Electric traffic signs now up in Columbia

Sunday, September 9, 2007 | 7:56 p.m. CDT; updated 10:03 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

COLUMBIA — Permanent, programmable message signs are springing up along I-70 near Columbia as a new way to control highway traffic and safety and to give motorists information.

The Missouri Department of Transportation has placed three electronic signs directly outside of Columbia to help notify drivers about upcoming road conditions in the city or road conditions on the way to either St. Louis or Kansas City.

Two of the three signs are located eastbound on I-70 — one prior to U.S. 40 at the Midway exit and another at the 132 mile marker near the county line, before the Lake of the Woods exit. The other sign is located westbound on I-70 prior to U.S. 40 at the Midway exit.

Before now, the transportation department primarily used temporary electronic signs affixed to trailers to get traffic information to mid-Missouri motorists. Programmable signs have been used in the St. Louis area, and by using them in Columbia, the Transportation Department hopes to notify motorists of issues in advance and better manage traffic flow throughout the state, said Eric Schroeter, assistant district engineer for the transportation department’s central Missouri office.

“We’ll be able to address every situation, as opposed to a fixed sign with one message,” Schroeter said.

Schroeter said that for something to be displayed, it needs to be something significant that could make a dent in traffic or be an obstacle for a while.

“If there is a minor fender-bender, it won’t be up there,” he said. “We only want to use it when we have to.”

Along with the new signs, the Department of Transportation also plans to give drivers “real-time” traffic conditions on its Web site, said Roger Schwartz, district engineer for central Missouri.

Schwartz said that the three signs on I-70 outside of Columbia are positioned to notify motorists about conditions so they have enough time to choose whether to take an alternate route. Two of the signs are eastbound on I-70 to give motorists the chance to exit before U.S. 63, if needed. The sign westbound on I-70 will warn motorists about accidents or threatening road conditions in the Rocheport Bridge area, so drivers can use U.S. 40 to go around Boonville.

In addition to the three signs in Columbia, there are six other signs placed throughout mid-Missouri. In total, there will be 48 signs in Missouri along I-70 and Interstate 44.

The signs can display three lines of text, containing 18 characters per line. The signs are eight feet wide and 10 feet tall.

Schroeter said motorists can expect to see messages such as “accident ahead,” “use outer road,” or “prepare to slow down.” The Department of Transportation also plans to update the signs with weather-related conditions or with Amber Alerts.

The messages on the signs will be mainly controlled by operators at the 24-hour Traffic Management Center in Kansas City, but operators on duty at the transportation department’s Jefferson City office will also be able to program them with laptop computers.

Each sign costs approximately $35,000, plus installation and software fees, Schroeter said, bringing the total cost of all 48 boards across the state to $3.3 million.

A federal highway safety grant provided $400,000 toward the project. The rest of the money came from the Missouri Traffic Division’s operating budget, which is comprised of gas taxes and other fees.

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