The Palm Coast City Council today signaled it would approve a $500,000 plan to start “optimizing” a few of the city’s traffic signals, and spend more in future years to extend the plan to more of the city’s 50 traffic signals. But don’t expect the signals to be synchronized. And don’t expect them to change the way they operate now.
The promised “optimization” is largely speculative: the city provided no plan or method indicating how it would measure promised improvements when it presented the proposal to the city council this morning, and council members barely asked more than token questions.
The system would depend on the city-run FiberNet network, the high-speed internet cables the city started installing six years ago. It would also depend on a new network of closed-circuit traffic control surveillance cameras trained on traffic intersections, “which in this case would only be used for monitoring, not for recording whatsoever,” Sean Castello, the city’s traffic engineer, said, along with traffic controllers—he’s not referring to individuals, but to technology already used at intersections, though some of it must be upgraded– and “vehicle detectors.”
It would also mean a city-run traffic management center. That would amount to “a couple of work stations” at City Hall and another at the city’s Public Works, Castello said.
And it would mean extending the city’s FiberNet wiring to enable the system, even though the FiberNet system was initially designed, and sold to city council, as a way to extend high-speed internet to local businesses and government agencies.
For now, the system will not need additional staff, he assured council members in a briefing on the new system this morning. The city is calling it the Advanced Traffic Management System. Much larger urban areas, including Seminole and Brevard counties and Gainesville, with whose officials Palm Coast staffers consulted, have been using it for years.
Landon claims the system will save staff time, because less time would be spent in the field to monitor and adjust traffic signals.
City Council member Bill McGuire wasn’t convinced. “From a manpower utilization standpoint, if you’re shortening the work requirement, what are you going to replace it with?”
“We will get it done quicker,” Landon said. But it was still not clear how precisely the large expense—which would be only the first of many such expenses in coming years—would translate into substantial improvements for drivers.
“It’s not going to change how the signals operate,” Castello said.
“How does the system manage traffic better?” council member Jason DeLorenzo asked.
Only the spending is not speculative for an “Advanced Traffic Management System.”
“It’s still managed by us, but we have the ability to now manage it from a central location and be able to look at the whole system instead of just being out there and Tyler is at one intersection and I’m at the other one,” Castello said, referring to Tyler Gibson, a signal technician for public works. “To keep coordination is hard without having something to centrally manage the whole thing that way the whole thing is working together as one system.”
The city wants 12 intersections networked by the end of this year, starting with Palm Coast Parkway from Florida Park Drive to Pine Cone Drive (including the segment the city just spent millions of dollars widening, ostensibly to improve traffic flow), adding two dozen intersections networked on four arteries in 2017, centered on Belle Terre Parkway, Palm Coast Parkway and State Road 100.
The initial $500,000 is just for its first phase this year. A fifth of that would be spent on buying the software. Another $229,000 would be spent on extending the FiberNet cables to the individual signals. Installing cameras, creating the Traffic Management Center, buying testing equipment and some additional needs would account for the rest. About $6,000 would be spent on upgrading pedestrian signals, providing countdowns, at nine intersections. That does not include the $7,000 to $8,000 a year to maintain the software.
DeLorenzo was curious when the system would need additional staffing. The administration is not clear on that, though Landon said it’s a matter of size: the larger the system, the more there will be a need for additional staffing.
Based on numbers the city presented to council members—the numbers were attributed to the Department of Transportation, but without more precision or methodology–the system supposedly could reduce travel time from 8 to 35 percent, increase travel speed from 8 to 17 percent, reducing fuel consumption and emissions, reducing stops from 11 to 75 percent, and reducing crashes from 28 to 31 percent. The administration provided no examples, scenarios or case studies to substantiate the claim. Council members did not ask for any.
“Always have to stress,” City Manager Jim Landon said, “we’re not talking about synchronizing all the signals. That is not practical when you have streets like Belle Terre, Palm Coast Parkway. It works very well in a nice downtown area or someplace where you have every block you have a signal.” It doesn’t work as well, he said, when there are a mile or two between signals. “But we can do a lot better than we’re doing now. There are some signals that make no sense at all” in the way they currently operate.
“The key to it is getting people from their point of origin to their point of destination as quickly and safely as possible,” Landon said. “The less time you sit there idling at a stop light, the less fumes you have, the less frustrations.”
The administration did not provide dollar figures for the cost of future years—only that there will be additional spending each year through 2019. But the council is expected to approve the expense at a meeting later this month.
“If we don’t see the kind of improvements in traffic, pedestrian safety, so on and so forth, we can always reevaluate this,” Netts said.
But the administration gave no sense of how the city will objectively evaluate the system, based on what baselines, methods or assumptions. It is very unlikely that once approved, it would abandon future years’ spending on the system, given the expense of the first installment.
In December 2014 the city spend $50,000 on a traffic signalization study that was to determine how to improve the system.