CITY HALL — Tucked away in a cramped corner office at City Hall is a collection of flatscreen TVs that provide Andrew Maximous with live digital-video feeds of some of Santa Monica’s busiest intersections.
Maximous, a transportation engineer with dark, curly hair and a Lakers retractable keychain attached to his belt, focuses his attention on Fourth Street and Colorado Avenue, the site of the future Exposition Light Rail line terminus where commuters will converge, some by public transit, others by bike, by car or on foot.
Traffic is relatively light for a late Wednesday morning, but if conditions took a turn for the worse, as they often do during rush hour, all it takes is a few clicks of the mouse and Maximous can provide some relief by extending green lights or altering their sequence to move cars along quicker.
Doing that used to involve sending a traffic engineer out to the intersection to physically visit a control box, a time-intensive process that could not provide immediate relief. Now, Maximous can make those tweaks more efficiently.
“We’re not saying we’re going to fix all the traffic problems we have. It’s not a silver bullet,” he said. “But it’s a tool we can use to minimize the impact.”
Maximous is one of four city employees tasked with running City Hall’s new Transportation Management Center, the goal of which is to facilitate the safe and efficient movement of cars, people, transit and bicycles within the city by the sea.
The center, which opened in November at a cost of roughly $85,000 (money which came from the developers of the Playa Vista project as part of a settlement with City Hall), is linked by Santa Monica’s dark fiber optic network to 17 cameras that can move at the push of a button, and 20 others that are focused on particular points to detect when a motorist or cyclist are stopped at a red light.
Those cameras will eventually replace the metal loops seen at intersections that are used to detect cars and change the cycle of lights during light travel times. Maximous said those loops often have to be removed and replaced during a street resurfacing project, which is a waste.
The detection cameras do the same job as the loops, but better, he said. Before the cameras were installed, cyclists had a hard time getting the loops to recognize them. With the cameras, a cyclist only has to stop in a designated spot marked by a white bicycle and wait. The camera captures their presence and displays a green square on the screen that encompasses the rider. That triggers an extra amount of green light time so the cyclist can safely make it to the other side of the intersection.
All of the cameras can be viewed, controlled and managed in the center. An additional 35 traffic signals, 10 advanced video cameras and 15 detection cameras along the major transit corridors — Wilshire, Santa Monica and Pico boulevards — are planned to be connected and operational in the coming weeks, bringing some relief to Mid-City.
Ocean Park Boulevard and Montana Avenue are on deck, but more funding must be made available to proceed.
City officials are also close to bringing online a feature that will allow buses to communicate with traffic signals so that green lights can be extended if a bus driver is running late.
There is also a plan to install dynamic parking signs at beach lots and other high-traffic areas of the city alerting drivers to where there is available parking.
The video cameras do not record, however, there have been internal discussions about possibly adding that feature to assist law enforcement. Some have raised concerns about invasion of privacy, which has put that move on hold.
To protect privacy, Maximous said certain windows have been digitally blacked out so the engineers cannot peak in.
The system does have safeguards to protect against human error. If an engineer makes a mistake, like ordering a left turn signal to light up while opposing traffic still has a green, the system will sound an alert and block the action, Maximous said.
The center is still in its infancy and is not open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, said Sam Morrissey, principal transportation engineer. However, engineers trained to operate the system can access it from home if needed, which has happened on a few occasions.
Staff is sometimes called in to assist law enforcement during special events like the Los Angeles Marathon, or when crews need to make street repairs.
“Eventually we’d like to get there,” Morrissey said of a 24/7 operation. “Our goal is to manage traffic as best we can.”
While a key component of the Land Use and Circulation Element of the city’s General Plan calls for no new net car trips in the future, achieving it will prove to be difficult. And even if it is accomplished, Morrissey said Santa Monica will still have to deal with traffic impacts created by forces outside the city. Manipulating traffic signals in Santa Monica will have no positive effect if there is a traffic accident in Brentwood or West Los Angeles.
“You’re going to have spillover,” Morrissey said. “We try and work with [Los Angeles] as much as possible,” but sometimes the traffic is unavoidable.
With the Traffic Management Center, city officials hope that they can at least get a jump on congestion before it gets out of hand.
For more information on the project and future construction associated with it, go to www.smgov.net/bebp.