Program reduces rush hour jams and saves money

July 20, 1999

University Park, Pa.-- A Pennsylvania Department of Transportation program introduced in Pittsburgh to provide quicker aid to motorists in trouble saves money and reduces traffic jams during morning and evening rush hours, according to a team of Penn State researchers.

"While we cannot put a dollar figure on public perception, those motorists helped by the Penn-Lincoln Parkway Service Patrol are also very positive about the experience," says Michael L. Patten, program manager, Center for Intelligent Transportation Systems at Penn State's Pennsylvania Transportation Institute.

PennDOT began the Penn-Lincoln Parkway Service Patrol in October 1996 with a local company that provides three specially equipped tow trucks and specially trained operators. Before this, the Pennsylvania State Police handled incidents on the Parkway.

Tow trucks patrol U.S. highways 376 and 279 through Pittsburgh. This 20-mile stretch of heavily used highway was divided into three parts, from the exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, from the Squirrel Hill Tunnel to Fort Pitt Bridge and from the Fort Pitt Tunnel to Pittsburgh International Airport.

"Based on the annual cost of $220,000 for the project and the projected benefits of $6.5 million per year, the Service Patrol is experiencing a benefits/cost ratio of approximately 30 to 1," Eric T. Donnell, graduate student in civil engineering, told attendees at the Second Annual PTI Transportation Conference today (July 20).

Donnell and Patten, working with Dr. John M. Mason Jr., associate dean for graduate studies and research in the College of Engineering and professor of civil engineering, compared a variety of information from incidents before the Service Patrol was initiated with statistics on the Service Patrol. Pre-patrol data was gleaned from records kept by the Pennsylvania State Police. Information on the Patrol came from records kept both by the State Police and the Patrol.

Traffic incidents for the study included anything that blocked one lane of traffic or was on the lefthand shoulder, which is very narrow on this stretch of highway. These incidents included everything from actual traffic accidents to flat tires, stalled cars and empty gas tanks.

"The Service Patrol's mission is to clear the highway quickly, which in turn reduces delays on the parkway, fuel consumption and also reduces emissions," says Donnell.

The researchers looked at a variety of indicators to assess the success of the Service Patrol including the response time to the incident, the total duration of the incident, the number of vehicle hours of delay, changes in gas consumption and the change in emissions.

Before implementation of the Patrol, the State Police took an average of 16.5 minutes to arrive at an incident. According to the researchers, the Service Patrol took an average of 8.7 minutes, a decrease in approximately 53 percent. The Service Patrol also reduced the incident duration by an average of 8.3 minutes or a decrease of 24 percent.

The researchers estimated that the Service Patrol reduced incident-related vehicle hours of delay by at least 547,000 hours a year avoiding about $6 million in incident-related delay costs. The Service Patrol reduced the incident-related fuel consumption by at least $480,000 in associated costs and the cost of incident-related vehicle emissions by approximately $7,000.

"The total annual cost of $220,000 annually is more than offset by the approximate $6.5 million saved by the program," says Patten.

At this point only the Penn-Lincoln Parkway in Pittsburgh is monitored by the Service Patrol and only between 6 and 9 a.m. and 3 and 6 p.m. on Mondays through Fridays. PennDOT plans to institute Service Patrols on other area highways and to begin similar projects in other cities in the Commonwealth including Philadelphia and Harrisburg.
This project was supported by PennDOT and the Federal Highway Administration. A paper, "Evaluating a Roadside Assistance Program: The Penn-Lincoln Parkway Service Patrol," is scheduled for publication by the Transportation Research Board in the fall.

Mr. Donnell is at 814-863-4725 or;
Mr. Patten is at 814-863-0572 or by email.

Penn State

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