When a regional traffic management center in Washington state outgrew its building – as well as the size of its roadway monitoring system – the staff realized it was time not just for a physical upgrade, but a technological one, too.
The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) built its first traffic management center to monitor and control traffic in Seattle in the 1960s, adding others across the state over the decades, along with new detection devices and cameras as technology advanced.
One of those facilities, the Shoreline, Wash., traffic management center, eventually outgrew its building. To allow the center to further expand, WSDOT built a brand-new facility dedicated to traffic management next door to the old building.
With the larger building, WSDOT had the opportunity to upgrade the center’s technology offerings, and jumped at the chance.
“The traffic management center in the old building had about 40 monitors, and we were always trying to squeeze in more, for more camera views,” said Michael Forbis, ITS program manager for WSDOT.
WSDOT knew it wanted a video wall configuration on a larger scale than its previous facility, and looked at a few options, but the reality of a tight state budget shaped its choices.
“One option we looked at was a complete monolithic wall of projection cubes or flat-panel ultra-thin bezel displays,” Forbis said. “We had the funds to do it, but we were concerned about future maintenance costs. Sometimes companies can throw money in a savings pool for future repairs or upgrades, but the DOT is a state agency and can’t do that.”
This meant that as the displays in the monolithic wall inevitably needed replacement, WSDOT would have to find extra money in its budget to do so, or create an entire formal project to replace it instead of swapping out pieces as needed.
“We wanted a solution that we thought we could easily replace,” Forbis said.
For its operations room, WSDOT settled on a video wall comprising 90 NEC Display Solutions P463 46-inch monitors, each with a NEC OPS-PCIC-SWS video processor. The video wall is made up of three sections: left, center, and right, with the left and right sections canted in toward the center of the room by 30 degrees. In the center of the video wall is a 3x4 configuration of NEC X554-UNS 55-inch monitors, which measures more than 18 feet diagonally.
“The configuration we chose got us all the IP video and sequencing we wanted; plus, we can replace the wall in sections for smaller amounts of money over time as needed,” Forbis said. “We can put individual images anywhere on the wall, or, with the ultra-thin-bezel panels, we can also get a giant picture for the entire room.”
The 90-monitor configuration was not originally planned. The initial contract proposed two 72-inch individual monitors in the center instead of the 3x4 configuration, and about 70 42-inch displays making up the video wall, but Forbis said that after his team looked more closely at the contract, they realized they had to pick a specific manufacturer to correctly space the monitors out on the wall.
“I picked the NEC P463 and gave it to the CAD [computer-aided design] guy and said, ‘Put as many as you can on the wall,’” he said. “When we laid it out, we went from 42-inch displays in the original plan to 46-inch displays, and filled the whole wall up. We can’t get another monitor on this wall.”
Forbis said he selected NEC’s displays after a trial run with the technology.
“I bought two of the P463 and two computers and did some testing,” he said. “The software guys, and everyone else, thought they were really cool.”
Several features of the displays appealed to Forbis and his team, including the 24/7 run time, easy replacement, OPS computers and high efficiency.
“I especially liked the viewing angle and brightness,” Forbis said. “They were just nice, bright displays.”
Although WSDOT engaged an AV integrator, Diversified of Seattle, for the installation, Diversified Account Executive Pete Monuteaux said that Forbis chose the technologies he wanted on his own.
“It was a different approach than what we typically do, because usually we’re in earlier, working with the client and making suggestions,” he said. “But we would have gotten the same result from using the NEC displays because they’re really a perfect fit for the application, and from an aesthetic point of view, they all blend well. There might be another brand out there that could have done the job, but I don’t think they’d look the same.”
The installation took place in part of 2015 as well as spring 2016. Both Diversified and Forbis said the installation overall went very well, with a few last-minute workarounds to accommodate.
For example, as Diversified was installing the monitors on the walls, the team discovered that the sheet metal in the false wall built to hold the brackets didn’t go up as high as they thought.
“The building has a two-foot raised floor, and when they laid the steel in the false wall to mount the brackets, we thought we had a foot or two to play with, but the sheet metal was actually measured from the concrete floor,” Forbis said. “So the top row of monitors needed some extra support, and we had to deal with that.”
Another quirk was due to the building’s geographical location in the Pacific Northwest.
“The building came with an earthquake requirement, so we had to run the mounting by a structural engineer to make sure the monitors would stay on the walls in case of an earthquake,” Forbis said.
Jackie McNeice, installation manager for Diversified said that Forbis and his team exhibited an “exceptional” level of preparedness.
“He anticipated what we needed for seamless integration, from power and storage, to identifying space for server rooms,” she said. “Michael and WSDOT were also flexible and understanding problem-solvers, which made it a very easy project for us.”
The Traffic Management Center
The video wall and individual displays give traffic management center employees a way to view and manage current conditions of freeways, including accidents and maintenance projects, either on their individual desktop displays or on the large video wall.
“The video wall is used for collaboration and continuous monitoring of problem sections where we know accidents are likely to occur,” Forbis said.
The video comes from the approximately 750 cameras in the WSDOT system and traffic detectors on the highways, giving a real-time picture of traffic conditions. A display console is set up for the traffic signal operations group, which uses traffic data and live video from the cameras to change the timing of traffic signals when there are incidents or unexpected congestion.
There also are several control functions for road signs all over the state, such as signage showing the variable toll rates; as a roadway gets more congested, the express toll lane’s price fluctuates, and employees can instantly update the signage to reflect the price.
WSDOT has about 200 variable message signs around the state that it can use to flash messages, such as telling motorists what roads to avoid to get around congestion caused by traffic accidents.
WSDOT also controls a 260-ramp metering system, sometimes called flow lights, which limits how fast motorists get on a freeway.
Other monitoring operations include the roadways and pedestrian walkways inside tunnels, which are monitored 24/7. As WSDOT employees see issues like truck load spills or pooling water, radio operators can dispatch field workers to pick up spills or unclog drains. A 20-seat Emergency Operations Center in the same building uses a line matrix of eight NEC P403 40-inch monitors for traffic video. WSDOT information officers use the displays during emergencies to monitor local news to ensure they are getting out the correct message to the public. There is also a console WSDOT shares with area transit officials.
“During inclement weather, we get their personnel in here, so we can help directly manage buses to avoid problem spots,” Forbis said. “Plus, if they need roads sanded or plowed, we can dispatch maintenance from this location.”
All displays have OPS computers in them, and all are wired with Cat-6 cable to a back room via a large Cisco switch through which WSDOT routes all video traffic. An unusual feature of the computer system is its DIY element: State ITS employees wrote the applications that run on the OPS.
“One reason we went to the effort to do that is that we like having the licensing ourselves,” Forbis said. “We give it to TV stations and major networks and they can tap in to our video for their live newsfeeds, and don’t have to deal with licensing.”
WSDOT also installed five NEC P463 monitors in the office area. Each manager has one on his or her office wall, with two near the supervisors. The monitors include high-end Nextcom OPS computers and wireless keyboards, and are loaded with Microsoft Office and linked to the corporate network.
“Think 46-inch PC on your wall,” Forbis said. “Everyone loves these things!”
Forbis added that the displays in the monitoring and control system have been running 24/7 for more than a year with no failures.
“We never turn off this wall,” he said. “We’re very happy with all of the monitors.”