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'Smart' signals to ease traffic

Traffic lights that talk to each other and adjust to drivers? They're a reality - and are coming soon to a few busy roads.

By JEAN HELLER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 12, 2003

Traffic lights in the Tampa Bay area are about to get smarter.

Some will get smarter on their own; some will get smarter with the backup help of human beings. The bottom line for motorists: Rush-hour headaches should ease, blood pressures will drop and so will wear and tear on brake and stomach linings.

The program that combines closed-circuit television cameras and "analytical" traffic signals, which can adjust their cycles to the flow of traffic, will start in Pasco County in December, then spread into Pinellas by the end of next year.

Tampa won't get the smart signals, but four of the city's busiest roads will get the TV cameras, which will alert traffic managers to problems so that they can adjust light cycles manually.

The systems, most of which are being designed and built by the state Department of Transportation, will create a new generation of traffic signals in Pasco and Pinellas counties that "talk" to each other and read traffic patterns.

This will allow green lights to stay green longer to clear backups. Those lights then will alert signals up the road so they can synchronize themselves to be green when the wall of traffic arrives.

While many signals in the region are sequenced so vehicles can hit all greens when traffic is light and moving at the speed limit, the adaptive capabilities of the new system are a major step forward.

"It's about taking the roads we have and making the system work better," said Bill Wilshire, who heads DOT's intelligent transportation program.

Here is how the systems will work:

Pasco County

The first phase of the Pasco improvements will run along U.S. 19 from Flora Avenue, just north of the Pinellas line, to Main Street in New Port Richey.

"The sequencing there has been fixed based on historic traffic volume," Wilshire said. "With the new adaptive system, detectors will know in real time what the volume is and sequence the 13 signals along that stretch of U.S. 19 to handle the flow."

The second phase of the project, from Grand Boulevard in Port Richey to Beacon Woods Drive in Hudson, should be under construction late next year.

U.S. 19 will get two closed-circuit television cameras, one at U.S. 19 and Alt. 19, and the other at U.S. 19 and State Road 52. They will let traffic officials see what's happening and take control of the signals when accidents or backups make it necessary.

Eventually, Wilshire said, the 19 miles of U.S. 19 through Pasco will be covered by 19 cameras.

The Pasco work will cost about $2-million.

Pinellas County

There are four roads in Pinellas slated for smart traffic signals, though there is only money in DOT's budget to do two now. First will be Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard from Bayshore Boulevard, at the west end of the Courtney Campbell Parkway, to the Memorial Causeway. Then U.S. 19 from Republic Drive, north of the Countryside overpasses, to the Pasco line.

Later, Ulmerton Road and East Lake-McMullen Booth-49th Street will get the same treatment.

On Gulf-to-Bay, all signals will be adaptive, and there will be four to five television cameras to feed data to Pinellas County and Clearwater traffic managers. They will be able to override the automated system if situations call for that.

DOT also is putting in a dynamic message sign, identical to those on Interstate 275 and Interstate 175 in St. Petersburg, where westbound Gulf-to-Bay splits. It will direct beach traffic.

The northern stretch of U.S. 19 will get smart signals at every intersection, 13 cameras and three dynamic message signs. One of the signs will be along the southbound lanes just south of the Pasco line, and one each beside the northbound and southbound lanes between Curlew Road and Republic.

"It's terrific," said Ken Jacobs, Pinellas County traffic engineer. "One of the biggest benefits to the public is that we can get information out on a real-time basis, information about accidents or detours, whatever, so they can make decisions on alternate routes. It will be a big help."

The four intersections along U.S. 19 between Gulf-to-Bay and Ulmerton will get adaptive signals, along with TV cameras at Harn Boulevard and Belleair Road.

The cost for the projects will be $11-million, and the projects will be ready by the end of next year.

Hillsborough County

The new systems in Tampa will consist of a battery of television cameras to monitor traffic on four busy roads: Gandy Boulevard, Dale Mabry Highway, Busch Boulevard and Kennedy Boulevard. The images will feed into the city's traffic control center in the old City Hall, and traffic managers will use the data to adapt traffic signal cycles manually.

In addition, the city is putting six to seven cameras in the West Shore area, Wilshire said.

For the time being, there will be only one camera on Gandy, at Dale Mabry.

There will be seven cameras on Dale Mabry, from Gandy north to Hillsborough Avenue. Five will go to Kennedy, from Memorial Highway to the Howard/Armenia area. And there will be four on Busch, from Florida Avenue to 40th Street.

"City officials will be able to resequence the lights for all sorts of things," Wilshire said. "If there's something going on and Raymond James (Stadium), they can recycle the signals to clear traffic more quickly. If there's a major event at the (St. Pete Times Forum), cameras that already exist on the Bank of America tower can zero in on backups and let city staff make adjustments."

The cost of the state's portion of the Tampa project will be $1.9-million. The system will be up and running late in 2004.

- Times staff writer Matt Waite contributed to this report.

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