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Officials pondering intelligent roadways

Computer-controlled message boards and traffic lights would be part of a new system.

Picture yourself in a car on a highway, with green traffic lights and message board warnings. One warns you to detour around an accident ahead.

An ambulance passes. The next light stays green to help it. A camera at the intersection ahead is sending live video of the intersection where the accident happened, allowing emergency dispatchers to choose the best route for the ambulance to arrive.

Of course, you miss the traffic jam ahead, too, because you detoured to an alternate route, suggested on that message board.

The city is working to make such a dream drive reality by installing an "intelligent traffic system" in the city.

The term intelligent traffic system, or ITS, will seem like an oxymoron to many hardened Pinellas County motorists. But city engineers insist those three little words could reduce your drive times by as much as 25 percent.

The Clearwater City Commission voted last week to spend $5.4-million, including some grant money, for its first "intelligent" traffic project. It will be placed along two of the county's most-congested roads: Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and U.S. 19 in Clearwater.

When the first phase is completed by 2004, advanced computer technology will better coordinate traffic signals to give you more green-light time, while message boards and other neat gadgetry make your drive safer.

Meanwhile, county engineers are planning to spend about $6-million more to bring such intelligent traffic technology to some other horrible commutes: the rest of U.S. 19, Ulmerton Road and McMullen-Booth Road.

If it all works as planned, as much as $25-million could be spent during the next decade to install new technologies along smaller corridors.

Even with that price, it's one of the cheapest things that can be done to improve your drive across Pinellas, says Bijan Behzadi, the Florida Department of Transportation engineer overseeing the countywide endeavor.

"Take State Road 60 (also known as Gulf-to-Bay). We can't widen it beyond six lanes," Behzadi said. "So the only thing we can do is apply an intelligent traffic system and try to improve the flow of traffic, reduce delays and decrease your travel times."

There's just one hitch. Before you can enjoy this new technology, the county and local cities have to decide one thing this week: Who will control it.

Widening the green band

So how would an intelligent traffic system work?

That's an acceptable conversation starter if you find yourself in one third-floor office of Clearwater's Municipal Services Building, where the city's traffic signal control center is behind locked doors.

Here your road rage is converted to clinical-sounding words by the city's traffic signal system manager, Glenn Weaver. Have trouble racing from one red light to make the next green? Consider it a "start-up delay," Weaver said. Get stuck behind two red lights? You fell out of the "green band."

And by the way, "adaptive control" does not refer to that move you pull behind the wheel while simultaneously drinking your coffee and talking on your mobile phone. It's a traffic light's ability to change its timing automatically based on the number of cars it detects through pavement sensors.

In Clearwater, several signals at a time can change their timing together, based on traffic flow. The changes, though, are controled by set timing patterns stored in a central computer.

The timing patterns are developed after a city employee sits at an intersection for a day, counting cars and observing turning patterns. File cabinets, stacks of computer printouts and weighty manuals in the traffic signal control room explain the patterns.

One central mainframe computer, the size of three refrigerators standing side-by-side, store the patterns. It is 1980s technology. Metallic circuit boards can be seen inside it, with blinking red lights. If any of the boards were to short out, the parts aren't made anymore to replace them, Weaver said.

In a few years, the old technologies will be phased out as the city installs its new intelligent system. The endeavor starts by eliminating the mainframe with personal computers.

Fiber-optic cable will be laid from the computer room down Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. Sixteen intersections on Gulf-to-Bay will get new signal control boxes and improved pavement. Five intersections on U.S. 19 within Clearwater city limits will be similarly renovated.

City engineers envision new main computer systems to conduct detailed enough analysis of traffic conditions to be changing all the system's traffic lights individually. The goal: to give the appropriate motorists longer green lights.

"Right now, we basically have time-of-day patterns programed into sections of lights to tell them what to do," said Paul Bertels, the city's traffic operations manager. "This new system will take any time on any light that is being wasted, and then shift it around so it is best utilized. The cycle lengths will be constantly changing, from second to second."

Additional advantages include closed-circuit television monitoring of four intersections on U.S. 19 and at the intersection of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and McMullen-Booth Road.

Electronic message boards also will be installed. They could be used, for example, to direct Clearwater Beach-bound tourists tourists to park in downtown parking lots if beach lots are full.

Another innovation already is being put to work.

City fire engines and ambulances are being outfitted with infrared transmitters. Special signal boxes on Gulf-to-Bay will pick up their signals as far as 2,500 feet away and change red lights to green or hold green lights until emergency vehicles pass.

The same kind of technology could someday be installed on the county's public buses, to help them travel routes with fewer delays.

Countywide cooperation?

There's just one little speed bump before the engineering and design of the city's and county's future intelligent traffic systems can begin.

The county, St. Petersburg and Clearwater _ who control the three major traffic signal operation centers in Pinellas _ are debating who will control the new computer system, especially the traffic signals on cross-county routes like U.S. 19.

Currently, the three centers are independent. If the county has a traffic problem on a northern stretch of U.S. 19, a county engineer must call Clearwater to ask city signal operators to reset lights on its portion of the road.

Pinellas County traffic engineers offered a year ago to take over Clearwater's traffic signal system, arguing they could better coordinate the lights. Clearwater officials refused. St. Petersburg traffic engineers didn't like the idea either.

The issue gets more debate this week, as the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the county's road board, attempts to resolve the question. They must decide how a new traffic signal system will be configured. There are several options:

There could be one big computer center built and run by representatives of all three governments, or just the county.

"The most important feedback I've gotten is why doesn't the traffic signal system work better?" said County Commissioner Karen Seel, who thinks that one major center should control all the most vital routes in the county. "Nothing seems to be coordinated at all. I honestly believe that people run the red lights and there's more road rage because they get very frustrated by how the system works."

Another option calls for three intelligent computer centers to be built by Clearwater, St. Petersburg and the county, all linked together by a network that would swap and coordinate signal information.

That's what Clearwater's traffic engineers are pushing for.