NTTA Safety Operations Center Floor

Watching Over North Texas’ Tollways: The NTTA Safety Operations Center

If you live in or visit the DFW area, chances are high that you have either gone on or at least seen the signs for the many toll roads spanning the Metroplex. It’s a complex infrastructure network, spanning 980 miles in the region. From Frisco to Grand Prairie, the North Texas Tollway Authority(NTTA) can probably get you there should you desire to take a toll road versus the freeway. But what goes on beyond what most drivers see to keep traffic flowing and the roads safe? I found out recently, with a visit to the NTTA Safety Operations Center(SOC), located in Plano.

NTTA Safety Operations Center
About to go behind closed doors!

Opened in 2015, the SOC is the 24/7 central “control room” for the five tollways that make up the NTTA system. Showing me around the facility was their director of system and incident management, Eric Hemphill. After taking me onto the SOC floor, the first thing that caught my attention was the huge video wall, full of surveillance cameras.

NTTA Safety Operations Center Floor
The NTTA Safety Operations Center.

Eric explained that there are nearly 2000 cameras in the system, and that they cover about 70% of NTTA’s footprint..or should I say tire tracks?

NTTA Safety Operations Center Video Wall
This video wall displays an array of cameras showing road conditions.
NTTA Safety Operations Center Video Wall
A roadside assistance unit helps with an incident on the Sam Rayburn Tollway.

All these cameras provide the folks in the SOC with a real-time view of road conditions. They work hand in hand with sensors built in to the pavement that detect when something goes awry. One example is when a wrong-way driver enters the tollway. Once detected, a big red message will flash below the video screen, alerting SOC dispatchers to pull up that associated camera and notify law enforcement.

picture of NTAA tollroad control room with wrong-way driver detection
If you want to drive the wrong way, don’t do it on NTTA roads! The SOC is alerted immediately thru a network of sensors.

Speaking of dispatchers, they are the heart of the SOC. There were four on duty when I visited, although staffing varies based on conditions. Every dispatcher has a different job, from monitoring the alarms and cameras to fielding 9-1-1 calls.

NTTA Safety Operations Center Dispatchers

NTTA Safety Operations Center
Extra workstations allow for more staff to be called in as conditions warrant.
NTTA Safety Operations Center map
Maps allow dispatchers to get a global view of traffic conditions.

9-1-1? Isn’t that handled by the individual cities? It is, however, the SOC serves as a secondary 9-1-1 answering and dispatching center for calls that originate on the NTTA system. As Eric explained, say you have an accident. When you dial 9-1-1, your call first goes to the municipality in which you are located in. After verifying that fire/EMS assistance isn’t needed, you will be transferred here. A dedicated DPS dispatcher will then send state troopers your way.

What if your car suddenly breaks down? Thanks to all those cameras and some advanced technology, the SOC is notified when a camera detects a non-moving object(such as a stalled car). From there, a dispatcher will send a roadside assistance unit.

NTTA Safety Operations Center Roadside Assistance CAD Screen
This screen shows the dispatcher the location of all the roadside assistance units.

Roadside assistance units, provided free of charge, help with jump-starts, flat tires, and more. They will even provide you with a small amount of gas should you run out and be stranded. These folks stay busy – I heard a constant stream of phone calls and radio traffic. However, the winter season is when it gets real crazy. Of course, prevention is the best strategy, hence why the SOC has pavement temperature sensors all throughout the system.

NTTA Safety Operations Center Pavement Temperature Sensors
Probably can’t see it clearly, but Fort Worth is showing almost 129 degrees on the pavement. Now that’s hot!

With these sensors, dispatchers are able to know if the road is getting to a dangerously low temperature, and ensure sand trucks and other personnel are mitigating any risks. Another part of prevention is notification of important messages to drivers – that’s why there are overhead message boards at various points. These message boards are controlled right here at the SOC.

NTTA Safety Operations Center Overhead Message Board Controller
All the overhead message boards are controlled thru this program.

Having images of funny highway sign messages in my head, I asked Eric if the employees could change the text to whatever they like. His response – “They can, but only once, because they won’t be working here afterwards.” Accurate answer, I’m sure!

As we concluded the tour, I have to admit I was pretty impressed. Having lived in the North Texas area my whole life and taken the various tollways countless times, I had no idea there was this much technology(or cameras) in the background. The roadside assistance vehicles were something that I’ve seen before in the past, but the many other technologies in the SOC help keep drivers and first responders safe as they get to where they need to go!

NTTA Command Center Map
After taking the toll countless times, it was cool to see what goes on behind-the-scenes.

Thanks to the folks at the North Texas Tollway Authority for showing me around to make this post possible!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Visit to Abilene Christian University

A few weeks ago, my friend Tom and I flew out to see a city in West Texas that I have only driven by but never explored – Abilene. Located off Highway 20 and home to 122,225 people, Abilene is one of the larger cities dotting the bland landscape of the region. It is located about midway between Dallas and Midland, and is a former frontier settlement. Today, this sleepy city is home to Dyess Air Force Base, numerous oil and gas operations, and also Abilene Christian University, which is where we went on this trip!

Founded in 1906 as the Childers Classical Institute, affiliated with the Churches of Christ, the school opened on a site just west of Abilene. In 1929, a new campus was built on the northeast side of town, which is the school’s present-day location. The university went thru two name changes in its history before becoming Abilene Christian University around the mid-70s. Today, close to 4,500 undergraduate and graduate students study here.

Upon arriving from the airport, it took us a few minutes to find parking. We ended up having to parallel park in one of the visitor spaces, which didn’t seem to be too numerous. Granted, that’s still better than many of the other colleges I’ve visited, where there is simply nowhere to park without the risk of your car getting towed.

One of the first buildings we checked out was the McGlothlin Campus Center, which serves as a student union of sorts. Inside, you can find a bookstore, dining facilities, and numerous offices.

Abilene Christian University

Abilene Christian University

Nothing here seemed very fancy – it looked like just a typical college environment. Being that our visit was during the summer, there were barely any students to be seen here. However, I’m sure the McGlothlin is a popular congregation spot once the semester starts!

Speaking of places where students are known to hang out, another place that Tom and I saw was the Margaret and Herman Brown Library.

Abilene Christian University Library
The Margaret and Herman Brown Library.

Inside, there was nothing really special to see. Desks and computers were spread out in this learning commons for all to use. Although the building seemed quite dated, the interior looked well-maintained.

Abilene Christian University Library
Interior of the Brown Library. 

As we kept walking around campus, I noticed that much like the library, most of the buildings were pretty old, but kept in good condition. There wasn’t any real gorgeous architecture like that found at the University of Nebraska or Iowa State, but it wasn’t bad for a school nestled in a dusty West Texas town.

Abilene Christian University

Abilene Christian University

We did come across one building that looked new – the Onstead Science Center. Upon checking ACU’s website though, it turned out that this building was actually 70 years old, and had just received a facelift. It looked pretty nice!

Abilene Christian University
The Onstead Science Center. 

Although there isn’t much about ACU that stood out to me, one thing I liked about here was the layout of everything. Being that this is a smaller campus, the center courtyard with different places surrounding it such as the library and student union provided for good ease of access. There were also ample amounts of green space, something I feel is important to any university grounds.

Abilene Christian University

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I would have loved to explore this campus further and learn more about life at ACU, but we had to get going to allow time for lunch before heading back to the airport. This was a nice trip seeing a school I’ve heard of several times, as well as knocking out Taylor County off the to-be-seen list of Texas counties!

 

 

 

 

Seeing a Few Sights of Omaha

After a good night’s sleep from seeing Iowa towns like Des Moines and Ames, I made my way back into Nebraska to see the last place on my Midwest tour – Omaha. Nebraska’s largest city, Omaha is home to close to 447,000 people and sits on the banks of the Missouri River. Although there were cool things I saw in the capital city of Lincoln, Omaha had its own share of visit-worthy places I wanted to check out before heading home.

Upon arriving in town after a two-hour drive, the first stop I went to was the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge. Spanning 3000 feet long and crossing the Missouri River, this bridge links the cities of Omaha, Nebraska and Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge
The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.

One super cool activity that can be done here is standing in both Nebraska and Iowa at the same time – and that I did!

Although it was a weekday morning, there was still a constant stream of foot traffic here. Many folks were getting their morning run in, while others simply came to see this piece of American engineering. This bridge has probably the best view of the Missouri River here in town! Signs placed all around served to educate visitors about the history of the river, the bridge’s origins, and so forth.

Missouri River in Omaha

Bob Kerrey Bridge educational panel

Before heading into downtown Omaha, I stopped briefly at the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters and Visitor Center, located right next to the Bob Kerrey and run by the National Park Service. As the name suggests, this place is the headquarters of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail system, which stretches through eleven states(with Omaha being a stop!).

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters and Visitor Center.
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters and Visitor Center.

Although most of the building is office space used by the National Park Service, the first floor had several exhibits that talked about Lewis and Clark’s expedition. Venturing across the United States in an effort to map out and study the west, this journey took over two years back in the early 1800s. Photos and maps displayed here gave me a good clue as to the places the explorers passed through. There were also a few interactive activities that make this a good family-friendly stop. A gift shop sold Lewis and Clark themed merchandise, as well as NPS hats and other souvenirs.

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters and Visitor Center

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters and Visitor Center

When doing my trip planning, I saw that Union Pacific had their headquarters in downtown Omaha, and I stopped there briefly, wanting to see if there were tours available or exhibits on display.

Union Pacific headquarter building
The headquarters of Union Pacific.

My advice: not really worth stopping by unless you know someone there that can show you around. There weren’t tours, and the gift shop was disappointing. Pretty much it was just a typical multi-story office building.

From there, it was off to my next stop, the Durham Museum, a railroad museum located inside the city’s former Union Station.

Durham Museum
The Durham Museum.

Now this place is much more interesting! Built in 1931, Union Station quickly became a hub of activity, with 1.5 million passengers passing thru in its first year. Various rail lines brought people in and out of this station. However, starting in the mid-50s, rail service began to stop running thru Omaha, and the station was shuttered and turned into a museum in the 70s.

Not just any boring museum, the station’s interior has been well preserved, and is now a main focal point of this place! From the still-operating soda fountain bar to the ticket counter now serving as a gift shop, it almost felt as though I stepped back in time.

Durham Museum Great Hall
The great hall inside the Durham Museum. Look at that architecture!

Behind the Great Hall were several exhibits talking about the history of the station.

Durham Museum
Various artifacts from the station’s heyday are displayed.

Downstairs, several train cars were on display. Fully open to climb onboard, it was cool seeing how rail transportation was like back in the day.

rail cars inside a railroad museum
Pretty much all the cars were open, allowing for a glimpse into the days of rail travel.

Honestly, many of the seats inside these cars are much more comfortable than those on today’s commercial airplanes!

Durham Museum

Durham Museum

There was also a steam locomotive as well as an Omaha streetcar on display.

Durham Museum

Durham Museum Streetcar

Although a whole exhibit section and model train display was down here as well, I had to get going since my parking meter was about to run out of time, 10 minutes away back at Union Pacific’s headquarters. When I was writing this post, however, I discovered that there was free parking at the museum, so when you go, don’t make the same mistake that I did!

Durham Museum Great Hall
The Durham Museum is a must-see while in Omaha.

After lunch at Panera Bread was my last stop in town, Nebraska Furniture Mart. Living in Dallas, we have a huge NFM, which is also the biggest store in Texas. However, Nebraska Furniture Mart got their start in..you guessed it, Nebraska. I was curious to see how good(or bad) the home store would be.

Nebraska Furniture Mart
The home store of Nebraska Furniture Mart.

Founded right here in Omaha in 1937, what started as a family business has now grown to four locations in four states. The company is currently owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.

This location is made up of three buildings. The main showroom has all sorts of furniture for sale. Everything from lamps to beds can be found here!

Nebraska Furniture Mart interior
Think of a Rooms To Go store and make it several times bigger, and you’ve got NFM Omaha.

Walking around, I was slightly disappointed. With low ceilings, and not as much energy as the Texas store, it would have been easy to mix up the two had it not been for the name that served as the obvious giveaway.

Nebraska Furniture Mart interior
No second floor, but there is a basement!

The appliances and electronics building, right next door, had gizmos like cameras, computers, and dryers. A Subway restaurant here allowed you to take a break when you got a bit tired of looking for a new washer.

Nebraska Furniture Mart interior

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The last place was Mrs. B’s Clearance Center. Also started by Rose Blumkin, the founder of NFM, this is an outlet type store selling floor samples and various clearance items.

Mrs. B's
Mrs. B’s.

There was an ample selection of products, and a constant stream of people coming in and out. One thing to keep in mind about Mrs. B’s – all sales are final.

Mrs. B's
One giant outlet store.

All in all, although it didn’t come close to the Texas location in terms of size or people, the home store still had lots of merchandise and friendly sales associates. It was interesting seeing how this huge store many know of in Texas had humble roots right here in the Midwest.

Nebraska Furniture Mart Logo
Although I didn’t walk out with a new sofa or some rugs, it was still cool seeing NFM’s roots!

From there, it was off to the airport for my flight back home. It had been nice seeing Omaha, and what it had to offer. Although I didn’t get to visit places like the Old Market, an area in downtown filled with dining and shopping options, it was still cool checking out some of the places that make up the “Gateway to the West”.

Until next time, Nebraska!