'This is the future of traffic control'
Center keeps an eye out for road problems

LAWRENCEVILLE - Last week, a gas main break caused traffic to pile up on Jimmy Carter Boulevard.

But Thomas Sever, watching the action on a television screen in Lawrenceville, punched in a few codes and did his best to get the traffic moving again.

Sever couldn't do anything about the gas main break or the repairs that caused a portion of the business highway to be closed, but the traffic engineer, from his desk, could change the timing for signals near the break and speed up the cars as much as possible.

"That's kind of what we had in mind," Deputy Transportation Director Kim Conroy said of the county's new Traffic Control Center, which became operational in April and has been staffed during morning and afternoon rush hours since June.

"You'll never eliminate congestion," Conroy said.

"The control center is just going to help us better use the existing infrastructure," added Chuck Bailey, the director of the traffic engineering and planning division.

The virtual traffic hub began as an idea before Atlanta hosted the Olympics in 1996, with the state government going through massive projects to place cameras along the interstates, put message boards up and connect as many lights as possible.

The efforts in Gwinnett lead to "intelligent transportation systems" along U.S. Highway 29, Jimmy Carter Boulevard, and Holcomb Bridge Road, but Conroy said the future projects seemed to die about the time of the closing ceremonies.

The county restarted its own efforts several years ago, with $10 million devoted to the technology as part of the 2001 sales tax program.

Overall, with help from the state and federal governments, about $21.5 million has been invested in the information technology infrastructure, Bailey said. The center itself has cost between $750,000 and $1 million, mostly in technology costs.

And the positives have already become evident. A few months ago, engineers at the Traffic Control Center were able to have a full view of the problems when a span of the road broke at Jimmy Carter and Rockbridge Road.

"We were able to offer advice and help here" in Lawrenceville, Sever said. At times, the technicians have called 911 before anyone else for help with incidents in the road.

In addition to the system along U.S. 29, Jimmy Carter and Holcomb Bridge, cameras are up along Peachtree Parkway.

The county has projects under construction to add systems to Buford Drive from Lawrenceville to Interstate 985, on Ga. Highway 124 from U.S. Highway 78 to U.S. 29, on Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road from Buford Highway to Duluth Highway and on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard from Holcomb Bridge to Rogers Bridge Road.

The system is also being added along U.S. 78, as Georgia DOT crews transform the road to take away the reversible-lane system.

Construction bids will soon be considered for Ga. Highway 120 from Langley Drive to Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road, Old Norcross Road from Ga. 120 to Satellite Boulevard, Beaver Ruin Road from Buford Highway to U.S. 29 and Satellite Boulevard from Beaver Ruin Road to Lawrenceville-Suwanee. Design recently began on a project to add the cables along Sugarloaf Parkway from Peachtree Industrial to Grayson Highway, and a future project will cover Buford Highway from the DeKalb County line to Sugarloaf.

Conroy said a task force is considering the feasibility of offering views from the cameras on the county's cable television channel, putting up message boards and even sending e-mail alerts so people can check their routes to and from work.

Another project under consideration is a network link to police and fire headquarters and the county's airport, so the system would handle not just traffic control but incident management, he said.

"This is really our pride and joy," Conroy said

Bailey added, "This is the future of traffic control."