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Starts & Stops

Trying to follow — and read — the signs

The signs have not always been reader friendly, including this one on Interstate 95 near the Massachusetts Turnpike.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Weekend warriors who head out to the Cape and the Berkshires have likely noticed some new additions to the state’s major thoroughfares: new electronic information signs.

The 48 signs debuted just before Memorial Day, and are positioned at stops on or near the Pike, Route 3 between Braintree and Plymouth, and Route 6 from Orleans to Bourne. The same signs have been posted on I-93 for almost a year.

This new set cost $2.2 million and were paid for with tolls and money from the state.

“Isn’t this a waste of dollars?” wrote Nancy of Bourne, after spotting them on the highway.


Mike Silvia from Reading had a different take.

“I think it’s great that they’ve put info boards on the highways,” Silvia wrote. But, he continued, “I’ve noticed that they are often just plain wrong.”

“Last week, before leaving Reading [on I-93] for Boston I checked Google Maps, which showed ‘all green’ from Reading all the way to Braintree,” he said. But when he arrived at Medford, the information sign said it would take 32 minutes to travel the eight miles to Exit 28.

“We decided to trust Google,” Silvia said, “and sailed right through the city.”

So, what accounts for the difference?

The MassDOT signs detect Bluetooth signals emanating from mobile devices in passing cars. Each signal is assigned a unique ID number. Sensors track the amount of time it takes for a signal to pass two of the signs on a stretch of highway. An algorithm determines the expected travel time.

According to Mashable, Google uses similar technology for its own real-time traffic data: The company tracks travel times of Android phone users to determine how fast traffic is moving, and also mines data from a mix of third-party vendors. (For example, the company just acquired a smart phone app developer, Waze, that allows users to create a real-time traffic database that can be shared with friends and family, along with the rest of the world. Think: “Fender bender . . . totally stuck in left lane!”)


So the two systems have different sources for their data.

And then sometimes the signs are accurate — you just can’t see them.

A commuter noticed this doozy along I-95 southbound, near the Mass Pike interchange — “smack in the middle of a tree,” she wrote.

I e-mailed MassDOT spokeswoman Sara Lavoie about the tree. A few hours later, she responded.

“We have trimmed the tree,” Lavoie wrote in an e-mail, “and will be sweeping the entire system to make sure all boards are visible.”

Well, that was easy.

Mayoral candidates talk Fairmount Line complaints

On the list of hot-button issues setting the tone for the Boston mayoral race, transportation has not received much air time. But Wednesday night, six of the candidates took turns giving their thoughts on the MBTA at a Hyde Park candidate forum. The topic: the community’s controversial Fairmount commuter rail line.

The Fairmount Line, the only commuter rail line that runs entirely within the Boston city limits, weaves through Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park. It’s provoked outrage from community members who believe train operators should charge regular T prices, rather than more expensive commuter rail fares, and should provide service on nights and weekends.

Joe Smith, a Fairmount Hill resident angered after taking an expensive trip downtown, told others at Wednesday’s meeting: “I will never take the Fairmount Line again.”


The six candidates, as well as representatives for two other mayoral hopefuls who attended the forum, all agreed: It is too expensive.

“Unless we make this line fair, we wasted money building this line,” said State Representative Martin J. Walsh.

The candidates took different tacks on how to push the MBTA to lower the fares and provide better service: City Councilor Felix G. Arroyo wanted to pressure state legislators to raise income taxes to better fund the T system. Charlotte Golar Richie said she wanted to help the commuter rail advertise the service to residents.

“As mayor, I’d partner with the transportation agencies on marketing, on making sure that everybody understands that there’s availability around this transportation structure,” Golar Richie said.

Bill Walczak took a more combative approach, talking about his efforts to push the T to construct a new platform on the JFK/UMass Station in the 1980s. As mayor, he said, he would be prepared for “fighting with the state” to secure lower fares.

“It’s a crazy idea, the idea of limiting access to the line, because all you’re going to wind up doing is having half-empty trains, and then there’s going to be an excuse for saying we have to cut back farther,” Walczak said.

And City Councilor Charles Yancey made a surprising proposition: eliminate fares on the line altogether, at least for a few months.

“I will propose to the new general manager that we offer free service on that line as a way to increase ridership and to promote it,” Yancey said. “And that’s not such a crazy idea.”


Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com and on Twitter @martinepowers.