To any motorist cursed by a morning commute that seems to include a stop at every traffic signal along the way, take heart.
There really is not an organized conspiracy to keep you from getting to work on time.
Much to the contrary.
There are actually county workers whose job it is to make your downtime at red lights as minimal as possible.
These traffic wizards are holed up in an obscure corner of the county's Department of Public Works complex on E Jefferson Street. In a small, secured, windowless office with computer consoles and large screens lit up with graphics, live camera shots and weather reports, these workers try to keep traffic moving at a good clip from one corner of Hernando County to the other.
This is the county's traffic nerve center, the control point for all traffic signals, traffic hazard beacons and school crossing lights. Built in 2002 with the help of the Florida Department of Transportation, the traffic control center is a state-of-the-art hub that allows Public Works employees to view and manipulate traffic at intersections throughout the county.
"What we're trying to do, for one thing, is save our technicians from having to go out in the field and, two, actually maintain intersections to improve their efficiency,'' said Randy Clark, a signal system specialist with the Public Works Department.
Computers are used to smooth traffic flow
Computers, cameras, sophisticated programs and 32.7 miles of fiber-optic interconnect cable offer a wide array of features. The system allows specialists to manipulate such simple timing issues as allowing a longer left-turn light at a busy corner or shortening the time of the red light if traffic is backed up too long.
One computer screen shows a graphic of an intersection as lights change from red to green, turning lights go on and off, and traffic flows the way it is meant to flow.
Another screen shows the surveillance camera in place at Spring Hill Drive and Mariner Boulevard. From the control center, workers can spin the camera around to view from every angle and see in real time what is happening at the intersection.
On this occasion, Clark noted with curiosity a motorist who decided to make a strange U-turn at the corner.
At some intersections, cameras are also used to tell the system when a car is in the turn lane and needs a turn light, replacing the sensors that run in the pavement for that purpose at other corners.
The technology is not used for red-light runners. But by mid 2009, officials expect that the camera feeds will be available to other authorized county workers, such as sheriff's officials, who may want to view and record video in case of accidents, and also to emergency management staffers, who may need to see intersections during a disaster.
Such tools allow monitoring so adjustments can be made in timing for a variety of special circumstances, such as special events, changes in patterns from morning to afternoon commute times or even for evacuations in case of an emergency.
The goal is to get drivers on major thoroughfares to their destinations without hitting a light. Of course, whether that works depends on how fast cars are moving.
In order to get it in sync, "we're just assuming that everyone is doing the speed limit,'' Clark said.
But he added that there are places in the county where traffic is exceeding the speed limit.
Clark can tell. Traffic counts and flow are monitored in a variety of ways through the technology. On Barclay Avenue, the county has its one permanent continuous traffic monitoring station. From there, not only can traffic be counted, the technology allows officials to collect information about the class of vehicles based on their weight and the speed they are traveling.
On-site adjustments not needed as much
Another feature in the traffic control center isn't focused on today's traffic issues, but rather the concerns of the future. Complex traffic planning tools allow staffers to overlay current traffic flow onto a map, adding projected traffic from a planned development.
That allows workers to project how today's traffic will change when a new massive retail store opens on a corner a year from now and experiment with traffic controls to see which would work best.
The computers and gadgets mean that the dwindling number of technicians are not forced to run out to intersections for virtually every adjustment, as was the case in the past. Worker numbers have dropped during the county's downsizing.
Some larger adjustments must still be done in the field, and some special circumstances — such as the dump truck colliding with the overpass at State Road 50 and Interstate 75 this month — still require Clark and technicians to actually go to a scene.
Waiting at red lights can add to gas costs
The county plans to continue expanding the system, adding more monitoring cameras in the short term and, down the road, possibly even dynamic message signs like those elsewhere in the state that broadcast everything from traffic conditions to Amber Alerts.
When it comes down to the impact of the center's work, Clark points to a statistic released when gas prices were higher than they are now. He said it is thought that the average motorist pays 25 cents extra for gas for every red light he or she must sit through.
That can add up quickly.
County Engineer Charles Mixson said all the technology helps the county accomplish its goal, which is to keep the largest number of motorists moving and not stalled at a light. Of course that means someone else will be sitting at a red light to let everyone else drive through.
"It's a balancing act that we are doing,'' Mixson said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.
The Hernando County Department of Public Works traffic control center monitors:
83 traffic signals (65 in corridors and 18 isolated)
41 school zone lights at 19 sites and the school bus complex
12 video detection cameras and 2 video monitoring cameras
9 overhead intersection control beacons
3 overhead and 10 roadside fire station beacons
1 permanent continuous traffic monitoring station