Shelby County motorists have noticed some unusual new construction on local interstate and state highways. Twenty-five camera towers, resembling light posts, have gone up in recent weeks.
Conspiracy theorists may jump to Orwellian conclusions, but the cameras are a piece of a new Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) program to circulate roadway information among motorists and facilitate the flow of traffic.
"It's part of our SmartWay system," explains Pamela Marshall, spokesperson for TDOT in West Tennessee. "We have 25 cameras already installed."
Marshall says that by spring of next year, SmartWay will go live in Memphis with 115 cameras on interstates 55, 40, and 240 and state Highway 385. The cameras will enable the Tennessee Department of Transportation to keep a closer eye on traffic problems and monitor highway safety issues.
"It will give us a real-time, first-hand view of all 80-plus miles of interstate in Memphis and Shelby County," Marshall says.
The SmartWay system is already in place in Nashville and Knoxville. It uses video surveillance and something TDOT calls "roadway traffic sensors" to monitor the volume and flow of traffic and calculate travel time. The system can quickly identify accidents and dispatch assistance while notifying other drivers to consider alternate routes.
While on the road, motorists can read traffic bulletins located on highway shoulders and overpasses and access up-to-date information by dialing 511 on cellular telephones. They may also get a sneak preview of traffic on their planned travel route at www.tdot.state.tn.us/tdotsmartway before departing.
SmartWay represents TDOT's search for traffic solutions beyond new road construction. Other transportation departments have implemented similar programs nationwide.
"We've reached the point where we can't build our way out of traffic," says Marshall.
TDOT estimates the cost per mile of building a single lane of new roadway at $2.5 million. The deployment of SmartWay costs $500,000 per mile.
Because TDOT has no authority to issue traffic citations, Marshall emphasizes that SmartWay will focus only on traffic issues without venturing into law enforcement or, specifically, photographing speeders.
"The [TDOT] mission is to provide safe roadways. We're not in law enforcement," she says, "so that's not part of what those cameras are."
While motorists can report problem drivers to TDOT, Marshall suggests "if a motorist calls us, we can call law enforcement, but we recommend that if you have something to report, call [the police]."
In response to an area motorist's claim that one of the cameras flashed, Marshall says "they're not even hooked up. It must have been a UFO."
Concerned citizens may view future camera locations at www.tdot.state.tn.us/tdotsmartway/memphis-future.htm.