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Caltrans meet technology, technology meet Caltrans

December 18, 2008 | 12:29 pm

I've complained about this before, and I'm going to complain about it again: With a few exceptions, most large transportation agencies in the Southland have been slow to use modern technology to tell travelers what's happening on the roads and rails.

Take, for example, the embarrassing -- to put it mildly -- display by Caltrans this morning. As of 11:25 a.m., I had an official at the Caltrans District 7 traffic management center telling me that the northbound 5 Freeway was now open through the snowy Tejon Pass and Grapevine while the southbound 5 was open with California Highway Patrol escorts. The 14 Freeway between the San Fernando Valley and the Antelope Valley may open early this afternoon.

Meanwhile, the Caltrans road conditions website was telling motorists this about the 5 Freeway:

IN THE CENTRAL CALIFORNIA AREA]
    IS CLOSED FROM THE LOS ANGELES/KERN CO LINE TO 4 MI NORTH OF
THE JCT OF SR 126 /AT LAKE HUGHES ROAD/ (LOS ANGELES CO) /THE GRAPEVINE/
- DUE TO SNOW - MOTORISTS ARE ADVISED TO USE AN ALTERNATE ROUTE

At 11:49 a.m. -- when I'm writing this, 20 minutes after alerting Caltrans officials that their website says the 5 is closed -- the website still says the 5 is closed.

Having up-to-date information is kind of a big deal, of course, if you're a motorist trying to get into or out of Southern California using the 5 Freeway. By the way, would it trouble Caltrans too much to suggest an alternate route? I was in the Bay Area late Wednesday afternoon, and there was at least one electronic sign up there saying the 5 was closed -- take the 101.

The larger issue here is that with the exception of the highway signs, Caltrans requires motorists to get information about road conditions either by typing information into the Caltrans website or by phoning its road conditions hotline, 1-800-427-7623.

Meanwhile, many other transportation agencies around the world (locally, Metrolink uses Twitter to do this) have figured out how to send real-time information to users by e-mail or text message. It's obviously a big undertaking and something that Caltrans District 7 chief Doug Failing told me the agency is considering. That's good. The hope here is that the freeway closures prompted by the recent wildfires and Wednesday's snowstorm are two good examples of why the Caltrans information revolution should happen sooner, not later.

--Steve Hymon

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