Texas A&M University helps Houston TranStar develop new Flood Warning System

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A new first-of-its-kind real-time warning system initiated by Houston TranStar and developed by the Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute (TTI), will inform motorists in the Texas city’s metropolitan area about locations where roadway flooding is likely to be occurring.

Flooding has plagued Houston roadways for decades, with a pinnacle reached during 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, which saw over 40in (101.5cm) of rain fall over a four-day period, causing catastrophic damage and travel chaos.

The new flood warning system was the brainchild of Dinah Massie, executive director of TranStar, the region’s transportation management system. Operated from the region’s Transportation Control Center (TCC), TranStar is run by a partnership of representatives from the City of Houston, Harris County, the METRO transit agency, and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), who share resources and exchange information under one roof to keep motorists informed about the state of roadways in the USA’s fourth most populated city.

Massie said, “I got the idea of improving and merging data from existing flood sensors onto the TranStar system during the aftermath of the hurricane. People on social media wondered why they couldn’t be warned of flooding on Houston streets, just like they are on the major highways through town. As I found out, the Harris County Flood Control District maintains 170 rain sensors around town. I thought, ‘why can’t we utilize what we have, develop the data that can be part of TranStar, and, with the help of TTI, develop a roadway flood warning system’.”

Soon after the waters subsided from Hurricane Harvey, Massie met with TTI’s senior systems analyst, Mike Vickich, the Harris County Judge, Ed Emmett, officials from the TxDOT, and TranStar’s chief meteorologist, Jeff Lindner. Just nine months after the meeting, in July 2017, the Roadway Flood Warning System was up and running on a test basis on the TranStar website. According to the team, during this year’s July 4th flooding, the system ‘worked flawlessly’.

Due to the new fully-operable Roadway Flood Warning System, citizens are now able to view ‘at risk’ areas by accessing the TranStar site or through the system’s mobile app, with Houston media agencies also able to relay the warnings on their radio and television broadcasts. The information will also be spread through the partner agencies’ social media outlets. Since the launch of the new system, TranStar has received enquiries from other cities that have similar problems with flooding.

“Houston was ground zero for Hurricane Harvey last year, and the world watched as motorists and residents were caught up in floodwaters caused by up to 50in of rain,” explained Vickich.

“Although the problems we experienced were magnified because of Harvey, Houston is well-known for its street flooding. With this new warning system, it’s a game changer for what it could mean for the safety of motorists. We determined that if an area receives eight-tenths of an inch (2cm) of rain in 15 minutes, that’s enough to cause flooded streets in and around that sensor.

“That’s when the warning will be issued and placed on TranStar’s traffic map. I believe this new system is a great example of how governments and other entities, like TTI, can work together to really make a difference in the safety of the public.”

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International magazine and the Traffic Technology Today website since he joined the company in May 2014. Prior to this he worked on some of the UK's leading consumer magazine titles including Men's Health and Glamour, beginning his career in journalism in 1997 after graduating with a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).

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