Commuter Assistance Net

HAM radio network keeps Capital Region commuters rolling along

By Pamela Reese Finch for The Record

TROY, N.Y. >> It’s not cellphones or the Internet, but 127-year-old technology that helps to ease the burden of commuting around the Capital Region.

Jock Elliott of Troy coordinates the Capital District Commuter Assistance Network, a group of volunteer amateur, or HAM, radio operators who provide information about travel hazards in an effort to ease traffic congestion. Commuter Net, as it’s called, is a 20-year-old system that has sustained itself without dues, bylaws or regular meetings.

“When I started, I felt that if it were my wife or son out there, I would want there to be somebody to help,” said Elliott. “I got involved as a participant in 1997, and one day, I found myself thrust into being net controller.”

“Dawn patrol,” as he calls it, means waking up each day at 5:30 a.m. to feed the household pets before initiating the network at 6 a.m. The commuter network operates for 2 1/4 hours during the morning, and no day is ever the same. Time can range from blissfully boring to frantic, he said.

The control center receives traffic information via radio and relays it to the proper authorities and the Traffic Management Center in Latham. Unlike cellphones, the radios do not cause a driving hazard and Commuter Net volunteers are trained to provide detailed information, such as landmarks like mile markers that help authorities determine the exact location of the hazard.

Elliott stressed volunteers must adhere to two rules: “Don’t cause anything” and “When in doubt, report.”

MIke Alecksynas of Columbia County is a longtime HAM radio operator who feels Commuter Net is just another extension of his passion for public service. He joined the network after retiring from his local volunteer fire department and rescue squad. Compared to Elliott, he is relatively new to Commuter Net, becoming involved four years ago, after he heard someone checking in on Interstate 90.

“Someone called in an incident to Jock and the radio, and Jock got ahead of the traffic< Alecksynas recalled. “I drive my wife back and forth to St. Peter’s [Hospital in Albany] every day and decided to be part of it… There are some areas where a radio signal will get through when nothing else will.”

Alecksynas said he thinks of Computer Net as “another set of eyes” for commuters.

“We stay out of the way,” he said. “We don’t want to tie up traffic.”

He and Elliott both stressed that “rubbernecking, as it is called, leads to traffic slowdowns and, typically, additional accidents that further complicate a situation.

“A vast majority of the calls we deal with are disabled vehicles, and most of the time they are not life-threatening.” Elliott said.

The Capital Region Planning Commission’s statistical report for 2015 found that driving is the most often-used method of transportation to work, accounting for 80 percent of the area workforce. An average day for Commuter Net brings one or two incidents and 26 check-ins, Elliott explained.

He estimates between 100 and 200 people have been involved with the network throughout its two decades.

“A lot of people have good hearts and want to do something, but they are not trained,” Elliott said. “My guys are and can provide the exact number and mile marker, so help is sent to the appropriate location.”

Commuter Assistance Network Frequency List:

Primary Repeater is 146.940 – Carrier Squelch (No PL) — the Big 94

Official backup is our sister repeater on 147.330 – PL 146.2

If both repeaters are down find the net on simplex at 146.520.

KB2GOM Commuter Assistant Net – QST Article