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City feels the pulse of traffic

Extensive system allows Santa Clarita officials to tweak stoplight timing quickly and easily

Posted: November 28, 2009 8:22 p.m.
Updated: November 29, 2009 4:55 a.m.

City Traffic Engineer Andrew Yi looks at a map on a 46-inch screen that shows traffic patterns in various locations around the city of Santa Clarita on Monday in the Traffic Control room inside City Hall.

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Lots of people can listen to music or surf the Web on their laptop.

But Cesar Romo can use his to turn any red light in the city green.

Romo, Santa Clarita’s signal operations supervisor, wields this power in the palm of his hand thanks to a multi-million-dollar system of wires, fiber-optic cables, cameras and computers.

His personal electronics keep him plugged into city computers 24 hours a day.

Romo’s cell phone hooks up to the city’s traffic control room — the computerized brain of Santa Clarita’s streets. While traffic software is designed to work with little supervision, Romo’s BlackBerry gets e-mail alerts from city computers about traffic problems long after he leaves work.

Romo said he’s been called at 11 p.m. to log onto his computer and adjust inefficient traffic lights.

The city used federal grants to install fiber-optic cables underneath the busiest roads across Santa Clarita over the last several years, said City Traffic Engineer Andrew Yi.

At the end of October, workers finished installing another 2 miles of fiber-optic cable along Soledad Canyon Road between Sierra Highway and Sand Canyon Road.

Fiber-optic cable sends electronic data to the control center in City Hall, where engineers fix congestion problems with the click of a mouse.

The cables carry data faster and more reliably than the older copper wires the city still uses in other parts of the city, Yi said. Copper is cheaper and costs less than fiber optics to maintain, he said.

There are about 30 miles of fiber optics and 70 miles of copper wire running underneath city streets, Romo said. The control center has made traffic management much more efficient, Yi said. Fixing traffic lights used to take several hours, he said. Now, it takes minutes.

The control center itself looks like a air traffic control room. In the center is a desk with four flat-screen computer monitors. On one screen, every intersection in the city is mapped and color-coded so engineers can see where traffic is slowing down. Another screen shows live video from four intersections simultaneously.

The video resolution isn’t clear enough to show drivers’ faces, and none of the video is saved by the city, said city spokeswoman Gail Ortiz.

Two 50-inch flat screen televisions mounted on a wall behind the computers give operators more information to look at.  

The buzz of electricity can be heard clearly inside the control room. It has its own air conditioning because the electronics it houses generate so much heat, Yi said.

Ultimately, city officials want to provide real-time traffic information to motorists online, similar to Sigalert.com, Ortiz said.

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