Minnesota Department of Transportation to send emergency road closure alerts to cellphones

Authorities send Amber Alerts to cellphones to notify the public that a child has been reported abducted.

Using the same technology, this winter the Minnesota Department of Transportation will begin using what is known as Wireless Emergency Alerts to let motorists know when a highway or freeway is expected be closed for four hours or longer due to an emergency or weather.

“We can push a message to them so they can avoid a road closure that will hinder their travel or when there are unsafe conditions so they don’t get trapped,” said Brian Kary, director of MnDOT’s Transportation Systems Management and Operations.


A sample alert might appear like this: “EMERGENCY ALERT — The I-90 corridor is closed from the South Dakota border to Albert Lea due to blizzard conditions. Go to www.511mn.org for more information and updates.”

The alerts will augment other ways MnDOT already warns motorists, including through social media, overhead and roadside electronic signs, and its 511 highway travel information website, Kary said.

When weather — snow, ice, flooding — or serious and fatal crashes prompt a shutdown, MnDOT will sent a message to cell phones within 1 mile of either side of the highway and within 10 miles of the closure. The nature of an emergency could require a larger area for notifications and specifics will be determined on a case-by-case basis, the agency said.

Phones won’t be inundated with messages, Kary said.

“The likelihood is a handful of times a year,” he said. “You won’t get alerts for things that are miles away from you. Just notifications as you are approaching that scene.”

Kary said MnDOT will most likely use the system in rural areas where there are fewer electronic signs to warn drivers, fewer opportunities for them to get off the freeway and not as many alternate routes to take as there are in the metro area.

However, the system is able to distribute messages in all parts of the state, including the metro area, Kary said.

The automated alerts will cover only roads under MnDOT’s jurisdiction, not municipal, township or county roads. Drivers who don’t want to receive them can opt out, but that ability will depend on phone service provider and type of device, Kary said.

MnDOT joins state transportation departments in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Texas, and some sheriff’s offices in Minnesota that send alerts directly to mobile devices without the user needing to download an app or subscribe.

MnDOT will spend about $20,000 a year for the service, Kary said.

“Our hope is that motorists will be informed and avoid a situation of being stuck in traffic or in a winter storm when a road is closing to the public,” he said.

Transit planning sessions

Metro Transit is gathering feedback on its strategic plan and vision for transit during sessions from 9 to 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at Union Depot in St. Paul, and from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Minneapolis Central Library.

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