Saturday, May 26, 2018
News Roundup

Hernando County traffic control goes high tech

BROOKSVILLE — Orange barricades aren't the only thing multiplying along Hernando County highways these days.

There are more cameras, too — and not of the red-light variety.

Two other types of cameras have been appearing at busy intersections in greater numbers over the past few years, and by the time the road-widening project on Cortez Boulevard is finished in 2015, the number of devices will more than double.

Lest motorists get too concerned about increased government intrusion, there are several misconceptions that the folks who control and maintain the cameras — and the intersections they monitor — want to dispel.

They are not using the cameras to gaze into your car to watch you eat that forbidden breakfast doughnut. And they are not following you to see where you are going.

And, except for a half-dozen clearly marked intersections in the city of Brooksville, the cameras mostly are not going to be used to issue you a citation if you blow through a red light.

What they are is a frontline tool in an arsenal of high-tech devices the county is using to create a more effective traffic flow from one corner of the county to the other and to maintain the system more efficiently.

Oversight of the network of cameras, intersection signals and other traffic control devices, including school zone lights and fire station beacons, is done from a small room tucked inside the county's Division of Transportation Services.

The traffic control center, built in 2002 with help from the Florida Department of Transportation, is packed with monitors showing live camera shots and computer screens that connect operators with the signals through 37.3 miles of fiber-optic cable.

It is a complex system that allows county staffers to diagnose and fix traffic issues without having to go to each site, a huge advantage these days with tight budgets and fewer employees, said Gerald O'Dell, the county's traffic engineering coordinator.

"With less and less staff today, you have to take advantage of any technology now,'' O'Dell said.

• • •

The usefulness of the type of camera known as a monitoring camera was demonstrated to a county commissioner a few years ago.

Transportation Services had gotten phone calls about traffic backing up at the busy intersection of Mariner and Cortez boulevards, so O'Dell set about using one of the county's four monitoring cameras to see what was happening.

The cameras can be manipulated from the control center to look at the intersection from any approach. O'Dell scanned around the four corners and spotted the problem pretty quickly. The signal was staying green for a longer time than necessary because someone waving an advertising sign at the intersection kept hitting the "walk'' button for pedestrians.

O'Dell said the commissioner was impressed that the problem was so easily found.

Recently, another sign waver at the same intersection — Tanya Marsh, well known to people as Skater Girl because of her roller skates — told county commissioners that one of the left-turn signals at the intersection was not cycling and cars were backing up.

Since the corner is under the control of the state DOT during the current road-widening project, DOT officials were notified of the problem. But even after sending people several times to take a look, they couldn't figure out what was happening.

Again, examining the intersection activity from the county control center, it was clear that there was a problem with the "loops" in the left-turn lane. Those are the metal wires buried in the road surface that detect when there are motorists waiting to turn.

In this case, the loops were failing, and the only cars that set them off were those that pulled past the "stop line," which many drivers don't drive past when waiting for a green light.

County officials showed the information to the DOT workers in the field, and they finally saw the problem. The signal was reprogrammed to always assume that someone was waiting to turn left at the intersection.

The county currently has four of the monitoring cameras, all of them on Mariner Boulevard — at the intersections with Elgin Boulevard, Northcliffe Boulevard and Spring Hill Drive.

As O'Dell and signal system specialist Michael Ullven were showing off the control room recently, O'Dell stopped in mid-sentence and peered into the large screen showing the intersection of Mariner and Cortez.

''What?'' he said.

A pedestrian in the median of the intersection had just walked into one of the lanes of traffic.

A closer look revealed he was carrying a sign that read "Jesus Loves You."

Lucky for the pedestrian, he made it across the lane and took a spot by Marsh.

O'Dell sighed in relief.

• • •

The second type of camera — known as a detection camera — helps in another way.

It replaces the need for loops in the pavement.

To fix broken loops, the county has to send a crew out to install new ones. That takes workers out of the office and disrupts traffic flow while the fix is made.

With video detection cameras, when a vehicle pulls into the lane to turn, the camera tells the signal to add a turn light during the next cycle.

The majority of the cameras at intersections in Hernando are of the detection type. There currently are 28 of them, and 37 more are planned as part of the ongoing work on Cortez Boulevard.

In addition to controlling signals for left turns, the system allows O'Dell or Ullven to know when something is happening that might require a change in the cycling of signals.

Changes can be made from the control center, using the fiber-optic network or a series of modems for traffic signal control boxes around the county not yet connected by fiber.

Remote changes can be made to allow for less time at red lights during hours of the day when more traffic is headed in one direction or during special events or emergencies, officials said.

The goal is to move traffic as efficiently as possible, with as little down time as possible at red signals, but keeping in mind safety concerns, O'Dell said.

Keeping the timing on the lights in synch has been a bit of a challenge lately since the position Ullven fills had been left open for a year, and problems arose with the detection system.

Then, just as Ullven put the network back in synch, work on Cortez began, and all of the fiber-optic cable connections were taken down until the project nears completion in two years.

• • •

In the meantime, for motorists who remain concerned that footage of their doughnut binge during the breakfast commute can be used against them, O'Dell said there is no need to worry.

The county views the cameras in real time only.

It does not store any video evidence.

In fact, it has no equipment currently operating that would allow for saved recordings of anything that goes on at the intersections.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

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