ITS: New Avenues for CCTV

It’s rush hour and there is a five-car pileup blocking all but one lane of the freeway. Because of this accident, it takes two hours to drive a mere 10 miles. Sound familiar? It does to most American commuters.

The good news is Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), which often incorporate CCTV, can provide commuters with some gridlock relief. Via cameras strategically placed on our nation’s highways, freeways and toll roads, Departments of Transportation (DOTs) throughout America monitor traffic conditions and give reports to local news channels and the Internet. Cameras equipped with pan/tilt/zoom (PTZ) features help emergency responders determine the nature of an accident and its potential threat (e.g. hazardous material) to passing motorists and local residents. Additionally, more and more CCTV is being used for signal control, mass-transit security, tollbooth violation enforcement and vehicle counting (replacing in-ground loop sensors).

The need for ITS appears to be boundless because of the ever-increasing U.S. population and the limited land available for new roads. Add to that the security concerns brought about by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the fact that many aspects of ITS can be directly applied to Homeland Security, and you might think that getting involved with this market is a no-brainer.

But before you jump in with both feet, beware: Many dealers do not have the capital to support large ITS jobs. Additionally, bonding and insurance issues as well as the headaches of working with government entities can be barriers too high for some security systems contractors to overcome.

Despite these hurdles, if you have the technical expertise, capital and patience, the installation of transportation surveillance cameras, whether for traffic management, security or both, may be an opportunity you should seriously consider.

Who Pays for the Expansion of Traffic Management Programs?

On the federal level, the amount of money earmarked for ITS and/or transportation security is quite promising. As of press time, Congress has proposed(with reauthorization bill TEA-21) $1.3 billion, while President Bush has proposed $1.7 billion for the development of ITS during the next six years. U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta also announced that almost $100 million of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) discretionary funds would be devoted to ITS. Additionally, the U.S. DOT’s goal by 2005 is to have two-thirds of 78 major U.S. metropolitan areas incorporate what it considers a high level of ITS deployment. The remaining one-third is to deploy midlevel ITS by that same year.

While the federal funding forecast remains positive, current state and local government budget deficits are bound to affect ITS CCTV deployment.
Despite some of these gloom and doom budget projections, many cities and states are remarkably adept at generating funds for ITS. The Tennessee DOT has just launched the first phase of the TDOT SMARTway, which uses 20 electronic message boards, 56 cameras and speed congestion monitors to spot traffic-flow interruptions. In Illinois, tollway cameras have recently been installed by the Toll Highway Authority to reduce toll violations that cause the organization to lose 1.5 percent of its revenue every year.

The level of support for ITS varies state by state. If ITS is combined with security, a CCTV project can sometimes pull funds from Homeland Security budgets. This is particularly true for tunnels and bridges, which have received special attention since 9/11. For example, the Colorado DOT has upgraded its traffic surveillance and control system for the Hanging Lake Tunnel. In Los Angeles, a CCTV surveillance system was installed on bridges spanning the city’s harbor.

The video feeds from installations like these are now monitored not only for traffic congestion but also security threats. Many DOT employees have been trained to detect suspicious activities and report them immediately to law enforcement. For example, the Hanging Lake Tunnel upgrade will enable DOT employees to know whether a vehicle has entered, but not exited, the tunnel. In some installations, customized software is also being used to identify other types of suspicious activity and then notify DOT personnel, who can then analyze the situation.

Widespread Adoption of ITS Won’t Happen Overnight

Since 9/11, traffic management systems that are dual-purposed with security seem to be an easier sell. However, ITS systems that are only for traffic or incident management (e.g. red-light violation control) are supported by studies that show deployment of these systems decreases the number of traffic violations, accidents and injuries.

Yet, ITS isn’t a slam-dunk. There is a certain slowness that marks almost any implementation of a state or federal government project, and ITS is no exception. An additional 10 to 20 years may be required before the widespread use of traffic monitoring is seen on urban freeways.

Some experts believe that at the present time, many state and local governments, while making the appropriate investment in new ITS, are not giving this technology enough support after a project is completed. Also, hesitancy by certain DOTs to adopt ITS can be attributed to the technology’s minimal public visibility. Still, opportunities for growth are there and should not be overlooked.

Liability, Privacy Issues Discourage Video Recording

CCTV, as it is incorporated into ITS, has five basic applications: Incident management; adaptive signal control for city DOTs (automated traffic signals whose timing can be adjusted on demand); mass-transit security (including railroad crossing security); video traffic controls at intersections that replace in-ground loops; and toll booth violation enforcement. How these systems are deployed depends on the jurisdictions involved. Some only install cameras at strategic intersections. Other jurisdictions mount cameras every few miles or so. Most have cameras located where there are increased vulnerabilities, such as freeway interchanges, tunnels and bridges.

As a rule, ITS cameras do not record video data. Normally, traffic management systems aren’t concerned with who is in a car, just that the car is there. Every agency, however, has a different policy on what or if it records, what it keeps and how long it will keep it. If an agency does record, usually the images are only kept for a short period of time for purposes of analyzing traffic movement.

Traffic management shies away from recording ITS camera images because of liability and privacy issues. If cameras do record, then the federal, state, county or city government that controls a roadway could be sued for oversights and errors, such as a pothole not being repaired in a timely manner or if emergency response teams don’t arrive to the scene of an accident fast enough. Thus, there is a disincentive to keep recordings because the longer they are stored, the greater the exposure to lawsuits.

Liability as well as other issues are handled by each DOT differently. But knowing the nuances of each DOT is just one aspect of transportation surveillance. Being patient with and knowledgeable about the entire process is important.

DOT Camera, Housing Technical Specifications Are Strict

Most DOT CCTV projects have extremely strict specifications that are outlined by the National Electrical Manufacturer Association’s (NEMA) TS2.

Because the cameras used in DOT installations are usually in dirty, humid or salty environments, sealed and pressurized enclosures are normally required. These housings prevent air contaminants from damaging the cameras.

Some DOTs are using IP solutions for their surveillance systems. For example, both the Minnesota and New York DOTs recently installed Axis Communications video servers. MnDOT is now able to digitize the feeds from it
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