KC Scout: Getting you there

Rich McGurn
Marketing Director
Black & Veatch Special Projects Corp.
Overland Park, Kansas

Editor's Note: The KC Scout Traffic Management Center is included in the Technical Tour program during APWA's 2005 North American Snow Conference. On April 20, the final day of the conference, attendees can either tour the Missouri Department of Transportation's Operations Facility and KC Scout Traffic Management Center, or tour the City of Lee's Summit Resource Recovery Park and new Maintenance Facility (see page 18 for related article). Both of the Technical Tours are included in the registration fee as a part of the Snow Conference educational program. See pages 13-16 for more details on the conference and a registration form, or visit the Snow Conference website at www.apwa.net/meetings/snow/2005.

Crews work to install an overhead truss-mounted dynamic message sign facing drivers westbound on I-435 near Mission Road. All installations were completed during early morning hours on Saturdays to minimize any inconvenience to motorists.

Traffic. On any given day, it can make all the difference in the world. Maybe it's a job interview. Maybe it's your child's first recital. Maybe it's just a hot date on a Saturday night. Or, if you drive an emergency vehicle, maybe it's the difference between life and death. Traffic makes no exceptions for need, and at some point, we have each found ourselves peering down the highway, guts churning, and wondering if that row of taillights ahead spells merely delay, or catastrophe. Where do you turn in times like these? Well, in Kansas City, there's a simple answer to that question. You turn to the Scout.

The KC Scout transportation system, designed by local engineering giant Black & Veatch and initialized in late 2003, gives this community of nearly two million the advantages of today's most advanced traffic management strategies and technology. Like many Midwestern towns, Kansas City prides itself on giving its citizens an exceptional quality of life: world-class shopping, arts and sporting venues, all couched in small-town convenience and culture. And with one of the largest geographic footprints of any U.S. city, the locals have long understood that smooth traffic flow is an inseparable part of that picture. In fact, according to an annual Texas Transportation Institute study of urban mobility, Kansas City has long ranked as one of the least congested major urban areas in the nation. But in the 1990s, the traffic demands of a growing population increasingly began to stretch the capacity of key interchanges, and slowly, Kansas Citians began to get a taste of traffic life in the big city. It was a taste they didn't like.

This sign is found on southbound I-435, just before motorists enter one of the city's busiest interchanges. The sign alerts motorists to congestion ahead and suggests an alternate route.

With gridlock gaining a fast foothold, and driver patience wearing thin, traffic solutions were clearly needed. But constructing miles of new highway lanes was an expensive and unpopular option. Indeed, the city already had more highway miles per capita than most of the nation, and building more in an attempt to keep up with suburban sprawl seemed like a flawed strategy at best. So when the opportunity arose in 1991 to take advantage of a Federal Highway Commission program promoting modern Intelligent Transportation Systems, the Missouri and Kansas Departments of Transportation moved quickly, and with an unprecedented cooperative vision. The goal: increase highway capacity and traffic safety through an information pipeline linking Kansas City drivers directly to the roads.

Knowledge is power, and this adage holds as true on the highway as in every other aspect of life. With the right information, each motorist can drive more safely and efficiently, allowing the entire traffic system to operate with less disruption. Knowing the conditions of the road, the location of an accident, or the lane-closing schedule for a construction zone allows every driver to make smart decisions, whether that means simply slowing down for icy roads, or taking an entirely different route to avoid a backup. The role of the KC Scout system is to generate and distribute that kind of knowledge quickly to the widest possible driving audience. Through a series of sensors, video cameras, and computers, the Scout system gathers data from miles of Kansas City's most congested highways, and interprets it in real time. Then, through dynamic message signs, Internet links and highway advisory radio, Scout broadcasts warnings and alternatives to those most directly affected.

For example, when there is an accident on a major interstate, traffic speeds in the area decrease dramatically. That change is detected by pavement sensors programmed to immediately alert the KC Scout Traffic Operations Center to such a variation. Staff at the Center can then view the incident through closed-circuit television cameras, alert the response crews, and coordinate with emergency services to ensure the most appropriate response. The team then posts traffic messages on dynamic message signs and a dedicated Internet site, giving the driving public time to select alternate routes. While this process can't always eliminate traffic backups, it can shorten them dramatically, and often prevent additional accidents from occurring as new traffic reaches the first incident. The end result in most cases is increased safety and convenience for those affected. In some cases, the end result can be a life saved.

One of many ways Scout is available to the public is through the www.kcscout.net website. Users can check average traveling speeds, identify incident locations and construction activities, and view real-time CCTV images.

Scout directly supports the Motorist Assist programs for both Missouri and Kansas, as well as the regional "AMBER Alert" process designed to help police locate vehicles known to have been used in child abductions. By quickly posting a message alerting drivers to an abduction, KC Scout operators help local authorities to see through the eyes of thousands of drivers, greatly aiding their ability to locate the subject vehicle. And because the signs post only a brief message directing drivers to tune to local radio for details, safety is not compromised by vehicles slowing abruptly to view a longer message. In every instance, Kansas City motorists have proven more than willing to do their part during these emergency situations.

But the KC Scout system is remarkable as much for how it came to be as for its cutting-edge technology. The Kansas City metropolitan area straddles the Missouri-Kansas state line, and includes more than 136 cities across 11 counties. With that many entities involved, consensus-building for a major program can be a challenging process. To advance the KC Scout program in time to secure 90% federal funding for construction, the Kansas and Missouri Departments of Transportation displayed an exceptional degree of cooperation and shared vision that resulted in clear and reasonable agreements for cost sharing and operational responsibilities. The project was pitched successfully to local government and citizens, and KC Scout soon became its own entity, run jointly by the two organizations. Today a small staff monitors the roads from the Traffic Operations Center, ensuring constant coverage for the most congested areas of the city. And with large system expansions planned for the future, Scout will ultimately serve much greater areas of the metropolitan traffic network.

No town looks beautiful when you're stuck in gridlock, and the new KC Scout transportation system ensures that Kansas City won't be trading its Midwest charm for big-city congestion any time soon. Both citizens and visitors now enjoy the benefits of one of the most advanced traffic management systems in the world. So whether you're responding to an emergency, or just meeting a friend for some of that great Kansas City barbecue, the power of Scout will be getting you there.

Rich McGurn can be reached at (913) 458-7285 or at mcgurnrc@bv.com.

Facts on KC Scout:

  • $43 million electronic traffic management system covering 75 miles of roadway, including the "downtown loop" and critical portions of I-35, I-70, I-435 and I-670
  • Website: www.kcscout.net
  • Completed on budget and on schedule in October 2003
  • Federal Government paid 90% of construction costs
  • New state-of-the-art Traffic Operations Center at existing MoDOT District 4 headquarters including workstations, backup server capacity, 9' x 14' projection screen, multiple plasma screens and a redundant power system
  • 75 closed-circuit television cameras
  • 37 dynamic message signs
  • 200 vehicle detection stations 
  • 90 miles of fiber-optic backbone cable layout
  • 228 controller cabinets
  • Key Subcontractors: National Engineering Technology; Burgess Engineering; EFK Moen

Scout's Traffic Operations Center became fully operational in late 2003, and incorporates state-of-the-art technology for monitors, computer workstations and emergency power supply.