Dial 511 for current traffic info

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Traffic was backed up on the Pennsylvania Turnpike near the Ohio line at mid-afternoon yesterday, and on four different sections of the Parkway East.

Nothing unusual about that on the Friday before Labor Day.

But for the first time, motorists could monitor the situation with their cell phones or computers and steer clear of the jams.

Pennsylvania yesterday became the 36th state to launch a 511 traffic information phone number, designed to give up-to-the-minute reports including accidents and construction-related delays.

By dialing the number or visiting www.511pa.com, motorists can get travel information about all 1,759 miles of interstate highway in the state, plus the Pennsylvania Turnpike and other major roadways in Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

The voice-activated system lets callers bark out the road or city they're interested in and then recites the incidents that are affecting travel.

"There's a slowdown on Interstate 376 eastbound between Exit 2A Forbes Avenue and Exit 7 Edgewood at Swissvale," the system advised a caller yesterday. "Traffic is moving between 15 and 20 mph as of 2:41 p.m."

This was at 2:42 p.m.

The system relies on data from global positioning satellite devices on cars and trucks, traffic cameras that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has deployed around major cities and police reports, PennDOT spokesman Steve Chizmar said.

Users can sign up to have alerts e-mailed to their computers or cell phones for specific stretches of highway.

Mr. Chizmar cautioned that the system will not be perfect, especially in its infancy. Motorists might happen upon tie-ups before they are reported to 511 and confirmed.

"It's a system that's going to evolve," he said.

"Travelers log nearly 295 million miles on Pennsylvania roads each day and although the resources are simply not available to build our way out of traffic congestion, 511PA offers reliable information to help travelers make smart planning decisions and minimize travel delays," PennDOT Secretary Allen Biehler said in announcing the system this week.

A road test yesterday found the system timely and easy to use -- the automated attendant even allows you to interrupt him. A caller was able to find out about tie-ups on the parkways and construction, lane restrictions and accidents all across the state.

Travelers who are out of the state and want to check on conditions in Pennsylvania can do so by calling 1-877-511-PENN (7366). The 511 number works only when dialed within the state.

There is no cost for the service beyond the regular usage charges by the caller's wireless carrier. It is available around-the-clock.

PennDOT officials made a point of encouraging motorists not to use the service while driving, suggesting that drivers pull off before calling or check road conditions before starting a trip.

More information, including an extensive compilation of frequently asked questions and a list of the roads covered by the 511 system, is available at www.511pa.com.

Jon Schmitz can be reached at jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868.


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