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North Carolina tests the future of traffic management on a stretch of I-85

 Operators keep an eye on traffic in the Charlotte Transportation Management Center
Operators keep an eye on traffic in the Charlotte Transportation Management Center

The North Carolina Department of Transportation says one of the first permanent traffic systems in the state is officially up and running on Interstate 85 in Mecklenburg and Gaston counties.

It’s called an Integrated Corridor Management System, and it’s in place between I-85 between exits 10 and 33.

It uses cameras, electronic signs and remote-controlled traffic lights. When an accident is picked up on a traffic camera, operators in a control room activate electronic signs and stoplights to guide drivers onto U.S. 74 and other alternative routes.

NCDOT upgraded 94 traffic signals along U.S. 74 and I-85 ramps, put up two new electronic signs and added 11 cameras, then integrated them into the statewide traffic management system.

The goal is to relieve backups when there’s an accident, but also make the drive between Charlotte and Kings Mountain more predictable.

“Hopefully we’re reducing overall travel times, and more importantly we’re increasing travel time reliability,” said Matthew Carlisle, a signals management engineer for NCDOT. “So we should be making it more consistent travel times so when incidents occur we can reduce their effects on traffic.”

Carlisle says the department has activated the system dozens of times since its soft launch in the spring.

NCDOT is using these systems to direct traffic through construction projects on Interstate 26 between Hendersonville and Asheville, Interstate 40 in the Raleigh area and Interstate 95 around Fayetteville. But the one along I-85 is the first permanent project without the need to guide drivers around construction. That could change, though, since it will be used in the future during work to widen parts of I-85, Carlisle said.

Carlisle says he thinks these kinds of coordinate traffic systems are the future of traffic management in North Carolina.

“You know, you can only add so many lanes, so it really comes down to it at the end of the day, you need to operate as efficiently as you can with the infrastructure you have in place,” Carlisle said. “I guess the bottom line would be expansion and addition.”

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Catherine Welch is Assistant News Director at WFAE. She has led newsrooms at KUNC in Greely, CO, Rhode Island Public Radio in Providence, RI and WHQR in Wilmington, NC.