Commissioners voice surprise and ire over lack of progress with Advanced Traffic Management System

Staff acknowledges that almost all of the signal re-timing that has taken place has involved accident management and traffic monitoring

Paula Wiggins. Rachel Hackney photo
Paula Wiggins. Rachel Hackney photo

Two Sarasota County commissioners voiced surprise this week that very few, if any, traffic signals have been re-timed since the county began implementing an Advanced Traffic Management System (ATMS) in 2011.

The news prompted Commissioner Christine Robinson to make a motion on Nov. 17 calling for staff to compile a full board report on the matter, including the history of the county’s work on the system “and future dates that we expect to see full implementation of ATMS.”

Commissioner Charles Hines seconded her motion, which passed unanimously.

A Feb. 8, 2011 county news release The Sarasota News Leader located in county records explained that the ATMS project was “designed to create a network-managed traffic control system” that would reduce road congestion. The release noted that Phase 1 would affect 123 intersections, including those in the cities of Sarasota and Venice. That first contract was for almost $3.7 million, the news release added.

On Nov. 17, Isaac Brownman, the county’s public works director, told the board during its regular meeting that, to his knowledge, the only signal timing procedures implemented thus far through ATMS involve accident management and traffic monitoring.

Paula Wiggins, the county’s transportation planning manager, said funding for the signal re-timing effort is included in the county’s current fiscal year budget. However, she added, staff has to complete an agreement with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to undertake the work. “We should be seeing something within the year,” she told the board.

“I had a completely different understanding from Mr. Harriott on this,” Robinson responded, referring to the former county engineer James K. Harriott Jr.

In an Oct. 18, 2012 email to the county commissioners — including Robinson — Harriott wrote that Phases 1 and 2 of the ATMS included 150 signalized intersections, involving more than “100 miles of fiber optic cables on regional roads, and approximately 80 [closed circuit TV] cameras. Both phases have been substantially completed.”

Jim Harriott speaks to the County Commission in 2013. File photo
Jim Harriott speaks to the County Commission in 2013. File photo

Phase 3 would include 10 signals on U.S. 41 Business within the city of Venice, he continued, with the construction award scheduled for January 2013. Construction of Phase 4, involving about 80 signals — 18 within the city of North Port and seven within the city of Sarasota — was scheduled for the summer of 2013, he wrote.

“If complaints are received,” he added, “it would help to know where the signal operation issues, signal timing and progression problems are being experienced.” He continued, “Although staff is going through the quality control process, citizen feedback is also important,” especially relating to phasing problems at “odd times of day” and “progression problems at certain locations … Every bit of information will help.”

Harriott left county employment in October 2014 to take a position in another community, county spokesman Jason Bartolone told The Sarasota News Leader.

“I forget what segment I was driving on recently,” Hines told Brownman on Nov. 17, “and I went through green light after green light after green light [and] said [to myself], ‘This is great. The system is working.’ I just got lucky.”

The issue arose when Wiggins appeared before the board to seek its approval of the 2016 Major Improvement Project Priorities for the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). Those plans will be included in FDOT’s development of its work program for fiscal years 2016-17 through 2020-21. The ATMS was No. 3 on a slide showing the proposed list.

The draft MPO priorities list shows ATMS at No. 3. Image courtesy Sarasota County
The draft MPO priorities list shows ATMS at No. 3. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“I get a lot of complaints about signal timing,” Robinson told Wiggins. “To this day, I can’t tell the difference” between stretches where the ATMS has been implemented and those where it has not, she added. “Have we really taken a hard look at this system as to whether it’s working or not?”

To her knowledge, Wiggins responded, the infrastructure all was in place, but no re-timing of signals had occurred. FDOT crews will undertake that work, she added.

When Robinson replied that she thought the re-timing had been completed after each phase of the project was finished, Wiggins told her, “To my knowledge, that’s not how it’s being done. But it will be looked at again.”

Wiggins added that the county recently received funding through the MPO program to pay for the signal re-timing in North Sarasota County and the city of Sarasota.

“So we’ve had ATMS for five years without it being activated?” Robinson asked.

Some traffic signal timing has been modified, Wiggins said, “A little bit here and there, but as a wholly coordinated effort, it hasn’t been fully implemented.”

“I’m frustrated right now,” Robinson said.

Isaac Brownman. File photo
Isaac Brownman. File photo

Then Brownman came to the podium. “We haven’t had that full-blown timing effort across the system as of yet,” he told the board.

“When will that be?” Hines asked.

Brownman was not certain, he said. “Soon, but I can get you the exact dates.”

When Hines then inquired about signal timing changes along University Parkway, Brownman explained those are part of a pilot project on which the county is working with FDOT. That “distinctly different system … is being installed now,” Brownman added.

During a search of county documents, the News Leader located a summary of the May 7, 2015 meeting of the Sarasota County Seniors Advisory Council that notes the project is a result of a partnership among Sarasota and Manatee counties and FDOT. The document says the work will entail the installation of “a variety of signal system elements … with automated timing revisions to assist with the traffic flow/clearance time ….” The work was set to start in the summer of 2015.

That summary also included an update on the ATMS, provided by Interim County Engineer Carolyn Eastwood and a member of her staff. It notes the installation of the fiber optic system “at signalized intersections,” adding, “Signals are interconnected and most are managed through the Regional Traffic Management Center [the summary’s emphasis] to observe traffic conditions with the intent for Incident Management to make changes to assist with the flow of traffic.”

According to the Feb. 8, 2011 county news release, the regional Traffic Management Center is located off U.S. 301, north of State Road 70, in Manatee County. “Through an interlocal agreement, it will be staffed by employees of Sarasota and Manatee counties, the cities of Sarasota and Bradenton and the [FDOT],” the release added.

On Nov. 17, Hines told Brownman, “I guess I’m just trying to help Commissioner Robinson. … I was under the same mistaken impression as [she was].”

Vice Chair Al Maio, who was presiding in the absence of Chair Carolyn Mason, told Wiggins and Brownman he had seen how traffic management could eliminate long back-ups at interstate ramps. “So this is extremely important.”

Then the board voted 4-0 to approve Robinson’s motion calling for the full staff report on the ATMS system.