Originally created 02/15/99

Home front: Engineer keeps traffic moving



Traffic woes come and go for most motorists, but for one man dealing with Augusta's roadways it is a full-time job.

Jim Huffstetler makes sure traffic in Augusta flows as smoothly as possible -- mainly by synchronizing the 235 traffic signals in Richmond County.

"Ironically, my job is not to put traffic signals up. They cost money -- $55,000 to $60,000 apiece and about $3,000 apiece to maintain a year. You don't just put them out there and let them run," he said.

Timing traffic signals is a full-time job that requires patience.

Late one recent Thursday afternoon, the telephones were still ringing at Augusta's Traffic Engineering Office on Riverfront Drive even though the offices had closed for the day.

Mr. Huffstetler, the city traffic engineer, answered a call from someone telling him about flashing signals on Walton Way. He notified an on-call technician to check out the problem.

It can take three days to program traffic signals and, even then, there's bound to be trouble-shooting to correct the timing, he said.

When there are problems, Mr. Huffstetler usually visits the sites himself.

"He's very responsive. We have an intersection near my neighborhood that had visibility problems. He came up with a really good solution," said Eric Schumacher, a volunteer member of the citizens advisory committee that worked with Augusta's regional transportation study.

The intersection at Walton Way and Aumond Road posed visibility problems for drivers -- especially senior citizens -- turning left onto Walton Way. After visiting the site, Mr. Huffstetler advised the city simply to move a mound of dirt back from the road, thereby solving the problem.

The 31-year-old Augusta native knows the roads of Richmond County. A graduate of Westside High School, he grew up in Montclair.

"It makes it easier because I was already very familiar with the county. It didn't take me long to learn the travel patterns and other traffic characteristics," he said.

After receiving a civil engineering technology degree from Georgia State University in Atlanta, Mr. Huffstetler worked for an Atlanta-based consultant who handles traffic problems all over the Southeast.

He returned to Augusta in June 1997 as traffic engineer for the Richmond County Public Works Department, a job that had been vacant for more than four years. The position pays a little more than $40,000 a year.

The additional support of a traffic engineer brings insight to the department, Public Works Director Jack Murphy said.

"I've been in engineering all my life, particularly design. Traffic engineering is a special type of engineering that takes special training. It's not my forte," Mr. Murphy said.

Diagrams, maps and numbers are tools of the trade for traffic engineers.

Part of Mr. Huffstetler's job is to analyze traffic counts and layouts as well as accident histories of intersections to figure out what can be done to improve them.

With new communications technology, big changes are on the horizon for traffic control.

Intelligent Traffic System, or ITS, is a computerized road-management system being tested in urban areas like Atlanta.

ITS is using new communications technologies -- such as computers, cameras and variable message signs connected through fiber optics -- to reduce traffic congestion and motorists' delays.

The system is meant for heavily traveled highways like Washington Road that have been widened as much as possible.

"ITS is basically better management of the road systems you have," Mr. Huffstetler said.

One of the basic concepts of ITS is saving motorists' time by improving traffic conditions.

"If I can save (drivers) one minute in and one minute out of their commute into Augusta, I can save approximately $10,000 of their time a day," he said.

ITS makes sense for Augusta's roads, Mr. Murphy said.

"It's going to be required because of where we are and how we grow. If we don't start thinking about it now and planning for it, we would be delinquent in taking care of traffic problems we know we're going to have in the future," he said.

If it is approved, ITS likely would most be initiated on Deans Bridge, Peach Orchard and Old Savannah roads, and Mike Padgett Highway, Mr. Huffstetler said.

Although timing traffic signals and working with cutting-edge technology are a part of Mr. Huffstetler's job, daily managerial tasks also are a requirement.

"There are 900 miles of roadway in this county. That's a lot to cover. It's my full-time job, but there's other things I have to do such as signage and pavement marking," he said.

Pavement marking includes maintaining "chicken tracks," the dotted lines in intersections that separate turn lanes to keep traffic under control to prevent accidents.

The workload is probably the toughest part of the job, Mr. Huffstetler said.

"It's a never-ending job. Just when you get close to feeling on top of things, something will happen. The plate is always full," he said.

Margaret Weston can be reached at (706) 823-3217 or mweston@augustachronicle.com.



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