Safe travel in winter can be difficult in the mountains of Union County, Georgia, where U.S. Route 19/Georgia 11 serves as an important corridor, connecting the county seat of Blairsville and other parts of the county through Neels Gap to health facilities and other amenities in nearby Gainesville, Georgia, in Hall County or further south to Atlanta.[i] A scenic route where the Appalachian Trail crosses the road, this route is particularly important for public safety, ambulance calls, and anyone needing to access the hospital in Gainesville.[ii] A partnership to connect broadband to state- and county-owned ITS assets, including cameras and a road weather information system, will improve access to information about travel conditions for residents and others traveling through the county.
Union County owns two traffic cameras at Neels Gap that were installed around 2016, and the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) has an additional traffic camera and weather system on-site that records air temperature, roadway temperature, the dew point, and other data.[iii] However, this infrastructure was only connected to county and state systems by a cell phone internet connection, which was unreliable in storms or even when the mountain was surrounded by thick, low clouds. The internet connection was so slow that the cameras could only transmit one frame with a vehicle passing through the area, which did not provide any information about how vehicles were traveling. Without reliable technology, Union County Sole Commissioner Lamar Paris, as the county government’s chief executive and only member of the county commission, became the travel information system himself. He would drive to the top of the mountain in poor weather, even in the middle of the night, and post updates on Facebook to let the public know about conditions.[iv]
In 2019, Union County worked with Blue Ridge Mountain Electric Membership Corporation (EMC), the region’s rural electric cooperative, to bring broadband to Neels Gap to connect the ITS assets there and provide a connection to the outdoor sporting store Mountain Crossings, which serves Appalachian Trail hikers and others.[v] Traditional methods for laying fiber would have been cost prohibitive in the mountainous area and would be difficult to navigate from a permitting perspective, going through the Chattahoochee National Forest. However, Blue Ridge Mountain EMC worked with Southern Company Services to fly a drone between ridge tops to place a pull line that would take fiber up the mountain, as shown in the image on page 8. With this process, Blue Ridge Mountain EMC obtained a permit from GDOT to run the cable at the proper height over a state-owned roadway and a permit to run the cable over trees in the national forest. Typically, a project to run fiber along the power lines would require extensive tree cutting under the line to allow access. This would necessitate a much more extensive permitting process in which EMC staff identify the trees to be removed, following which Forest Service staff measure the board feet of those trees. By avoiding impacts to the trees, the paperwork was much quicker for Blue Ridge Mountain EMC to complete and for the Forest Service to approve. The process of placing the fiber took hours to complete rather than weeks that would have been required without use of the drone, a significant cost and time savings.[vi]
The new broadband service was connected to Union County’s cameras in early 2019, and now the county has much better connection to the video feeds, with up to 100 frames of a single vehicles passing through the area, much closer to a full motion video than the delayed communications previously.[vii] GDOT’s camera and road weather information system (RWIS) at the location are also being connected to the new broadband connection. This will provide better and more timely information to state and local agencies.[viii] (See “Georgia’s Connected Data Platform” for more information on the state’s ITS network.)
The GDOT camera at Neels Gap can be moved remotely to zoom, tilt, and pan and view a larger area, while the county’s cameras are fixed in place and pointed toward the roadway. With improved broadband allowing for better quality video transmission, the GDOT camera might become an asset in the future for other public safety purposes, as officials conduct about 10 searches per year for hikers who are lost along the Appalachian Trail in that area.[ix]
For Union County, procuring the cameras only cost about $1,500. Eventually, they will need to be replaced, but they are not expected to have a significant impact on the county’s budget. The county pays Blue Ridge Mountain EMC about $50 per month to maintain a broadband subscription to the cameras. County staff anticipate being able to learn more about the information they can access from GDOT’s ITS assets at Neels Gap, but other than some staff time provided by GDOT and Union County, that should not require significant resources devoted to training or have an effect on staffing levels.[x]
Sidebar: Georgia’s Connected Data Platform
The state’s Road Weather Information System and CCTV camera at Neels Gap are part of the statewide ITS network. GDOT ITS Supervisor Emily Dwyer reports that the state has a fairly dense RWIS coverage and has worked closely with the National Weather Service, as well as significant transportation demands or risks, to look at locations to deploy weather sensors. With power and communications serving those RWIS sites, it is a logical choice to add a camera in order to confirm conditions on the ground. Similarly, sensors and cameras deployed along the causeway that leads to Tybee Island (population estimated at 3,079, a barrier island east of Savannah, GA) collect data to determine whether travel conditions are safe, and warnings are communicated through dynamic message signs before travelers enter the causeway. It’s important for the state to prepare its own response to weather events and to warn residents about travel impacts that might occur as the result of winter storms, hurricanes, or other events, Dwyer notes.
The data from the state’s ITS assets at Neels Gap, Tybee Island, and elsewhere can be even more meaningful when analyzed together with other data. In 2017, GDOT staff and external partners began to think creatively about ways to improve their ability to bring together separate data sources into one connected data platform to analyze issues and make decisions.
The platform brings together data from four sources, including uptime and reliability data from ITS devices along with safety data from crashes and the state’s partnership with Waze, to allow GDOT staff to make operational decisions based on analysis of all the data points. Dwyer says, “Previously, we made decisions based on tools that we were comfortable with. When we aggregated the data, it shifted the perspective entirely.” As one use case, the agency uses the aggregated data to plan for ITS deployment, expanding the network of cameras and other assets according to performance such as locations with a higher volume of crashes or points along an evacuation route. GDOT knows that every minute of closure of a lane translates into four minutes of delay. When GDOT staff can see the details of what is occurring on a camera, they have better information to dispatch the correct crews to address the source of the delay more quickly than without that data.
The current effort is likely the beginning of an initiative to put data to work for GDOT. Dwyer is optimistic that more data aggregation and more learning opportunities will be possible in the future. More data sources will likely be added into a connected platform to enhance the information available for planning, operations, and construction projects. Benefits from coordination would arise if more local governments and planning partners will also be using the platform.
Sidebar sources: Emily Dwyer and Marc Start (2019). “Connected Data Platform: GDOT’s Solution to the Fire Hose Problem;” personal communication with Emily Dwyer, September 2019.
[i] Cash, Cathy (2019). Co-op Fiber and Drone Capability Improve Safety on a Georgia Mountain Pass, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, www.electric.coop/georgia-co-op-broadband-fiber-drone-improves-safety
[ii] Personal communication with Lamar Paris, June 2019
[iii] Personal communication with Lamar Paris, June 2019, and Emily Dwyer, September 2019
[iv] Personal communication with Lamar Paris, June 2019
[v] Personal communication with Lamar Paris, June 2019
[vi] Cash (2019); personal communication with Daniel Frizzell, March 2020
[vii] Personal communication with Lamar Paris, June 2019
[viii] Personal communication with Emily Dwyer, September 2019
[ix] Personal communication with Lamar Paris, June 2019
[x] Personal communication with Lamar Paris, June 2019
This report was delivered to the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2020. It was primarily authored by NADO Program Manager Rachel Beyerle and NADO Associate Director Carrie Kissel. Many transportation agency staff and others assisted with this project in a variety of ways. We offer deep and heartfelt thanks to all the individuals who have provided information and images, consented to be interviewed, and offered editorial guidance in support of this research. This work is supported by the U.S. Department of Transportation under requisition number HOIT190194PR. Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. DOT or the NADO Research Foundation.