Re-Timing the traffic lights on the Suncoast

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MANATEE COUNTY - We might normally think of stoplights as slowing us down, but traffic engineers in Manatee County now work on using lights to improve traffic flow, and they say the system will spread across the Suncoast.

When you come to a light, traffic engineers promise that it only seems like it always turns red just as you get to it. In fact, they are working to re-time almost all the traffic lights in the county and eventually Sarasota County, and it all starts with a big silver box.

That is also true at less traveled intersections, like the one on 38th Avenue East in Bradenton. The light connects to something inside the box nearby. "And this is basically the heart, and this tells all the signals at each location," says Vishal Kakkad.

Kakkad, a Manatee County traffic engineer, showed us what is essentially the industrial-strength computer that controls the light.

Inside the Traffic Management Center, workers can control the computers at almost all the lights in the Manatee County. “The idea is not to get everyone going green at the same time, but trying to increase the efficiency of these traffic signals.”

In doing so, it decreases the length of your commute, but that's just one part of the system, which includes cameras at 58 county intersections that let engineers monitor traffic in real time with their own eyes.

It lets them alert police of problems and help drivers work around them, like when a nearly 50-car crash on I-75 last October shut the interstate down and forced traffic onto other roads. “We were able to monitor the incident from here and made some changes to the signal timings from this center to help ease the congestion.”

In future stages, the ability to control traffic lights remotely could help rescuers respond to emergencies faster. And the 16 million-dollar project will later include Sarasota County, and F-DOT so that engineers can see much of the Suncoast's traffic, and try to make it run better. “This is just the beginning. This is where we have laid the foundation.”

While the system can, in part, serve as an eye in the sky, engineers say it does not mean they will act as "Big Brother."

The Traffic Management Center has no recording equipment, the county says. First, for the privacy issue and second, just because to record all the cameras all the time would simply cost too much.

The 16 million dollar cost of the whole project comes from the Florida Department of Transportation.