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STUCK IN TRAFFIC: Would you call 911?

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on June 8, 2006.

From his office on Park Street, Orange Park Town Manager John Bowles can tell if the morning commute is bad, as drivers start backing up onto nearby Kingsley Avenue.

A block away, the Orange Park police department has its own way of finding out traffic is backed up: Irate drivers calling 911 to see what the problem is.

"On a typical day, we're dealing with a high volume of traffic, but it flows in and flows out," Bowles said. "So when drivers see tail lights, they'll get on the phone and find out what's going on."

Now, local and state forces are joining together to make the commute, if not easier, at least more explicable.

The Florida Department of Transportation plans to install a series of cameras along U.S. 17 in order to give Orange Park officials an idea of what's happening on the roadway. That won't necessarily cut down on calls to 911. However, the First Coast Metropolitan Planning Organization is embarking on a six-month study to determine what other steps should be taken to get information to drivers, and hopefully, keep them from clogging emergency lines and preventing true emergency calls from getting through.

As it stands now, the 911 calls, which can at times swamp the lone dispatcher on duty, yield little information: Traffic might be backed up for reasons as diverse as accidents, fog on the road or security checks at Jacksonville Naval Air Station, with the dispatcher as in-the-dark as the drivers.

"The cameras will give our poor dispatcher some visual understanding of what's going on out there on the highway," Bowles said.

Despite a population of only 10,000, Orange Park has almost 200,000 commuters flowing through it each day. Almost 80,000 drivers have been counted at the intersection of Interstate 295 and U.S. 17 during morning rush hour and there are also about 90,000 driving along Blanding Boulevard.

Those two roads are the main linkages between Orange Park and Interstate 295. "There's not a lot of room for diversion," said Jeff Sheffield, director of planning for the MPO. "We're focusing more on providing more real-time information to drivers."

The first step toward getting that information is the installation of the cameras, a $350,000 project that the state will put out to bid in coming months. The cameras, which will hook into a $250,000 fiber optic network the city has installed over the past several years, should be in place by spring.

Eventually, said Jim Scott, district traffic operations engineer with the state transportation department, the information might be disseminated in a variety of ways, from flashing message boards to the state's 511 traffic information system.

"Those are all good ideas," Scott said, "but funding is limited."

The $140,000 study being overseen by the MPO should help identify which of those options works best, Scott said.

The information on traffic flow may, at some point in the future, also be used to modify the timing on traffic signals and even to inform drivers about bottlenecks before they leave home or work, the town manager said.

For now, though, it should help just to let motorists know why they'll be late for work, Bowles said. "It will at least give them some information as to what they're dealing with," he said. "It tends to calm the motorist."



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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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