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For $100,000, you could buy a house _ or a stoplight

(ran NTP edition)

A traffic light performs the simplest of functions: It tells a car to go; it tells a car to stop.

So it seemed strange when a deep-pocket developer like Markborough, who built Hunter's Green, balked about paying for lights at an intersection just past its entrance on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. The city wants Markborough to install lights there; the developer says it's not his responsibility.

And therein lies a lesson.

Even the simplest of devices contain systems that can be utterly complex _ and costly.

In the case of a traffic light in New Tampa, the price tag can exceed $100,000.

How can that be?

Mike Scanlon, an engineer with the city, explained. Sitting at the traffic control console in City Hall, watching three terminals blink and buzz, he said, "There's a lot more involved than the signals you see."

Three computers the size of small refrigerators monitor almost all 525 traffic lights from City Hall. Nearly every light is wired into the system, which Scanlon or another engineer watch all day for malfunctions.

And even the simple things can get expensive.

Ever notice the "ONLY" lettering on the asphalt telling you which way to turn? That's thermal plastic. It can cost taxpayers $1,750.

The buttons pedestrians push so they can cross the street more quickly go for $100 a pop. And the "WALK/DON'T WALK" signs telling pedestrians what most already know _ or ignore _ cost $500 more.

_ DAVID KARP

ANATOMY OF A TRAFFIC LIGHT

Traffic lights don't come cheap. In far-off parts of Tampa, the price tag can easily exceed $100,000. That's why Hunter's Green and the city are arguing over who should pay for lights at Bruce B. Downs Boulevard by Cross Creek. To understand what makes a traffic signal more expensive than the Mercedes Benz idling in front of it, city traffic engineers opened up the books for an intersection in the works south of Hunter's Green. Construction on those lights at I-75 and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard starts in January.

1. Traffic signal _ $300 for one light, or $2,400 total for the intersection.

2. Street light pole _ Each one costs $11,000. Total: $33,000.

3. Underground electrical conduit _ At $8 per foot, connecting the light costs $88,000.

4. Controller cabinet _ $6,000 to regulate the flow of traffic.

5. Reflectors _ $4.27 a piece. This intersection needs 46, maybe more. Cost: $196.

6. White 24-inch stripes _ $396, or $2.75 per linear foot.

7. White 6-inch stripes _ For $511, these lines separate lanes.

8. Dotted white 6-inch stripes _ This line guides you as you turn left. Cost: $25.20.

9. Loop Detection System _ You can't see this device, but it can detect the metal in your car. When it does, it tells the light someone's waiting. Cost for 3 systems: $3,600.

10. Directional arrows _ $1,000, or $100 for each arrow.

11. "ONLY" messages _ $1,750, or $250 for every reminder.

12. Miscellaneous - $20,000 to $40,000 fopr traffic studies intersection design and installation costs.

TOTAL: $80,000 to $100,000

SOURCE: Tampa traffic engineering; estimates based on average bids.

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