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New traffic forecast signs debut on Cape

Those highway signs advising “26 minutes to Somerville” are about to become a permanent fixture, and similar signs will soon crop up all over the state.

New, immovable, real-time traffic tracking signs are scheduled to debut along Cape Cod’s Route 6 Friday morning, part of an effort to expand the project to almost all the state’s highways by 2015.

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High-tech signs that give drivers the distance and expected travel time to an upcoming destination were introduced in 2012, with 22 portable LED signs posted along Interstate 93. Last year, officials installed another 42 of the signs along the Massachusetts Turnpike and on Route 3 to Cape Cod.

Now, state officials plan to expand statewide, doubling the number of signs and blanketing nearly every high-traffic highway east of Springfield, starting Friday on the Cape.

Instead of portable signs, the new installations will be fixed, green metal signs, similar to analog mile-markers on the side of the road, that will have accompanying smaller digital displays communicating the expected travel time in minutes. The temporary signs will be used for construction projects, said Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey.

“Our customers understand that we can’t solve every problem — sometimes, there are breakdowns or accidents, and they’re not our fault — but if we can give them information about what to expect, it really brings the anxiety down on someone’s trip,” Davey said.

The real-time traffic projections are based on bluetooth signals that emanate from cellphones, or in some cases, from the car. When one of the signs picks up on a bluetooth signal, it is tagged with a unique code, and a computer database tracks how long it takes the signal to reach the next sign on the highway.

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Using hundreds of signals gleaned every minute, an algorithm determines the forecast for travel times.

The project, which has cost about $4.5 million so far, is estimated to cost an additional $13 million, about 80 percent of which will be paid for by the federal government.

Davey said feedback on the project has been positive.

In some cases, commuters can use the traffic estimates to determine which route to take, heading to an exit and opting for a side road if projections look painful. In other cases, Davey said, accurate knowledge about the time it takes to reach a destination, even if there is no bypass route, can help drivers plan ahead.

“Whether they arrive early, on time, or late,” Davey continued, “that knowledge improves people’s commutes across the state.”

The signs for Cape Cod will stretch from Wareham and Cedarville through North Truro.

Davey anticipates that beachgoers and tourists with flexible schedules will be able to use the signs, and the accompanying smart phone app, to decide the best time to travel.

The technology, dubbed “Go Time” by MassDOT officials, will also provide behind-the-scenes information to traffic engineers and State Police, helping officials to better determine the optimal time and place to undertake construction projects without disrupting traffic.

They also hope the data will help the agency advise companies on how best to structure workplace schedules to minimize the time that employees spend in their cars.

“We’re trying to move away from the anecdote and get to the evidence,” Davey said. “Actionable data will help us make better decisions.”

Martine Powers can be reached at martine.powers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.

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