August 11, 2012 9:59:24 PM
JACKSON -- Most Mississippians know that you call 911 to report an emergency and 411 to look up a phone number. Soon, residents and visitors will be able to call 511 to find road and travel conditions.
The Mississippi Public Service Commission voted Tuesday to assign the 511 telephone number to the state Transportation Department to use as a travel information line.
Clearing that last hurdle means transportation officials can give the go-ahead to their contractor to start building the phone system. It could begin taking calls early next year, said the Transportation Department's David Thornton.
"This should save you some frustration, keep you from being trapped somewhere," he said.
The idea is that people can call before leaving home or while on the road to find out about traffic jams, construction projects, road conditions and other information. There would also be links to tourist information, Thornton said. Other states include links to weather forecasts, airport information, public transportation and rest areas. Tennessee's system, for example, notes that the Interstate 55 welcome center coming north out of Mississippi is currently closed for reconstruction.
Mississippi currently has a phone number where the Department of Public Safety records a message listing weather-related road closures. However, a 511 system is likely to get many more phone calls. Tennessee Department of Transportation spokeswoman B.J. Doughty said that state's 511 number, launched in 2006, gets hundreds of times the calls that its old recorded line received.
In 2011, Tennessee received 764,000 calls to its 511 system, although officials say that number was elevated because of repeated snowstorms.
The state's system is integrated with those in neighboring states. That means a person who's in Chattanooga can get transferred to Georgia's system. It also allows the state to provide travel information to special events, such as the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival.
So far, 38 states are operating 511 systems, as well as metropolitan areas in a few other places that don't have a statewide hotline.
The earliest areas began rolling out 511 service more than 10 years ago. Mississippi's might have been up and running by now, but the state's first two attempts to award the contract were thrown out. On the third try, the American arm of British-based engineering firm Atkins won a $1.13 million contract to set up the system and run it for 30 months, according to a contract filed with the PSC.
Thornton said the system will have some special features, such as the ability to expand when a hurricane threatens and calls come flooding in. It will be integrated with the state's traffic website -- www.mdottraffic.com -- as well as the overhead message boards in the Jackson, Hattiesburg and Southaven areas. The contract says the system is supposed to be updated as frequently as every five minutes.
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