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National Work Zone Awareness Week: An Interview with John Penuelas of RTC

National Work Zone Awareness Week: An Interview with John Penuelas of RTC

John Penuelas is the Senior Director of Engineering at the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada. We spoke to him about how the RTC uses Nexar’s Road Work Zone detections (based on dash cam imagery) for the Las Vegas Valley and its importance. The following are excerpts from the interview.

Tell us about the RTC

The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC) has functions that go beyond what most metropolitan planning organizations have. We are the public transit provider, and we also operate the traffic signal system on behalf of our member agencies. We work in collaboration with the local governments and the Nevada Department of Transportation to fund and plan roadway projects. The local governments include the City of Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Henderson, Boulder City, Mesquite and unincorporated Clark County.

The main benefit of this organizational setup is that, theoretically at least, we all know what each department within the RTC is doing, so we can look for synergies among our projects. How does running the signal system benefit transit? Because we fund the roadway projects for our local agencies, it allows us to have a better understanding of the timing of those projects, as well as the conflicts that may arise. The only thing that we do not do, because we don’t own the roadways, is actually deliver the projects. — We fund the projects, but the agencies procure and manage the contractors, build and eventually own the projects. The agencies are in charge of the conditions by which contractors and barricade companies have access to the roads. This leads to an interesting situation where we are very concerned with how the work gets done and how that work affects buses and traffic signals — but we have no authority to control the conditions by which work zones can impact them. So we took it upon ourselves to find these work zones and ascertain what impacts they had on our roadways.

What’s special about work zone management from RTC’s perspective?

Work zones are unique. When you build a house, you don’t build it with people in it. When you build, expand or maintain a road — you must preserve the road’s capacity to the greatest extent possible. People stay on the road. Not only that, but multiple projects may also be going on simultaneously, sometimes on the very same road, so the coordination of that activity is important in order to eliminate danger as a result of open trenches, people being close to the roadways, or immovable objects on the road to protect the work zone. Taxpayers paid for six lanes on a major roadway to go to work, deliver goods, or for emergency services. All those lanes need to be open.

Agencies can do a good job and coordinate roadwork, yet sometimes two work zones exist on the same road. We rely on the contractors and the barricade companies to communicate with one another to see those things coming and to do something about it.

A work zone detected by Nexar’s AI in the Las Vegas Valley

It basically comes down to people having an expectation that they can use the roadway, and in case of construction work, there must be some sort of insurance to the public that that work is really necessary and that there was due diligence in minimizing the impact of the work. That’s why we decided to go into the work zone management space.

Can you talk about the need for technology to manage work zones?

Knowing the state of the work zones isn’t simple. There are agencies and organizations involved, but to know how many work zones there are in the Las Vegas Valley at any given time was impossible to answer. We could estimate it based on the number of permits that were issued (at least, the agencies could) but it could be any number. Before Nexar there was no way to directly measure active work zones. Today it’s still an estimate technically, but it’s a very good estimate based on a systematic approach to not only where the traffic control elements are — the cones, the barrels, the arrow boards — but also what impact they are having. Are they physically taking the lane and reducing capacity? Now we can start asking the questions of what effect the work zones are having and how they are interacting with one another. We also know the impact on traffic signals in real time and what adjustments can be made. In addition, having an image of the work zone is helpful. For instance if they are set up after hours, a phone call to the barricade company could get the cones picked up and release the congestion.

Because of smart work zone technology, we can go back and pull historical congestion data and analyze it to determine what effect work zone had. We can use the data to get the information to the Agencies and to the public at large, and we can start having a conversation about policies and the conditions of approval on the permits.

The other exciting aspect of work zones awareness is the fact that this information can be served into the environment where the motorists are, whether on their phone or their dashboard, saying “work zone ahead, lane closed.” They can get that alert miles ahead of the project.

Tell us about National Work Zone Awareness Week from the RTC point of view

National Work Zone Awareness Week is about safety. An important reminder is that technology can increase safety for work zones and impact policy and decision-making. The traffic safety companies care about their workers, friends and families who are in the work zones. Together, we are raising awareness of the tools that are at our disposal to get a comprehensive picture of where things are, alerting people of work zones and actually changing policies to minimize the impact of work zones by collecting the data.