JACKSON COUNTY -- Workers are laying fiber-optic cable along Interstate 10 this week for a $10 million traffic project that looks to the future.
The Intelligent Traffic System is coming to I-10 in Jackson County this year to deliver a modern driving experience that uses smart boards and speed detectors to keep drivers informed along the route -- changes in traffic flow, accidents to avoid, travel times and explanations for delays.
Traffic engineers say it's been 10 years coming, and for Jackson County, it's not a minute too soon.
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The state Department of Transportation is installing the system first in Jackson County, because the safety need is greater there and federal highway safety mon
ey was available, said Wes Dean, assistant chief engineer for the state.
The 30-mile segment of I-10 is four-lane, has fog, deals with smoke from national wildlife refuge burning and has frequent wrecks on the long Pascagoula River bridge. But the rest of the Coast, he said, shouldn't be far behind in getting the same technology.
What is it?
The system in Jackson County will consist of 92 video traffic cameras, 40 advisory boards and sensors that detect vehicle motion -- some as radar on poles -- and nine overhead electronic message boards that will be placed 24 feet in the air, all connected by a fiber-optic cable.
The data collected will be transmitted to an MDOT information hub in Lyman, north of Gulfport. That traffic-management center will communicate directly with drivers, alerting them via the message boards or having them tune to a certain AM radio frequency for details.
When the boards are not warning about traffic accidents, they can inform drivers entering Jackson County from Biloxi, for example, that "under current traffic conditions, it will take 25 minutes to reach Mississippi 63 in Moss Point."
When the Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge is conducting controlled burns, alerts will be real-time, flexible and accurate.
Flashing beacons are planned to tell drivers entering I-10 from state highways -- 609, 57, 63 -- and Gautier-Vancleave Road to tune to a radio station for details on where the interstate is blocked and to get alternate routes.
When there's a wreck on the 4-mile-long Pascagoula River Bridge, the system can send Alabama drivers to U.S. 90 much sooner, to avoid the wreck, even as early as the first exit into the county at Franklin Creek. That would stop the problem of traffic blindly backing up, trapping motorists between I-10 exits for hours.
There are cameras now at points along the corridor, but the new cameras likely will be more flexible, able to look around, pan, tilt and focus in. And the new signs would be able to detect Bluetooth signals in cars and compute real travel time as a car moves from sign to sign along the corridor.
Radar will capture more-accurate traffic counts during certain times of day to help with road planning. And if anyone is curious, they will be able go to the MDOT website and see for themselves what the traffic managers see on these cameras in the field.
Jackson County is intense
The interstate narrows to two lanes in each direction in Jackson County and in the last 10 years, "that stretch has gotten intense," said Gabe Faggard, district construction engineer.
He started driving it in 1999 as he commuted to work from Moss Point to Ocean Springs, so he has seen the changes firsthand. He has watched families on their way to a Florida vacation stuck on I-10 for two hours, not knowing U.S. 90 was just to the south.
Accidents are pretty regular now, and with fewer lanes, it's harder to divert motorists around a wreck.
There's the fog that develops in the flat, low-lying area between the Pascagoula River and Alabama.
"If we're going to have fog, it will be there," Faggard said. "The system can detect fog and put out alerts for that as well."
Through traffic volumes are getting very high in Harrison and Jackson counties, that heavy traffic funnels from eight lanes to four north of Ocean Springs.
And there's the long bridge over the Pascagoula River.
The system will also have traffic-update kiosks at the Welcome Center and both rest areas in Jackson County. The whole system is data-driven, Dean said. And he sees it coming to the rest of the Coast "sooner better than later. But we have to figure out the funding."
In the meantime, Jackson County is expected to be finished and functioning within 18 months, engineers said.
"It's definitely a major project we're very proud of," said Michael Flood, MDOT spokesman. "You guys are going to love it."