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Road Runner: Arizona turn on dust detection system on I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix
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Road Runner: Arizona turn on dust detection system on I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix

Arizona’s $6.5 million answer to combating dangerous dust storms on a section of Interstate 10 is now operational after a monthlong trial, state Department of Transportation officials say.

A dust detection system now lines 10 miles of interstate between Picacho Peak and Eloy — mileposts 209 to 219. This is an area with a history of being prone to dust storms caused by strong winds.

In its wake are serious vehicle crashes and hourslong shutdowns of the busy section of highway between Tucson and Phoenix.

“We’ve been working for a number of years to explore technologies that will give us quick and reliable warnings about incoming dust storms, as well as dust storms that are reducing visibility so that we can get out warnings to drivers in real time, said Garin Groff, an ADOT spokesman. “This is the first system to our knowledge, anywhere, that has done that.”

It’s operational in time for the monsoon season, which officially started last Monday.

Motorists entering the corridor will see the overhead electronic message boards alerting them to blowing dust and to slow down.

These are regularly seen along the interstate providing notices for road hazard locations to Amber Alerts.

Multiple programmable speed limit signs are placed every 1,000 feet near the corridor’s entrance and can shift between 75 mph to 35 mph depending on the situation. Additional signs are placed 2 miles apart.

There will be a speed feedback sign to inform drivers of their actual speeds.

Drivers will likely spot the weather radar system on a 20-foot tower at I-10 and Arizona 87. This provides 40 miles of coverage to help the National Weather Service keep track of what’s happening in the area.

Behind the scenes, 13 sensors mounted on posts along I-10 use light beams to determine the density of dust particles in the air. The system activates the message boards and the variable speed limit signs once visibility drops to certain levels, ADOT said.

ADOT’s Traffic Operations Center in Phoenix is the central monitoring location using closed-circuit cameras to identify conditions along the roadway and potentially more storms in the distance.

With the cameras, ADOT staff can also monitor the conditions related to the speed and flow of traffic .

This will help as state officials anticipate more motorists using the freeway between Phoenix and Tucson in the future.

“In the last year we went from four to six lanes right in this I-10, Eloy area where a portion of the dust detection and warning system is. We also expanded another four to six lanes near Casa Grande. Now it is six lanes all the way from Tucson to north of Casa Grande where the Gila River Indian Community starts,” Groff said.

The hope within ADOT is to prove if similar technologies could be of use along the various state highways.

“It’s certainly a big deal for us to deploy this technology and have something that can give drivers this real-time information so they can get through the area more safely during dust storms.”

They’ll first use this pilot program to iron out any problems with the real-time operations of the system, according to Groff.

“There’s been a lot of effort to develop the software, so all of this works automatically and reliably but there is a learning curve, so we’ve been monitoring this very closely,” Groff said.

Down the Road

Pima County road work starts Tuesday: Crews will perform road repairs starting Tuesday on Camino Verde from the north edge of Old Ajo Way to the south edge of Bopp Road.

The work will last from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. and continue through Thursday.

Traffic will be set up as one way as flaggers direct motorists through the area. Motorists should expect minor delays.

Contact Star reporter Shaq Davis at 573-4218 or sdavis@tucson.com

On Twitter: @ShaqDavis1.

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