As the sun drops toward the Gulf of Mexico every weekday afternoon, it casts a glare in the eyes of a diverse array of drivers headed west on State Road 686, also known as Roosevelt Boulevard, East Bay Drive and West Bay Drive.
There is much that separates these people — the silver-haired man in the spotless black Mercedes-Benz; the young woman in an old brown Lincoln, dancing to garbled music blaring from broken speakers; the stoic, mustached man in a bumperless black Honda with an engine that makes a strange popping noise, like a bag of Orville Redenbacher's is cooking under the hood.
There is, however, at least one thing that unites them: a desire to get through rush-hour traffic as quickly as possible.
Work is under way this month to make the trek along Largo's main drag faster and smoother, as SR 686 joins a growing list of Pinellas roadways linked by the so-called Intelligent Transportation System, or ITS.
The new $3.1 million system — paid for with state grant and gas tax money — is in the preliminary installation stage, with major construction expected in 2013.
By 2014, Largo drivers should benefit from a system that adjusts signal timing according to traffic flow in real time, thanks to cameras and fiber-optic cables. It also will alert drivers to accidents and other potential hazards via electronic message boards.
County officials admit the system is not a panacea for traffic jams. But they say it's undoubtedly better than the current system on SR 686, which relies on preset timing patterns for traffic signals based on the time of day.
"There's a large proportion of people who think there's something we can install that, it doesn't matter which direction they're going, they'll never have to stop again," said Ken Jacobs, Pinellas County signal operations manager. "If I could do that, I'd be a rich man."
The recently installed ITS system on State Road 580 has reduced drive-time from U.S. 19 to downtown Dunedin by 10 percent, Jacobs said, with a 37 percent drop in the number of stops a driver has to make. While a shorter ride is nice, Jacobs thinks the system's most important benefit is reduction of rear-end accidents caused by sudden, unexpected traffic slowdowns.
A two-year study of U.S. 19 after ITS was installed showed a 12 percent reduction in rear-end accidents and a 41 percent drop in rear-end accidents with injuries, according to Jacobs.
The "686 corridor" — as it's called by Pinellas County traffic management — starts on the east in front of St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, follows Roosevelt Boulevard as it turns into East Bay and West Bay drives and runs through Largo, and ends at the intersection with Gulf Boulevard in Indian Rocks Beach.
It will be the sixth roadway to join Pinellas' intelligent transportation system since 2006, along with U.S. 19, McMullen-Booth Road, State Road 60, Belcher Road and SR 580. The software has improved since those first systems were installed, and SR 686 will probably get the same software that runs signals along SR 580, Jacobs said.
Adding SR 686 to the list of ITS corridors is another step in the right direction for Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel, who has long pushed for one countywide road management network for major throughways. Future roads set to join Pinellas' system include Ulmerton Road (SR 688), 66th Street and Bryan Dairy Road.
Clearwater officials initially objected to county control of its roads, but eventually agreed to the installation of ITS. St. Petersburg remains the last major holdout, but Seel hopes Pinellas' biggest city eventually gets on board.
"The key is getting all the players to understand," Seel said. “It takes time and patience and, of course, dollars."
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected]