Given expense of county’s participation in Regional Traffic Management Center in Bradenton and minimal benefits, county commissioners talk of withdrawing

Sarasota County pays about 47% of the operation’s budget and reaps about 10% of its benefits

A slide explains facets of the Regional Traffic Management Center, which is located in Bradenton. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Sarasota County Commission’s chief critic of the Regional Traffic Management Center (RTMC) in Bradenton was absent on May 21 when a staff presentation underscored how little return Sarasota County gets on the annual funding it puts into the facility’s operating budget.

“It’s really unfortunate that Commissioner [Michael] Moran isn’t here today,” Commissioner Alan Maio said, “because he would probably hit the ceiling right about now.”

That comment followed a statement from Larry Mau, the county’s Transportation Division manager, that Sarasota County contributes 46.6% of the funding to the RTMC’s annual operating budget; yet, only about 10% of the adjustments in signal timing to help traffic flow in 2017 — the latest data available — affected Sarasota County’s Advanced Traffic Management System (ATMS).

The budget for the RTMC for the current fiscal year is $1 million, Mau noted, and it calls for FDOT to contribute $429,000 and Sarasota County to pay $266,000. In the 2018 fiscal year, he said, the county paid about $180,000, and it could end up paying only $150,000 to $180,00 this fiscal year.

Mau also acknowledged that someone at the RTMC has to alert him or one of his staff members to a problem, because “Only Sarasota County can adjust Sarasota County [traffic] signals.”

He added, “We can make changes [in] real time,” but staff seldom does that.

“That explanation could be viewed by some as government at its finest,” Maio responded.

Mau then clarified, “We don’t want to over-manipulate the system, because that has ramifications on all the signals in the area.”

He showed the board more data from 2017, including the facts that 1,282 signal adjustments were made in response to traffic incidents, an estimated 844 vehicles were affected by each adjustment, and an estimated 2.2 minutes of drive time was saved for each of the drivers in those situations.

This is data from 2017 regarding the effects of the RTMC’s operations on Sarasota County traffic. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The RTMC was planned to monitor traffic flow in real time and to be able to respond to traffic incidents or localized congestion with immediate signal timing adjustments, Mau explained. In Sarasota County, 258 traffic signals, 142 cameras and 150 miles of fiber optic cable are part of the ATMS, according to a slide that Mau showed the board.

The RTMC dates back to a 2006 agreement between Sarasota and Manatee counties, Mau explained. The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and the Florida Highway Patrol became partners in the operation in 2012. Along with those agencies and the two counties, the City of Sarasota and the City of Bradenton also are affiliated with the RTMC.

The $27,210,000 investment in ATMS infrastructure that has been made in Sarasota County, Mau pointed out, allows county staff “to set up time-of-day [traffic] patterns and sequencing and programming in the background. … There’s a great benefit to our citizens from that system, whether somebody’s pushing a button at a remote center.”

Nonetheless, Commissioner Christian Ziegler also voiced his concerns about the county’s participation in the RTMC.

“I had the same exact concerns that Commissioner Maio … just explained,” Ziegler told Mau. “What’s more baffling is the fact that we’re just adding an extra layer of bureaucracy here,” he added, referring to the Mau’s comments about the handling of traffic signal timing changes.

It would make more sense to him, Ziegler continued, to handle the monitoring and operations in-house instead of through a Manatee County facility. “I’m also not in the business of subsidizing other areas with Sarasota County tax dollars,” Ziegler said.

“I can take out my phone right now,” Ziegler continued, and go to Google Maps, which collects data in real time from mobile devices. “You can see how fast someone’s going at a device level. … And I don’t need to pay anything to do that.” All that’s necessary, Ziegler added, is to have a data plan for his cellphone.

This slide explains the objectives of the Advanced Traffic Management System. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Ultimately, the commissioners concurred with Maio’s request that staff research the options they would have in withdrawing from the RTMC. Maio asked that that information come back within 30 to 60 days.

Commissioners did voice some concerns about how their withdrawal from the operation would affect their relationship with FDOT, which, as they noted, spends hundreds of millions of dollars on projects in Sarasota County.

“We would love to continue our partnership with DOT,” Mau said of the ATMS system. Moreover, he explained, the county does help FDOT manage traffic signals. The state’s network of signals on state roads is integrated with the ATMS, Mau added, and the RTMC partners share data with each other.

If Sarasota County withdrew from the RTMC, he said, more staff probably would have to be hired to handle some of the work associated with the ATMS.

Nonetheless, he continued, “We desperately want to find ways to save costs …”

This slide provides facts about the ATMS infrastructure in Sarasota County and in Sarasota and Manatee counties, in collaboration with the RTMC. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Then, upon a suggestion from Chair Charles Hines, Maio — who chairs the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) — said he and the other two Sarasota County commissioners on the MPO board could bring up their concerns about the RTMC during an MPO meeting. However, Maio pointed out, he first wanted to get the information from staff.

He would prefer, he continued, that he and Commissioners Nancy Detert and Moran be “armed with exactly what we would like to see” and not just “air complaints” about the RTMC during a future MPO meeting.