If you have ever been one of the unfortunate people to be sitting in traffic on one of the Parkways, it is more than likely the standard "slow down for the tunnels" reaction. However, it sometimes it is not the tunnels, but a problem on the other side causing traffic to grind to a halt. The drivers don't know the cause of the delay, but they may have been able to avoid the accident or overturned tractor-trailer if they had advance notice. That is where the District 11-0 Pittsburgh Regional Traffic Control Center comes into the picture.
Groundbreaking for the 5,000-square-foot state-of-the-art Traffic Management Center (TMC) took place on December 4, 1996 and began full operation in 1998, is located at the District 11-0 headquarters in Bridgeville right next to Interstate 79. It oversees most of the southwestern Pennsylvania highway system and controls Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) equipment in Districts 1-0, 10-0, 11-0, and 12-0. The center used to only operate Monday through Friday from 5 AM to 8 PM and weekends during special events, but is now staffed full-time.
The TMC is part of an Advanced Traveler Information System, providing information that is gathered from the highways in the metropolitan area to customers, media, and transportation partners. PennDOT uses the Internet, 90 closed circuit television cameras, over-height truck detection sensors, automated reversible HOV lanes, eight Highway Advisory Radio (HAR) transmitters, and 24 variable message signs to keep traffic flowing in the ten-county area of southwestern Pennsylvania. Feeds from the cameras are also provided to local TV stations for use during newscasts.
PennDOT staffs at the Traffic Management Center monitor conditions on I-79, I-279, I-376, I-579, PA 51, and the West End Bridge with the help of closed circuit television cameras. With a bird's eye view of traffic, staff can quickly spot problems and immediately alert the Parkway Service Patrol and Pennsylvania State Police of an incident. Local traffic services, such as KDKA AM and Metro Traffic, are also alerted so they may pass along news to drivers. Emergency agencies are also alerted in cases of fire or serious accidents.
The need for the Traffic Management Center was made none so clearly than during the G-20 Summit in September 2009. The TMC facilitated the movement of dignitaries' motorcades from Pittsburgh International Airport to downtown Pittsburgh by coordinating complete closures of, and various downtown ramps to and from, the Penn-Lincoln Parkway.
The PennDOT Parkway Service Patrol is the hands-on portion of traffic control in Pittsburgh. The fleet consists of GMC Twin Line Lift tow trucks equipped with emergency lights and arrow boards. The trucks continually patrol I-279, I-376, and I-579 between the hours of 6 AM to 9 AM and 3 PM to 6 PM. These patrols began on September 16, 1996 to cover the Penn-Lincoln Parkway from Interstate 79 to Monroeville. "Up to 60% of congestion results from traffic incidents along the highway," said PennDOT Secretary Brad Mallory. "This is basic, minimal free get-'em-off-the-road-fast maintenance."
An idea to provide a service was first proposed in January 1992 with the Department of Transportation purchasing it own tow trucks and using its own personnel. The 1992-1993 transportation budget had allocated money for four trucks and other gear were to be purchased; however, due to budget constraints, the project did not get off the ground. This time around, PennDOT decided to outsource the work initially to Ferra Automotive Service of Sharpsburg which also provides emergency towing on the Turnpike. It was calculated that going this route would cost taxpayers $44 per truck versus $50 per truck using PennDOT workers and an additional six people would have to be added to the payroll. Dan Romaniello, president of the union that represents PennDOT workers at the Fort Pitt and Squirrel Hill tunnels disliked the plan. "We've had private tow truck drivers hook up a car with a body still in it, so they could get the tow," said Romaniello. "We see them get in fist fights over who got there first." Secretary Mallory said at the unveiling of the service at Station Square on August 27, 1996 that the reason for going to the private sector was that "The union bid on this contract, but there are some things that it can't do cheaper than the private sector." A group of east suburban tow operators, led by Marlon Fedele of Fedele's Towing Systems in Penn Hills, were also up in arms that Ferra would take all of the business away even though they were forbidden from towing vehicles in the contract. Fedele said there was already an organized system for alerting towing companies to accidents or breakdowns, which was a list maintained by the State Police who called companies on a rotating basis. He and Dave Magill, owner of Magill's Auto Service in Monroeville, questioned whether there was proper advertising for public bids.
The Parkway Patrol was expanded to include the Parkway North on January 10, 2000, but unlike on the Parkways East and West, trucks on this expressway were manned by the same PennDOT personnel who maintain the tunnels. The service could have started sooner, but according to Dan Romaniello, PennDOT waited to acquire uniforms. He said, "The trucks have been sitting in a garage when they could have been helping out." Two trucks were delivered in early July 1999, but kept in the Fort Pitt Tunnel garage while they were outfitted with equipment. Other reasons for the delay included union contract provisions, training PennDOT workers in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and issues obtaining uniforms. The low bidder for supplying and laundering pants, shirts, and jackets for workers was disqualified, the second lowest-bidder withdrew, and the contract was finally awarded to the third bidder: Cintas. Workers not only assist motorists, but were also responsible for reversing traffic flow on the HOV lanes and checking them to make sure there are no wayward drivers.
Workers help motorists for free when their vehicles suffer mechanical failure, flat tires, or involved in a minor accident. Changing tires, providing fuel, providing a battery jump start, temporarily repairing cooling system hoses, and refilling radiators are some of the standard services provided to get a vehicle mobile. If the operator can not fix the problem within 10 minutes, or if something more serious is found, the vehicle is towed to a designated drop-off location where the owner can call for additional help. Only cars, motorcycles, and small trucks are towed. The patrols also assist local law enforcement at accident scenes by providing traffic control or moving the vehicles involved out of traffic lanes. Even if not caused by an accident, crews are responsible for removing small non-hazardous debris from the roadways.
After Pittsburgh, the service was expanded across the state to include Philadelphia in July 2000, Harrisburg a few years after that, and then the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton area in January 2005.
Equipment on Board Each Truck
Emergency Service Patrol operators wear a uniform consisting of a white shirt with light gray stripes and a PennDOT logo on the shoulder, lime-green reflective vest, dark pants with reflective stripes, and black caps with "Parkway Service Patrol" written in green, but in winter months, they wear lime-green jackets. They also carry identification with their picture, name, and no reference to any private towing company.
As part of the program, the Emergency Service Patrol operator will ask the motorist to fill out a self-addressed stamped postcard evaluating the service. The card's destination is the Traffic Management Center and its purpose is help improve service.