOT Texas Plan are printed on their business cards. 

* Reduce Congestion
* Enhance Safety
* Expand Economic Opportunity
* Improve Air Quality
* Preserve the Value of Transportation Assets

Note that the word security does not appear, although you don't have to look far to find familiar security equipment and apparatus supporting the Texas highway system.

For a grasp on the value proposition security convergence delivers, look no further than the transportation sector. At the Intelligent Transportation Society of America's annual meeting in Houston last week, surveillance cameras, video management, license plate recognition, smartcards, temperature sensors, RFID and PSIM were all there, but they were not front-and-center. That's because the users in this vertical--transportation planners in the public and private sector don't see security networks as an end in themselves, but as tools to support a broader purpose--namely to keep traffic moving.

Certainly public safety, emergency evacuation and incident response are part of the equation, but even those objectives fit within the greater context of keeping the roads clear. Security Squared accompanied ISTA attendees on visits to two traffic incident management centers in Houston, which the society considers one of the nation's leading cities in the deployment of intelligent transportation systems. The words "security" or "convergence"  were never used, but the impact they are having on managing traffic flow, reducing congestion, improving safety and disseminating information shows that network-centric security is here today, not some long-term emerging trend.

The Greater Houston Transportation and Emergency Management Center, known as Houston TranStar for short, is the regional hub for top-level management of the area's freeways, tollways, high-occupancy vehicle (HOV), high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, critical surface streets and light rail system. Its control center, pictured, ties together networks from TxDOT, the City of Houston, the Harris County Toll Roads Authority (HCTRA) and the Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro), according to David Fink, transportation operations engineer and assistant manager freeway operations at Houston TranStar, who hosted the tour.

From its control room, TranStar can manage, process and respond to information from more than 661 cameras, 5000 traffic signals, 196 dynamic digital signs,14 full weather stations, 134 rain gauge/flood alert sensors and 170 toll tag readers, in addition to ramp meters, speed sensors and a growing number of Bluetooth sensors. Edge devices connect either by 890 miles of fiber optic lines or commercial wireless networks operated by AT&T and Verizon Wireless. The Houston Police Department, Fire Department and wrecker contractors maintain work stations at TranStar. Not only can information and images be relayed immediately to responders on the highways, it can be pushed out in real time to digital signage on the highways as well as to Web sites such as traffic.com and HoustonTranStar.org, which allows visitors to see camera images and signage. The site also is accessible from mobile devices and will deliver email updates on specific routes to commuters who register, Fink said.

TranStar also has a separate emergency operations center which comes into play during hurricanes and any other large-scale emergencies that would require area evacuation. The building can withstand 150-mph winds and has enough fuel to run on diesel generators for 8 to 12 days, he added.

The new process paid dividends when Galveston and Houston took a direct hit from Hurricane Ike in 2008. By that time, coastal evacuation plans, including a highly publicized "run from water, hide from wind" campaign to keep roads open for evacuees truly in harm's way, were in place and could be coordinated from TranStar.

Cameras were able to identify where congestion was and, just as important, where it wasn't. For example, during the evacuation, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who was coordinating the Ike response, was coming under pressure to open the contraflow lanes on I-45, a costly decision because it would require police to be deployed at exits as far north as Dallas to block southbound traffic from entering the highway. While there was congestion north of the city, TranStar cameras showed slow going only for about seven miles before resuming at normal speed, Fink, (pictured, above) said. Emmett was able to make an informed decision not to open the contraflow lanes, saving millions of taxpayer dollars and keeping southbound traffic moving. 

Among its systems, HCTRA uses Milestone's XProtect video management software with license plate recognition to enforce toll collection. HCTRA tolls generate about $1 million in revenues a day, according to Calvin Harvey, assistant administrator for incident management at HCTRA.

Many transportation experts see HCTRA as a model for the future. As revenues from gasoline taxes drop due to changes in consumer driving habits and more fuel-efficient vehicles, planners see toll roads and taxes based on vehicle miles traveled as a new source of infrastructure funding. Countries in Europe and Asia, in fact, are ahead of the U.S. in adopting this approach. However, efficiency, congestion control and compliance will hinge on information networks that tie video surveillance, toll tag databases and payment systems together. 

Read the full article on the SecuritySquared website.

Go to the Milestone Videos page to see Steve Miller, IT project director at HCTRA, discusses deployment of Milestone Systems' XProtect VMS.