If you've questioned why those solar panels on poles have popped up along the East Lake/McMullen-Booth Road corridor, you're not alone.
"I was wondering if it was a case of 'Big Brother' watching us but I didn't see any cameras attached," said Bob Wilson, 80, an East Lake resident.
Erinne Lansing, president of the Crest Homeowners Association, guessed they were powering the street lights with energy from the sun.
The solar-paneled stations will count vehicles and measure traffic flow on one of the county's most congested roadways.
Officials in Pinellas County's Public Works Department say that within about six months, the 25 stations lining the busy corridor from Trinity Boulevard to Drew Street will be saving you time and gas money.
The information they gather will allow traffic lights to be adjusted in real time based on traffic conditions, said Adam Moser, senior engineer for the county's Intelligent Transportation System.
"The solar-powered vehicle detection stations are a new technology with 97-percent accuracy," he said. "The McMullen-Booth project is the first time we've used that technology."
Similar stations have been set up around the Tampa Bay area along interstate roadways as part of the state Department of Transportation's SunGuide System.
The state is chipping half of the $7 million price tag.
In the county system, each station is 1,000 feet from the intersection and consists of a 30-foot concrete pole with a metal box and solar panel.
The detection units are above the panel and a 2-foot directional antenna sits on top. When online by December or January, a station will transmit information to the intersection's signal controllers.
During the day, the solar panels will store energy in batteries that allow the system to operate 24 hours a day.
The high-tech car counters are part of the county's ITS program, a network of computers and communication technologies designed to help move traffic efficiently, decrease response times for rescue crews and improve driver awareness of conditions with dynamic message signs.
Few would argue it's not needed.
The Texas Transportation Institute released a study this month that said that, each year, drivers in the Bay area spend 47 hours parked in traffic at a cost of $928 per commuter. The congestion wastes nearly 40 million gallons of gas annually.
The region's population is expected to double to 7 million people by 2050.
Two ITS projects already are monitoring traffic conditions along U.S. 19 and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard through cameras and inductive loops — wires embedded in the pavement.
Studies indicated that these two projects have saved the public a combined $1.35 million a year in fuel costs.
But the inductive loops are considered less efficient and accurate than the newer solar-operated technology, Moser said.
Belcher Road, from Klosterman to Druid roads, is next in line.
However, don't look for solar panels there. An even newer technology will be used.
Traffic counts will be taken by magnetometers, small sensors shaped like hockey pucks embedded in the pavement. The sensors run on 10-year batteries.
"We've found they are a cheaper, better technology," Moser said.
It will cost an estimated $80 million to implement the multi-phased ITS program in the county.
Its cost, spread out over a 14-year time frame, is paid for with a 1-cent county gas tax added in 2007 and matching grants from the federal and state governments.
Officials say that means more money in our pockets in the long run.
A 2007 Florida DOT study determined that for every dollar invested in ITS technologies, seven would be returned.
"That includes a savings of fuel, time, reduced travel and increased productivity," Moser said. "And with the reduced car emissions, it's much better for the environment."
Lansing said that's good news.
"Anything that will alleviate the traffic congestion is fantastic," she said. "I am impressed with what our tax dollars are doing for a change."
Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at [email protected]