Cobb County Government
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County works to keep traffic rolling

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Cobb County Signal Technician Randy Moore of Villa Rica checks traffic signals during prevenative maintainence at Richard D. Sailors Parkway.


By Gary A. Witte
CobbLine Staff

If making it through traffic is a matter of good timing, Kathy Clark is one of those who holds the stopwatch.

Clark, the Cobb County Traffic Control Center manager, spends her workdays monitoring the community’s roads and intersections through a massive network of computerized systems and closed-circuit cameras.

When there’s a problem, anything from malfunctioning traffic lights to accidents that shut down major thoroughfares, she coordinates the Department of Transportation’s response. This can range from sending out a repair crew to sending out warnings to the public.

“It’s an enjoyable challenge,” Clark said. “It makes it fun to come to work. I like being able to solve a problem.”

There’s a lot of potential for problems, as the automated system oversees more than 550 intersection signals, 220 school warning lights and 250 miles of fiber optic cables. If there is a breakdown in the system, it can mean a cascade of traffic jams.

A crew of more than a dozen technicians maintains the traffic signals in the field, keeping a surprisingly complex system in working order for hundreds of thousands of commuters every day.

Workers plug their computers into metal control box cabinets alongside the roads as part of preventative maintenance checks while other members of the crew use bucket trucks to examine the signals themselves.

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“There’s a lot of components to an intersection,” Traffic Signal Systems Manager Brook Martin said.

Technicians face the hazards of traffic even as they work to keep it moving, checking everything from conflict monitors to camera encoders.

Traffic Signal Project Manager Tony Lewis said they usually check the suspended lights from emergency or turn lanes and don’t block thoroughfares unless they have no choice.

“We understand,” Lewis said. “People have to get where they’re going.”

The timing of traffic lights can be crucial for drivers, officials said. Most lights are set to switch timing only during peak rush hours, but Cobb County became the first in Georgia to start using an adaptive system in 2006.

The new signals, previously only installed in the Cumberland area, collect real time data and adjust their timing based on current conditions. The adaptive lights are now being added in the Town Center area and work is scheduled to be complete by the end of summer.

The hub of Cobb’s system, the Traffic Control Center, is located on County Services Parkway. It opened in 2010, and was partially funded through the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.

The center saves time and money by allowing the county to check problems remotely – and possibly fix them ­­­– before sending technicians, Traffic Signal Maintenance Supervisor Guy Patterson said.

“If you can look at that before you roll a truck, that [is] a big help,” Patterson said. “It’s been a benefit.”

Previous to the new center, the DOT had to make do with just three monitors – one of which included Clark’s computer screen – to keep track of the system. Exposed cables and computer equipment filled half the small room.

“It wasn’t a very good work environment compared to this,” Clark said, noting the spacious control room with nine working desks spread throughout. The room's size allows a large number of people to work there during severe weather or transportation emergencies.

“This” includes an eight-foot by 20-foot wall of widescreen monitors that can display the picture from any of hundreds of cameras throughout Cobb. Some endlessly watch highways, some stare at intersections.

The system can also show detection loops buried in the pavement that detect vehicles and allow the lights to change in order to accommodate oncoming traffic.

However, if a driver pulls up short of the white stop line for an intersection – or pulls beyond it – the loop doesn’t detect the vehicle. Thus leaving the driver stuck at a seemingly endless red light.

“It’s frustrating to see that,” Clark said.

Likewise, if a pedestrian waits on a signal to change so they can cross the road, they may not get as much time to cross as they would if they just pushed the crosswalk button, she added.

When major traffic tie ups happen, Clark informs the public through notices placed on the county’s Web site, Twitter and Facebook feeds, as well as press releases and e-mails to various county departments.

DOT Operations Division Manager David Montanye said the center becomes even more crucial during large-scale occurrences. Some can be predicable, like the annual air show at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, but others may be brought by the weather.

“During the winter ice storm, this place was packed,” Montanye said. “The place becomes a lot more active during a major event.”

Much of the work is similar to the process DOT used in years past, but the Traffic Control Center and its wall of monitors have improved the department’s efficiency, he said.

“We’re just doing it better,” Montanye said.