Originally created 09/06/98

Complaints focus traffic signal woes



AIKEN -- The complaints are coming into the Aiken Department of Public Safety. Officer Eddie George is keeping the file, and he's heard all the gripes about long waits at traffic intersections.

He also wouldn't mind too much if he got some more.

Over the past few weeks, the complaints about the city's new, computerized traffic system are making it clear where the trouble spots are. Armed with the complaint file, Officer George, who is public safety's maintenance supervisor, can lay out the pattern to engineers with the Department of Transportation.

DOT engineers are expected in Aiken this week to look at tweaking and fine-tuning the signal timers on the city's new system, currently installed at eight intersections in the downtown area.

"DOT is willing to work with us," Officer George said. "We've been letting everybody get a feel for it (traffic system), letting it run awhile."

There have been no maintenance problems. But everyone concedes some intersections, notably at lights along York and Chesterfield streets, have long delays especially during peak rush hours. Intersections along Richland Avenue have also been affected.

"It's been backed up all the way to the courthouse," Officer George said.

The trick is coordinating the movement of side street traffic with the heavier traffic on the main thoroughfares of Aiken, said Dick Jenkins, DOT traffic safety and systems engineer.

"As time goes on, there will be tweaks and adjustments," Mr. Jenkins said. "Give us a chance to get it straight."

Part of the problem in pinning down problem areas is that the system changes time settings nine times each day.

That's probably too often, and it makes it harder to identify what's happening and when, Officer George said. So the more specific a complaint is about a traffic stop the better, he said, adding that helpful data when lodging a complaint should include the exact intersection, the time of day and in which direction the motorist was heading.

Officer George said the current timings were set by DOT based on a four-year old traffic study by the state agency.

"Things have changed some in four years," he said. "You can't put in a system in a city like Aiken based on a count of cars alone."

Mr. Jenkins said DOT probably won't do a new study in the near future but after a year or so under the new system an updated study might be useful.

There is in fact still some construction work left on the system, including installation of a few pedestrian signals and decorative scroll work on the stands. At this point, DOT considers Atlanta-based M.E. Hunter & Associates the owners of the system.

When construction is complete, responsibility for maintenance passes to DOT and then on to the city of Aiken and its public safety department.

The fully operational system will offer a special safety feature that creates a "greenway" for emergency vehicles without stopping all traffic. With a telephone line and a modem, public safety can adjust the time signals for the entire system.

The first-phase of the city's traffic-signal project, which included the downtown intersections, costs about $1.5 million. About 90 percent comes from a state grant with the Aiken Downtown Development Association paying the remainder from Streetscape funds.

In the second phase, the system will extend through 12 intersections on Whiskey Road. Work is expected to take about six months.

Officer George can prepare a second file for the inevitable next set of complaints.

"We want to make it the system that the people want," he said.