By Nathaniel Cline
State transportation officials are gearing up to use an artificial intelligence system that will monitor emerging conditions to predict the impacts of traffic disruptions in Northern Virginia and the Fredericksburg metropolitan area.
The rollout will mark the first time that artificial intelligence will be used to predict traffic disruptions in Virginia.
“If the system performs well, expansion to other parts of the state will be a distinct possibility,” wrote Marshall Herman, acting director of communications for VDOT, in an email.
The new AI support system is intended to improve the effectiveness of real-time integrated transportation information, an agency report states. Information is expected to be provided through digital message boards, 511 Virginia and third-party applications including Waze and Google Maps.
Officials hope the system will reduce congestion, improve safety, mobility and travel time and make travel times more reliable.
“We’re not just reacting to conditions, we’re actually using real time and historic data to predict future conditions and to prepare the network,” said VDOT Chief Deputy Commissioner Cathy McGhee at a meeting of the Commonwealth Transportation Board Tuesday.
The rollout is planned as part of a broader transportation monitoring program known as the Regional Multi-Modal Mobility Program, or RM3P, that started with a proposal from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority in 2018 and has since expanded from the region down the I-95 corridor to Fredericksburg.
Staff from the Virginia Department of Transportation said the next step is to award the contract to develop the artificial intelligence-based decision support system for a rollout in 2023 and full operation by 2026.
The tool is expected to support both agency operations and travelers.
It will first be deployed within a single subregion of Northern Virginia and later expand to cover the whole region and the Fredericksburg area.
“We really believe that that’s the only way to manage a network like we have for Northern Virginia and metropolitan Fredericksburg because it takes all of the [transportation] modes together to serve the demand in those regions,” McGhee said. “So we’re looking for that proactive, predictive capability that RM3P gives us.”
The evolution of RM3P
In 2018, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority submitted an initial proposal to VDOT for funding the development of a region-wide transportation management system.
Since then, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, VDOT and Northern Virginia Transportation Authority have all been involved in the development of the program that came to be known as RM3P, officials said.
VDOT is hoping to find ways to incentivize commuters and partners to use RM3P, which is focused on improving travel disruptions, making travel times more reliable, and supporting all transportation options for travelers.
McGhee said it’s unclear what the nature of the incentives will be, but the agency has been in discussions with stakeholders including major employers about instituting staggered work hours and releases that could help even out traffic loads and public transportation demand.
The contract for RM3P is also expected to be awarded in the coming months, McGhee said.
The deputy commissioner said staff have learned through the procurement process that there are private sector applications that have used elements of the artificial intelligence system idea, but she believes RM3P is the first program to bring it all together.
“I think we’re plowing new ground,” she said.
One of the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s concerns was that a new artificial intelligence system could detour travelers to secondary roads, ultimately leading to potentially worse conditions.
McGhee said VDOT is careful about detouring travelers and is in talks with third-party services about the potential for diverting traffic into sensitive areas and not recommending those routes.
“That’s a real concern for us because very often, particularly smaller companies don’t have GIS [geographic information systems] that are specific to heavy vehicles, and so they use Google or Waze and they often get routed inappropriately,” she said.
Secretary of Transportation W. Sheppard Miller III said that while VDOT is “sensitive” about the impact of diversions, “at the end of the day it’s a network.”
“The counties and the cities are part of that and we have to work together to make the best decisions for the traveling public and sometimes it’s not an easy choice,” he said.
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