(MCT) — As winter closes in, the Illinois Tollway's high-tech traffic operations center bristles with action: Images from cameras focused on trouble spots flash on dozens of computer screens, while icons marking accidents glow on an electronic map.
Although weather forecasters are predicting below-normal snowfall with above-average temperatures in Chicago this winter, the experts who monitor the highways in this nerve center aren't sharing that optimism.
"I don't look at long-range forecasts too much. I don't even believe seven-day forecasts," said John Benda, a 30-year tollway veteran. "Mother Nature has a tendency to make you look stupid if you think you've figured her out. You have to plan for the worst."
Over the next few months, there are likely to be many 12-hour shifts for crews at the tollway's operations center, located in a corner of the agency's cavernous Downers Grove headquarters. Ditto for a similar command post in Schaumburg run by the Illinois Department of Transportation.
The two agencies are responsible for keeping the traffic flowing during blizzards on 286 miles of toll roads and more than 2,200 miles of expressways and state highways in northeastern Illinois.
In years past, highway departments dispatched fleets of plows to battle snow and ice. Major cities now defend against the elements with multimillion-dollar control rooms with "intelligent transportation systems" that include computers, closed-circuit cameras, GPS tracking and sensors embedded in the pavement.
These systems manage traffic year-round by providing real-time travel and traffic congestion data. Increasingly, that information is becoming available to motorists through personal computers and smartphones.
Although the tollway's operations center will mark its 10th anniversary in January, most of the 1.4 million daily drivers are likely unaware of how the agency seeks to keep roads clear, monitors traffic congestion and responds to crashes.
The tollway's Traffic and Incident Management System, known as TIMS, acts as a clearinghouse, gathering details about congestion, incidents, road work and lane closings.
TIMS is fed with data from more than 300 closed-circuit television cameras; 127 solar-powered traffic monitoring sensors; 17 roadside weather monitoring stations; and five in-pavement scales sensitive enough to detect an overweight truck passing by at high speed.
Motorists can get a taste of this information from a live shot of traffic on the Tri-State (Interstate 294), Jane Addams (I-90), Ronald Reagan (I-88) or Veterans Memorial (I-355) toll roads. The tollway has contracted with two television stations to provide this real-time video.
A more comprehensive view of Chicago and regional traffic is available at travelmidwest.com, a collaborative effort of IDOT, the tollway and the Chicago Department of Transportation. Also participating are counterpart agencies in Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin.
The real-time maps on the Travel Midwest website display information on travel times, congestion, construction and incidents. Users also can click on cameras to see snapshots of actual traffic.
Before year's end, the tollway plans to provide customers who log on to the agency's website, illinoistollway.com, with real-time views from 20 of the system's 300-plus cameras, the same scenes viewed at the operations center.
"It's all about making as much of that information available to the customers and drivers so they can make smart choices about when to drive, about what routes to take and, of course in the winter, about how to drive," said Kristi Lafleur, executive director of the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority.
In the past 10 years, the agency has invested $32 million in the operations center and TIMS, she said.
Normally the center is staffed weekdays from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m., but during winter snowstorms the facility often operates around the clock, Benda said.
At the weather's worst, the tollway may call as many as 225 employees throughout the system to work 12-hour shifts.
"You'll find a tremendous sense of pride in all the maintenance employees," Benda said. "They love to get into a decent-sized storm to really show what they can do. It's like fighting a little battle. They're very proud of what they do out there."
At IDOT's District One ComCenter in Schaumburg, dozens of screens flash with images from more than 250 cameras monitoring Chicago's expressways and even some construction sites.
The district covers northeastern Illinois' six counties and can summon as many as 462 employees and 440 pieces of equipment to handle the worst storms, operations manager Dennis Mahoney said.
Because weather conditions vary enormously through the region, managers have to decide carefully how to allocate resources.
"Sometimes there's a districtwide storm and it's an easy call: All hands on deck," Mahoney said.
In the 1970s, the IDOT operations center was housed in an office in downtown Chicago's Marina City and needed only two radio channels for operations, communications technician Scott Mitchell said.
The ComCenter is in its fifth year and uses nine radio channels and more than 30 telephone lines, he said.
"As the new technology becomes available, we keep building," Mitchell said.
Agencies besides the tollway and IDOT use intelligent transportation systems to keep highways clear of snow and ice.
In Chicago, the Department of Streets and Sanitation keeps tabs on 4,100 miles of roadways. The department maintains a fleet of 284 snow vehicles, including 20 new trucks that have been serviced and staged in anticipation of the first snowfall, officials said.
The department also has replenished all 19 salt piles throughout the city and has about 285,000 tons of salt in reserve.
In Lake County, the Department of Transportation launched its traffic management system, known as PASSAGE, in 2005. The system provides real-time traffic congestion and travel information from more than 250 cameras monitoring roads and intersections.
Despite all the preparations for tollways and expressways, some motorists say they'd rather take their chances on arterial streets.
Candice Pineda said she shuns the highways during snowy weather after experiencing an agonizing commute during the February 2011 blizzard.
"I avoid (them) because I know it's going to be a hot mess," she said. "It took me seven hours to get from Vernon Hills to Hanover Park, and five of those hours were on Route 53."
Pineda said she prefers the options that local streets provide.
"If I see Golf (Road) is backed up, I can turn and use Arlington Heights Road, or something like that," said Pineda, 37.
Between bites of a sandwich recently at the tollway's Des Plaines Oasis, Patrick Lynch said he drives an average of 400 miles a week in his job as an auditor. He uses the tollways and expressways almost exclusively, regardless of the weather, he said.
Lynch, 57, of Chicago's Norwood Park neighborhood, said he thinks the tollway does a good job of keeping the road surfaces clear, though "IDOT does it maybe a little bit better."
He said it's faster to take the toll roads because the arterial streets take too long to be an alternative.
"Those," he said, "are Sunday drive roads."
Tribune reporter Matthew Walberg contributed.