ST. PAUL — Minnesota is poised to join the growing list of states that broadcast live highway traffic camera footage to the public.
The state Department of Transportation expects to stream the footage online in one-to-two-month's time, officials said. Currently, its traffic information website only publishes still frames from the cameras.
Garrett Schreiner, the department's freeway operations engineer, added that the new system "will definitely allow a wider audience within MnDOT to be able to view the video."
MnDOT maintains a network of approximately 1,172 cameras, most of which are scattered in and around the Twin Cities metro and along Interstate highways. Schreiner said that the department uses them primarily to monitor traffic flow and road conditions, although it mostly relies on its drivers and the Minnesota State Patrol to report roads that are slick with ice, flooded over or covered in snow.
Schreiner said that MnDOT officials can view live traffic camera footage at a handful of department offices. Several television stations have direct access to the footage as well.
But because of the way the camera network is structured, he said, each office can access live footage captured only by nearby cameras. That will change with the upgrade to the new system, he said.
Approximately 740 of the cameras can capture high-definition video, according to the department, although some older equipment will be able to broadcast to the web as well. All told, the project will have taken two years and approximately $283,000 to complete. That figure includes the cost of software licenses, network upgrades and a dozen new computer servers. Schreiner said that MnDOT's existing fiber optic network has the capacity to support the live stream program.
Other states that broadcast live footage to the web include Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
MnDOT stressed that the cameras are not used to enforce the law. In an email, Schreiner said that the new high-definition cameras "are not able to read license plates or identify people."
The police do have access to the cameras, though, and can use them to help respond to emergencies. The State Patrol, for example, can use them to assess the scale of an accident or pinpoint the location of a stranded motorist, said spokesman Tim Boyer.
While the camera network is a "valuable tool," Boyer said, the State Patrol does not often ask to make use of it. There are still stretches of highways that the cameras do not monitor, he said.
Boyer said it's not yet clear what effect the newer cameras or live stream will have on law enforcement.
"We’ll continue to operate in the same fashion, using them the same way," Boyer said.
Also unclear is how useful the better-quality footage will be to attorneys. Boyer said that prosecutors and defense attorneys alike regularly ask MnDOT for copies of camera footage to use in court.
The Office of the Minnesota Attorney General did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the use of traffic camera footage in court. Neither did attorney's offices for Ramsey and Hennepin counties, where many of the cameras are deployed.
Schreiner said that MnDOT will continue to mount new cameras along state highways but that it does not have a target number for them in mind. New cameras are typically installed during road construction projects, he said.
After it launches, Schreiner said the new live stream program will cost the state approximately $11,000 per year in software licensing renewal fees and equipment maintenance.