David Yashar as one of many drivers caught in a recent late afternoon traffic jam caused by a pickup truck fire on the Massachusetts Turnpike in Boston. As a result, he said, he has lost faith in the value and reliability of the traffic notification system run by the state’s Transportation Department.
“I was headed westbound on the Mass. Pike between Route 93 and the Allston tolls,’’ he wrote in an e-mail. “The traffic was traveling at approximately 1-2 [miles per hour]. At one point, we sat parked for almost 1 minute.’’
Frustrated with the lengthy delay and wondering what was going on, Yashar searched on the state-run 511 hotline and the Mass511.com website, which purport to offer real-time traffic updates, hoping for some useful information.
As he progressed through the gridlock, he scanned an electronic message board over the highway, but saw nothing about the trouble ahead.
“I was thoroughly surprised by the inaccuracy of the 511 Traffic system and [the] lack of overhead sign usage on the westbound side of Route 90 this afternoon (10/28/11),’’ he wrote.
“The 511 system said traffic was moving at 10 m.p.h., which was completely inaccurate. What normally takes 5 minutes to travel took close to one hour. I had to call a friend, who first looked online and was advised that traffic was moving at 36 m.p.h. on that route, which was equally erroneous.’’
Adding to the frustration, Yashar said, was the lack of information on the electronic message boards. “I was surprised [because] the overhead sign that I had just passed near Tremont Street was completely dark with no warnings or advisories. Why???’’
Yashar wrote that it was not until he arrived home and logged on to boston.com that he received a clear explanation for what caused the traffic backup.
THE STATE RESPONDS
A spokesman for MassDOT, which oversees the Mass. Pike, said the decision to post advisories on the Pike’s electronic message boards is left to operators monitoring roadways at the Highway Operations Center.
Operators at the center refer to the department’s event classification system when making determinations about which actions should be taken after an incident on state highways and in tunnels.
The least serious events, those affecting a limited area for less than two hours, are labeled Level 1, while Level 4 events are those with a long-term, widespread impact that require large-scale federal and state intervention, according to a MassDOT handbook.
Spokesman Michael Verseckes said the Oct. 28 pickup truck fire was classified as a Level 2 incident by the operator, which means activating the message boards to alert drivers is an option, but not required.
“It’s a judgment call,’’ he said. But he acknowledged that “we could have done a better job notifying people.’’
Verseckes said MassDOT plans to review how those judgment calls are made.
Officials will also look at the way traffic speeds are calculated for the 511 notification system, he said. Currently, the figures posted are the average of driver speeds along one segment of the highway.
Because the system considers the Mass. Pike from Route 93 to the Weston tolls to be one segment, the slow going in the Boston gridlock Yashar experienced was offset by the much-higher speeds of drivers beyond the accident scene, offering 511 users a distorted picture of road conditions.
As for the different rates of speed that Yashar found on the 511 hotline and the Mass511.com website, Verseckes said there should be no discrepancy, because they are updated concurrently with the same data. Browsers need to be refreshed to get the latest information.
WHO’S IN CHARGE
Massachusetts Department of Transportation
10 Park Plaza, Suite 3170
Boston, MA 02116