By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Daytona Beach News-Journal on July 5, 1999.

DAYTONA BEACH -- A collective sigh went up from the workers in the traffic operations center at 7 p.m. Saturday.

"This is great," Daytona Beach Police Lt. Todd Reed said, leaning back in his chair. "It's an hour before race time, and everybody who wants to be there is inside."

For the nine people huddled in the rear of the city's public works building, the first part of their private race was drawing to a close. In a few hours after the Pepsi 400, the race that everybody else saw the workers' behind-the-scenes dash would kick into high gear once again.

To these state and local traffic engineers and police officers, Saturday wasn't a time to kick back and watch the race. It was time to make sure some 200,000 race fans made it to Daytona International Speedway and had a place to park.

The operations center is the high-tech equivalent of a police officer standing in an intersection waving his hands and whistling. The staff in this high-tech center, filled with computers, monitors, telephones and paperwork, can manipulate traffic in a far more efficient way than the average driver may ever realize.

The most important thing, traffic engineer Bob Boggs said, is to make sure drivers can get off the highways.

"Once we lose the (I-4) ramps," he said, sounding like a World War II commander discussing the beaches of Normandy, "it takes forever to clean it up."

Throughout the day, anticipation was the key: "You almost have to avoid problems," he said. "If you wait for it to start, you've lost it."

In order to avoid snarls rather than untie them later, the traffic officials assembled early Saturday morning, with some showing up around 7.

For a noon race, like the Daytona 500, traffic control efforts usually kick in around 5:30 a.m. But when workers showed up later in the day for the rescheduled Pepsi 400 in October the first night race at Daytona they were confronted with roadways already clogged.

This year, the team assembled earlier.

"There's such a long period before the race starts," said Jennifer Heller, a Florida Department of Transportation official who oversees the highways.

That lead time can be a blessing and a curse. Although officials have to be on the job longer they didn't get to leave until 3 a.m. Sunday the race does not generate the same type of compacted rush hour as a day race.

Heller's job is to deal with drivers before they get off the interstates, making sure Speedway traffic knows which way to go and that other drivers can stay out of the way of race fans.

Her tools: a bank of 10 monitors showing cameras placed along the highways, a computer that shows the average speed along the highway and signs whose messages she can modify from her workstation.

Early Saturday, she used those signs to urge drivers to take the all-but-empty State Road 400 (Beville Road), instead of the rapidly filling U.S. 92. As traffic patterns shifted, so did the messages; when race time approached and S.R. 400 became busier, she turned those signs off.

The operations center affords a detailed view of the entire Speedway area. Twenty cameras are situated at the major intersections, in addition to the 10 highway cameras and a police officer in a helicopter. Three years ago, the team worked from the Speedway roof.

"We thought we had a grasp of it," said Officer Reed. Now, with the cameras, "you lose the myopic view."

But, the cameras simply show what the situation is; it's up to the people in the operations center to make the situation look the way it should. To do that, the center staff has direct control over signs, traffic signals and the assorted crews actually working the streets.

Mike Marcum, a traffic operations supervisor, controls the 14 changing message signs scattered throughout the area. Like Heller's highway signs, Marcum modifies the messages by remote control as the need arises.

On Saturday, Marcum set up several signs by the highway exits in an attempt to remind drivers about crossing pedestrians.

"They're excited," Marcum said about the drivers, whose minds are on the race. "They're not really paying attention to what they're doing."

His words proved prophetic. After the race, two pedestrians were hit while crossing U.S. 92.

In conjunction with officers on the street, the signs also direct traffic to various streets and parking lots. "It's like a toggle," Marcum said. "It enables us to get that information to motorists dynamically. It's surprising the number of people who will do what you tell them to when otherwise they'll have a three-hour delay."

Sitting on the other side of the control panel, traffic signal supervisor Rick Impson modified the timing and operation of the traffic lights in the area.

Minor changes to the signal system can have a big impact on traffic flow. At one point Saturday, Impson modified one intersection's cycle to give traffic going in one direction 24 more seconds to turn, a change that allows an additional 19 or 20 cars to go through.

The workers track the results of such changes, seeing when parking lots fill up and what roads drivers take.

"Every year we strive to make it better," said planning Sgt. Marty White. "I think we all enjoy being here. We're all very proud of the work we do."

Planning for next year has already begun, the officers said. Throughout the day, the center staff noted things that could be improved to make traffic flow more smoothly.

Even with such planning, the workers are always aware that the situation is fluid.

"Every race is a different, dynamic animal," White said. "Every year, we have to top our performance. That's the goal."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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