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High-tech traffic signal system aims to ease Clearwater Beach congestion

This month, Court Street will see an expansion of a high-tech grid of traffic cameras, signal sensors and message signs.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

This month, Court Street will see an expansion of a high-tech grid of traffic cameras, signal sensors and message signs.

CLEARWATER — To the Intelligent Transportation System, you are a blip.

Driving to work, speeding home, you become a tiny tally mark on an ever-changing digital grid.

Sensors the size of hockey pucks buried in the asphalt track your speed, where you're going and when you'll get there. Repeat for every blip on the road and the network of "smart" stoplights begins to cater to the heaviest traffic.

It's called adaptive timing. And in its best moments, you don't even know it's there.

Starting this month, the timing system will reach a road notorious for mileslong backups: Court Street, the route many use to reach Clearwater Beach. Drivers already might notice lights on that stretch running on a different schedule.

But the nine adaptive signals won't be the only upgrades. Ten ITS cameras and three digital signs will be installed by December between Missouri Avenue and Island Way, west of Memorial Causeway Bridge.

Traffic planners say the high-tech ITS system, paid for with $1.6 million of federal earmarks, will make travel to and from the beach quicker, safer and less obnoxious. Signs could steer drivers from traffic jams. Cameras could lead rescuers into deadlocked crash scenes. The signals could smooth stop-and-go commutes.

For evidence, they point to Court Street and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard from Hillcrest Avenue east to the Courtney Campbell Parkway. A $2.8 million congressional earmark was used to install ITS cameras, sensors and signs on that stretch in 2005.

Ken Jacobs, Pinellas County's traffic signal operations manager, said those gadgets have provided results. Average travel time dropped 8 percent. Rear-end crashes, linked to quick stops in traffic jams, dropped by 5 percent. Crashes with injuries outside of jams dropped by a third.

The adaptive signals will replace clock-based signals, the patterns of which longtime commuters know by heart. Planners say some question the changes.

"Some people, if they don't see a continuous line of green lights, they think it's not working correctly," traffic operations manager Paul Bertels said.

The system has limits. Though traffic has eased in recent years, the span of Gulf-to-Bay that already has the ITS remains the county's 12th most congested road, county Metropolitan Planning Organization records show. Memorial Causeway is 24th, and congestion there is getting worse.

Bertels said the system smooths traffic flow, but it has one glaring flaw. Adaptive timing is turned off during rush hours — 7 to 9 a.m., 11 to 1 p.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. — because the perpetual traffic plays tricks with the sensors' software.

"When the road is saturated ... there is no period when no one's in the intersection," Bertels said. The system "has nothing to play with. It can't change itself because it has nowhere to go."

If that sounds like a deal breaker, consider this nonpeak problem: getting stopped at a long red light with the intersection empty. Adaptive timing would change the "green time" because it knows someone's waiting. An older signal would keep letting through ghosts.

The stoplight sensors hold magnets that track the speed and movement of the metal in your car. Drilled into the asphalt and sealed with epoxy, the sensors wirelessly beam data to a controller cabinet nearby, which connects to other intersections via buried fiber-optic lines.

The overhead digital signs that are part of the ITS will be installed near Glen Oaks Park and the causeway, facing the beach, and the Courtney Campbell, facing Tampa. They'll carry details of stopped traffic, hurricane evacuation routes and bulletins about missing people.

The cameras will stream video back to traffic control centers and police dispatchers, but it won't be recorded. Planners say they don't need the footage, which saves the cost of storage and processing.

Karen Seel, a county commissioner and longtime supporter of the ITS, said the technology will be a perfect fit for Court Street.

"The travel out to Clearwater Beach during the peak hours is very painful," Seel said. "In the next couple of years, you'll see the system really working."

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

by the numbers

$2.8m Cost in federal dollars to install the system in 2005 on Court Street and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard from Hillcrest Avenue east to the Courtney Campbell Parkway

8 % Change in average travel time in that area since the installation of the system, according to Ken Jacobs, Pinellas County's traffic signal operations manager

5 % Change in number of rear-end crashes in that area since the installation

High-tech traffic signal system aims to ease Clearwater Beach congestion 07/26/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 26, 2011 7:56pm]
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