PennDOT Develops State-Of-The-Art Research Track 

On Thursday, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) Secretary Yassmin Gramian announced that PennDOT, the Pa. Turnpike Commission, and the Regional Industrial Development Corporation (RIDC) of Southwestern PA are partnering on a site plan and design for the new PennSTART facility. 

The Pennsylvania Safety, Transportation, and Research Track, or PennSTART is a state-of-the-art facility envisioned to benefit emergency responders, transportation technology companies, and research institutions while supporting the local economy. An analysis is underway to choose a facility location, with the decision expected to be made in the next stage of the engineering- planning and design process over the next year. The facility is anticipated to be operational as early as 2024 and will benefit emergency responders, transportation organizations, and research institutions. PennSTART will address safety training and research needs in six key areas: traffic incident management (TIM); tolling and intelligent transportation systems (ITS) technology; work zones; commercial vehicles; transit vehicles; and automated vehicles (AV)/ other emerging technologies. “As highway safety and transportation technologies advance, our teams, first responders, students, and researchers should also be learning about these tools,” Gramian said. “PennSTART will provide access to innovative technologies for testing and education.”

When a final agreement is reached, the facility will be built at and adjacent to the RIDC Westmoreland site in Mount Pleasant. Originally a 2.8 million-square-foot manufacturing facility, through the state, local, non-profit, and private partnerships, RIDC Westmoreland was converted into a multi-tenant advanced manufacturing complex home to over 1,000 jobs at AV companies, contract manufacturers, and more, as well as on-site workforce development provider Westmoreland Community College Advanced Technology Center.

“Providing real-world training for Pennsylvania’s 54,000 incident responders is crucial to enhance the safety of our highways for responders and travelers alike,” said PTC Chief Technology Officer Robert Taylor. “Fact is, the classroom alone cannot effectively prepare police, fire, medical, and towing personnel for the dangers they encounter at an incident scene. PennSTART will serve as Pennsylvania’s first statewide hub for Traffic Incident Management training so these heroes can experience lifelike incidents in a controlled environment.”

 PennSTART Provides

  • TIM training.
  • Testing and hands-on training for new ITS, tolling, and signal equipment.
  • Safe, simulated training for higher-speed and mobile work-zone operations.
  • Safety certification training opportunities.
  • Simulated environments for temporary traffic control device testing and evaluation.
  • Smart truck-parking applications and other opportunities for commercial-vehicle technology partnerships.
  • Controlled environments to test various AVs and other emerging technologies for transit buses, infrastructure equipment, and other applications.

 PennSTART Will Help Make Roads Safer

The PennSTART facility represents the next step in a series of steps that PennDOT, the PTC, and other partners have taken to improve TIM. In 2016, the agencies held a TIM Summit with state agencies and dozens of responder groups to discuss and establish policies and partnerships to improve TIM in Pennsylvania. In January 2017, the Pennsylvania Traffic Incident Management Enhancement (PennTIME) initiative was formed, with five commonwealth agencies formalizing an interagency agreement in 2018. Since PennTIME was formed, over 20,000 responders have been trained in TIM compared to roughly 6,000 before PennTIME, ranking Pennsylvania third in the country for the total number of responders trained.

Building on the growing technology and AV industries in the region, PennSTART also aims to support jobs and business development. A report issued in September 2021 by the RIDC and the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce found that “the estimated direct employment footprint of Pittsburgh’s autonomy sector totals over 6,300 jobs” with “…an additional 8,604 full- or part-time indirect jobs” in the region dependent on the industry. The direct-employment footprint alone provides “an estimated $651 million in labor income, [and] $34.7 million in state and local tax revenues.”

“Our region already has a thriving cluster of autonomous technology companies and is one of the national leaders in the development of driverless vehicles,” said Donald F. Smith, Jr., RIDC President. “Today’s PennSTART announcement is the fulfillment of one of the recommendations outlined in a joint RIDC—Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce report on how to facilitate the growth and impact of the industry. Southwestern Pennsylvania has a long history of successful public-private partnerships to advance our region, and we are gratified to be able to partner with PennDOT and the Turnpike Commission to develop this project as a regional asset that will continue to attract companies, jobs, and investment.”

Additionally, the facility will meet one of the recommendations in the same regional report: “A multi-purpose, multi-user test and demonstration facility for autonomous mobile systems to be located within the City of Pittsburgh or close adjacent municipality that is highly convenient for use by the existing cluster of businesses, the university cluster in Oakland, and emerging entrepreneurial enterprises.”

“Westmoreland County is excited to support PennDOT, the Turnpike Commission, and the RIDC on this significant capital improvement and important initiative,” said County Commissioner Sean Kertes. “Improving safety on our roads and highways that will ultimately protect our residents and loved ones is paramount and we welcome this opportunity to be based here in the county.” 

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