Persistence Pays off for Philadelphia: Dennis Motiani Interview with Rich Montanez and Laurie Matkowski

On October 19, 2015, I spoke with Rich Montanez, the Chief Traffic and Street Lighting Engineer for the City of Philadelphia, and Laurie Matkowski, the Manager of the Office of Transportation Operations Management for the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. Montanez has been working on the new Transportation Operations Center (TOC) in Philadelphia.  The following is the conversation I had with Mr. Montanez and Ms. Matkowski about the center.

Dennis Motiani (DM): Rich, you have been waiting for a long time for this Center, can you please share some basic facts about your TOC?

Rich Montanez (RM): We have worked hard to get to this point. It is very difficult for a city especially the way the economy was for the last five or so years to create something that may not be easily seen as valuable to most. The new Philadelphia Center currently operates 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and aims to operate 15 hours a day 5 days a week, and eventually reach into the weekend and overnight hours through their coordination with PennDOT.  The entire project cost was 4.2 million dollars, and has been a work in the progress for about 20 years.

PennDOT has been running a TMC for a number of years now, so we used their experience to design our center.  Right now there is one person working at the Philly TOC, and the goal is for there to be 5.  Their function would be to monitor traffic as well as make timing changes to the traffic signals. They constantly work on that progression.  One of the things we are also trying to do is to improve transit efficiency—we are hoping to get busses to move down our roads faster so we can increase ridership and increase movement in our intersections. We have  a collaboration with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA)—one of the things we are trying to work is to give SEPTA better information on the location of their busses are so that we can work with them to run the busses more efficiently. I believe we may be somewhat unique that we work not only with the state departments but also partner with the transit agency within the city.

DM: Rich, as you mentioned it has taken a long time to get this Center, and I am sure there were many challenges along the way. Can you share with us some of the challenges you faced?

(RM): The reason it took us so long to get here was twofold: funding was challenging, and when the city was ready to build, we had that economic bubble burst so we had to look back and reconsider our options.  However, this didn’t necessarily slow us down—instead of building the physical TOC, we built a virtual TOC. We didn’t have a huge video wall, we had a virtual video wall. We got all of the camera feeds from the city and PennDOT.  We built the infrastructure before actually having a physical space; we built everything outside before we were able to do anything within a building.

The other end of the struggle to get this off the ground is relatively common—with every project, you have a Champion, and you have to be able to convince people that what you’re doing is the right thing to do.  With PennDOT having built their TMC, and SEPTA having their TMC, they kind of gave us more ammunition to figure out what we should be doing. We went back and forth on location—whether we would co-locate with Philly Police Department or elsewhere—those were questions we had to answer internally before we decided to move ahead and do what we did.

Laurie Matkowski (LM): Also, in order to help them get the Center off the ground, we took it upon ourselves as the Regional Planning Commission to write a Concept of Operations (ConOps) for the city and shared it with SEPTA, PennDOT, and really anyone who would envision working with the center. We identified goals, features, what should happen on the first day, physical attributes of the building, location of building, cost, and more. We also followed the Regional ITS Architecture and what the Feds were telling us about how the center should work, so all of those major elements were included in that. The ConOps was finalized in 2010, and we knew it might still take some time to get going after that.  But it just took putting it down on paper to set up for finding the funding and making it work. The vision behind the TOC was never lost, despite the long timeline.

DM: What about coordination with other transportation and law enforcement agencies in the region?

RM: Well we also do some coordination with Philadelphia Police Department—Philly police has their own center, but they share all their video feed, accident data, and more. However, this is not as real time as we would like to have it, so that’s one of the things we have to work on with them.

We not only coordinate with PennDOT, SEPTA, and the Philly PD, but also with organizations across the river – with Philadelphia being so close to Jersey, we stay in touch with the RPA (Regional Plan Association) and New Jersey DOT, as well as the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority so that we know what’s coming into the region and how that’s going to affect our truck volumes and our commerce.

LM: It’s good to be partners with local agencies—we wrote the Regional ITS Architecture ourselves in house, and it’s nice to see all of those connections come to fruition. Everything was laid out in the architecture, but that sometimes can be seen as just a piece of paper—it’s great to have those partnerships, all of those connections being looked at, like with transit, it’s so nice.

DM: Rich, you have also been working on upgrading your traffic signal system, which I believe is quite an antiquated system, if I may. Can you share what is the city of Philadelphia doing with their signal systems?

RM: We have been upgrading traffic signals across the area, but it’s a slow process. Upgrading is sometimes difficult so we've been slowly building infrastructure – about 50%  are still electromechanical, so we still have a lot of work to do and  a lot of infrastructure to build.  We have been playing a key part in deciding which projects we should move to the forefront and which we should hold back.

LM: We are dealing with the 3rd largest municipal signal system in the country, with about 3,000 signals in use. About 21% of Pennsylvania’s signals are in just Philadelphia County, so it was obvious that we needed a TOC in Philly to help manage everything.

RM: The maintenance of traffic signals costs around 3 million dollars. We are still trying to get the Pennsylvania Act 89 –the gas tax the state enacted—this will be additional funds to go to upgrades for ITS, traffic signals, bridges, roadways, and more, since that is all dedicated for traffic infrastructure. So we’ll be working with that too, eventually.

In addition to traffic signal management, we do multiple project out on the streets, and we’re putting a lot of ITS equipment out there. For example, transit is one way we monitor, but we also are using Bluetooth detectors to monitor travel time in certain arterials so that we can determine what our performance is like for those arterials.  And we are looking to expand that--we use the same system that PennDOT uses for the interstate, so it gives us a bigger picture of what Philadelphia looks like and what the traffic is doing in Philly.




DM: We all heard how congested the roads would be during the Papal visit in September. Did the TOC play a role in any way to mitigate any traffic issues?

RM: Pope Francis’ visit in September really helped to get the TMC up and running, and it was used quite a lot during that week. We monitored traffic through the TMC, and I’d like to say that we did a great job. Volumes were actually lower than expected—whether you consider that a “win” or not, that depends on how you look at it.  Pope Francis’ visit, to us, was mainly a transit event; because most of our parking lots in the center of the city were in the secure zone, we were really encouraging and promoting utilizing transit to get into the city. Those who did drive into the city were directed to park either down at the sports complex or over in Camden. In that part, the TOC didn’t play too much of a role because we actually sat there for months of planning with our sister agencies across the river and PennDOT to discuss how we were going to handle busses, cars, everything. We went over every possible scenario – planning for the worst, but expecting the best.  The one big thing that Pope Francis’ visit did was it took 9 months of construction of the TOC and I had to condense it down to 3 months, so that was by far the most stressful part of my job.

DM: What’s next?

RM: Even though I have a TOC that’s built, I’m already sitting next month with PennDOT and Jacobs Engineering (the designers) to see what’s next, and where we can improve, especially with the great lessons we learned from the pope. We were able to integrate videos from multiple agencies in a matter of a week—we went from having no cameras, nothing, to having over 5,000 cameras for the Pope, which was quite a feat of its own. It was incredible that we were able to do it in such a short amount of time, and that really shows you how hard everyone has been working on this project.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention a few individuals and all of the help they gave towards the creation of the TOC: Rina Cutler, Steve Buckley, David Perri, Clarena Tolson to name a few.

LM: In addition to sitting down soon to discuss the next steps, we are also going to reevaluate in about  6 months to a year, to see if what was started is working or not—seeing what has  come to fruition and what still needs improvement. There’s room for improvement and there is room for reflection—it’s an ongoing process, but if we keep following it, it will be successful.

RM: We are going to try to keep improving the TOC as much as possible, drawing form other people’s experience – from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and really across the whole nation, and just from those lessons learned, see what we can do! And that’s what’s kept me going all this time.