Monthly Archives: June 2009

Do overhead traffic detectors record images?

The in basket: Andrew MacMillen is the latest to ask about the cameras Kitsap County is putting on top of more and more of its traffic signal cross arms, the ones at Miller Bay  and Gunderson roads near Indianola in his case. 

“When the lights were originally installed, they only had the bus/emergency preemption notifier/receivers,” he said. “What are the new cameras for?” 

When I told him they are overhead traffic detectors that tell the signals when cars are waiting, used in lieu of the in-pavement wires that have been around for years, Andrew had some more questions. 

“Just to be thoroughly paranoid,” he said,”if they are video cameras that use pattern recognition to detect traffic, can the signal be poached for other purposes?  My concerns are that if they have video, 1) is it retained, 2) can it be used for make/model/face/plate/etc. recognition, either live or later? Or used as a red light system, etc. ad nauseum.”

While I was asking about them, I asked how they worked for their main purpose. It has to be more than motion detection, I reasoned, as stopped cars aren’t moving. 

The out basket: Jeff Shea, Kitsap County’s traffic engineer, replied, “The cameras are not new. They were installed when the signals were constructed. The detection cameras are actual video cameras that detect traffic when the default pixel pattern is disrupted. 

“While it is technologically possible to record and transmit images, there are no communication lines connected to the camera,” Jeff said. “We do not have any recording devices at the signal cabinet itself either, so no video is retained by the county.”

Flashing yellow at Lund & Jackson worries reader


The in basket: Harry Mock e-mailed to say, “I have noticed that there is a recent change to the traffic light at the Jackson/Lund intersection (in Port Orchard) which is marked by a sign saying “Signal Revision”.  

“Specifically, the left turn lane arrows off of Lund and onto Jackson (both directions) blink yellow at times and, at other times, operate normally (green, yellow red).  Considering the volume of traffic at that intersection, it seems dangerous to have a blinking yellow turn arrow at any time. Can you say what caused this revision?”

The out basket: Kitsap County is putting these signals all over the county. Mile Hill Drive got them last year, and they are in Silverdale, too. North Kitsap has yet to get its first one, though.

The blinking yellow means the same thing as a sign saying “left turn must yield” when facing a green ball signal. They apply to intersections with “permissive” left turns rather than the “protected” left turn where a red arrow disallows turning against it and a green arrow means no oncoming traffic may proceed

Jeff Shea, the county’s traffic engineer says, “The flashing yellow arrow safely increases capacity for signalized intersections. The concept of a permissive turn has always been around with a green ball indication. The green ball  is sometimes misunderstood by motorists, thinking they have the right-of-way to turn in front of oncoming traffic. It gets even more complicated when the signal changes from a left-turn arrow (protected left turn granting right-of-way) to a green ball (permissive left turn – you must yield).  

 “The flashing yellow arrow is better understood by motorists, according to studies,” Jeff said. “We can program them to eliminate the permissive turn if traffic volumes warrant.  

“A major complaint from motorists is having to wait at signals for a green arrow when no oncoming traffic is present,” he said. “The limited application of flashing yellow arrows has been well-received by area motorists. No accidents have been reported where the signal has been installed, and  queues in the left turn lanes have been eliminated or decreased.”

Dave Dahlke read this column on the Road Warrior blog and commented, “I wonder if this is being enacted all of the state or is this only a Kitsap County action.”

I haven’t asked that specifically, but Don Anders, head of the Olympic Region signal shop, says he likes the flashing yellows. “I feel this gives the public a better indication of a caution or yield movement,” he said.  Federal highway officials have allowed “this display to be used on a trail basis and many agencies are putting these into use,” he continued. “Some older signal controllers will not do this flashing operation without some modifications, so many agencies will not use it until they can upgrade equipment.  WSDOT has approval to use this type of display, but we have not used it here in the Olympic Region.”

Traffic camera in Gorst not forerunner of ramp metering


The in basket: It was more two years ago, in January 2007, that Richard McLaughlin of Port Orchard asked about adding a ramp metering stop light in Gorst to improve morning traffic flow.

At the time, he said, he went through Gorst each morning about 6:30. “The westbound backup through Gorst gets longer and longer, often back to the Old Clifton Road/Tremont exit in Port Orchard.  

“The problem appears to be the reduction of lanes from three to two in Gorst, coupled with merging westbound traffic from the Highway 3 overpass coming on. 

“Has (the state) explored installing a metering light on that on-ramp to improve traffic flow in the morning?” he asked.

Knowing that ramp metering requires cameras to tell the operators of the light how heavy traffic is, and that there were no such cameras in Gorst, I never addressed Richard’s inquiry.

But checking out a complaint about a non-functioning camera at the Hood Canal Bridge during May’s closure, I was surprised to see that there IS a traffic camera in Gorst, at the Highway 3-Sam Christopherson Road intersection. I asked its purpose and when it was installed.

The out basket: It’s a new installation, prompted by the expected increase in traffic through Gorst while the bridge was closed, says Jamie Swift of the Olympic Region of state highways. 

Traffic counts from May 1 to Memorial Day, while a lot of normal bridge traffic was detoured, showed that Belfair, down the highway a bit, had 13 percent more traffic than usual, he said.

And though they plan to keep the Christopherson camera in operation, and ramp meters in Gorst “would be a helpful traffic management tool, at this point there is no funding available to pay for such a project,” he said.

The Christopherson signal can be controlled remotely, he said, but isn’t for the same purpose as a ramp meter signal. “Under most circumstances, we would send a crew to the field to observe the entire intersection before making any adjustments.

“The camera helps diagnose issues at the intersection, but doesn’t provide the comprehensive view our crews can get by observing on the ground.” 

Still, says Jim Johnstone of the regional signal shop, they could alter its timing remotely if the regional traffic management center asked them to. 

All that said, that light is some distance from the location of the traffic backups Richard mentions. Phil Serratt wrote recently with a different suggestion to deal with those, and the next Road Warrior will discuss that.

Would lane barrier in Gorst help morning commute?

The in basket: Phil Seratt, who must contend with the morning rush hour slowdowns in Gorst as three lanes of traffic heading north shrink to two, suggested installation of a barrier to separate the two through-lanes of travel as a driver nears the railroad overpass.

“I am not an expert,” he said,”but it would seem to me that the left lane would be able to continue moving while the right lanes are merging.

“As it is, people driving in left lane want to stop for the people in the two right lanes to merge.”

The out basket: It had been years since I’d been through Gorst in the early morning. Working from home for four years and then retiring as anything but a freelance columnist in 2007 will do that.

So I visited that spot on June 29. Sure enough, the free flow of traffic at 6:15 a.m. was backed up to the Mattress Ranch by 6:40. It didn’t back up any further and traffic was flowing well again by 7, but school was out for the summer, so it’s probably worse in the winter.

Even so, I didn’t even have to ask my state sources about Phil’s idea. Off the top of my head, I told him that a stationary barrier of concrete or water-filled plastic would narrow the through lanes by two feet or more, require a cushioning structure to minimize injury when vehicles hit its leading edge and trap vehicles behind a disabled car in the inside lane. 

Worse, it would be in place all day every day, preventing the common driver courtesy of moving over to allow for merging traffic ahead, which would increase the likelihood of accidents in the remaining lanes.

A row of upright pylons instead of a continuous barrier would do the same, and present a maintenance and replacement headache when they are knocked over.

It also seemed unlikely the state would stand the expense of either to deal with a short daily period of congestion. 

Steve Bennett of the region’s highway engineers agreed with my analysis, but said a solid barrier takes closer to six feet in width than two.

I did get a surprise in that I’d never gotten a complaint about the drivers who scoot past the backup in the outside lane, which is about to end, then merge into traffic. That maneuver generates regular objections about drivers who do it in the afternoons on southbound Highway 3 in front of Parr Ford and the city sewer plant.

Many still waiting for Waaga Way/Ridgetop signal

The in basket: Brandi Sydney is among the legion of drivers who often must wait a long time to turn left onto Ridgetop Boulevard from the southbound off-ramp of Highway 303 in Silverdale.

“Will they ever put a light at the intersection of Waaga Way and Ridgetop?” she writes.  “When you take the exit you can go right and head toward Harrison Hospital, but it is almost impossible to take a left and head up Ridgetop,” 

“I have watched people get sick of waiting and just dart out and hope for the best. It is very dangerous. We have lived here three years and will only go that way if it is very, very late at night,” she said.

Speaking of Waaga Way, Lonnie and Janis Scott say that they aren’t certain how to pronounce it.

“We’ve heard it called ‘Vaaga’ and ‘Wa’aga’ as well as

Waaga (with a short a sound),” Lonnie said..

“Do you know the origin of the name, like if it is Scandinavian or Native American?”

The out basket: There’ll probably be a traffic signal there some day, but not before 2012.

Doug Bear of Kitsap County Public Works says, “Commissioner (Josh) Brown wrote (the state) urging them to consider installing a signal there, and while the intersection warrants a signal, it is low on their priority array for locations to install signals.”

Jamie Swift of the Olympic Region of state highways confirms that. “While there are several intersections in greater need of a signal than Ridgetop, the main issue here is lack of funding,” he said. “The Legislature has already determined the department’s budget for the 2009-2011 biennium and no signal is included in that budget.  

“So the next opportunity to fund a signal here would be in the 2011-2013 session that begins in January of 2011.”

Waaga is pronounced “WAH-guh.’ The late Art Waaga, for whom it is named, was Kitsap County engineer around the time the county built the highway (the state since has assumed jurisdiction and calls in SR303) and gained earlier renown as a member of Olympic College’s most successful basketball team, in 1948-49.

Why aren’t lane changes allowed on old Narrows Bridge?



The in basket: Richard Hood of Belfair e-mails to say, “All my life, I’ve always wondered why you couldn’t change lanes on the (now old) Tacoma Narrows Bridge. I’ve been told that air passing through the grates could flip your car over, but is that true? I’d really love to know the truth.”

The out basket: That sounds like the product of an overly fertile imagination. I told Richard that I believed that lane changes are recognized among highway designers and enforcement agencies as a major cause of accidents, and in the close quarters of the old bridge, even minor accidents meant major traffic delays for want of somewhere to move the cars. 

But Jamie Swift of the Olympic Region of state highways says there’s a more direct reason. 

“Lane changes are prohibited on the 1950 bridge,” he said, “due to the difference in friction between the traffic lane and the grates as drivers switch

lanes.” It has nothing to do with air passing up through the grates, which, as I recall, were made part of that bridge to lessen its wind resistance and avoid the calamitous end its predecessor, Galloping Gertie, met.

Original plans for retrofitting the old bridge after the new one opened called for taking out those grates to facilitate making the bridge three wider lanes westbound with a shoulder. But plans changed after public sentiment for four westbound lanes prevailed.  As a result, says Claudia Cornish of the bridge staff, “the grates were kept in the bridge deck, and two changes were made to accommodate that design:  1) the right westbound lane now ends at the first exit after the bridge; 2) The fourth lane begins around Sixth Avenue, so when you’re approaching the old bridge, you can get into that fourth lane before you actually reach the bridge.” 

I’ll let the engineers and aerodynamics experts in our readership weigh in on whether there’s any chance that air passing through the grates might affect the performance of a car, but I doubt it. 


License weight fees and motorcycles


The in basket: Mark Ross e-mailed to say, “I recently received my reminder to renew the tabs, (well, technically, tab), on my motorcycle and was surprised to note a weight-based fee of $10 in the Vehicle Licensing Breakdown.  Now, granted, I am not riding a Vespa, but seriously, how much wear and tear can my fair-weather ride really be causing on the public roadway?”

Terry Miller was more obviously annoyed in another recent e-mail on the subject of the growth in the cost of renewing tabs. 

“As the economy gets worse,” he said, “our state and local government keep adding to our burdens of increased taxes. If you have recently renewed your tabs you should know this.

“A foot in the door that worked was ‘tonnage’ fees for larger vehicles and trucks— most people said they understood and kept quiet.”  Now all vehicles have a tonnage fee, even motorcycles, he added.

The out basket: I was surprised to learn that the weight fees were assessed against motorcycles, but I guess I shouldn’t have been.  The law that imposes the fee sets it at $10 for vehicles weighing 4,000 pounds or less, and doesn’t exempt two-wheel vehicles. 

Examples the state chose to include in its “Making Every Dollar Count” brochure on the impact of the fee don’t mention motorcycles, but do show that vehicles up to a Jeep Grand Cherokee at 3,900 pounds fall into the lower tier.

It goes up from there to $20 extra on vehicles of 4,001 to 6,000 pounds, (Lincoln’s Town Car and Navigator and Buick’s Roadmaster are the examples chosen) and $30 more for 6,001 to 8,000 pounds (Hummers and Ford Excursions, for example).  All motor homes pay $75, whatever they weigh. 

It was part of the 2005 transportation revenue package that also bumped the state gas tax by 9.5 cents over four years. The weight fee has been added to the cost of tabs for the past 3 1/2 years and has contributed to the revenue that paid for Highway 16 HOV lanes and the changes at the Highway16-Interstate 5 interchange in Tacoma, among other projects statewide.

The upward pressure on tab fees continues to increase, with Bremerton’s city council debating whether to use a local option authority the Legislature has provided that could add $20 to the fee for city residents. They don’t have to put it to a citizen vote, but might  The money would head off the growing deterioration of city streets. 

And a subtle change is coming this summer in the optional $5 tab fee add-on to support state parks. That’s the subject of the next Road Warrior.

License tab donation rules get trickier


The in basket: With all the discussion recently of increases in the fee to renew one’s car license tab, I came to wonder about the extra $5 I’d read was an optional add-on for those willing to pay extra to provide money for state parks operations.

I didn’t recall seeing it on the reminders I’ve gotten to renew the tabs on our Prius, Mazda 3 and aging Izusu pickup in the past year and wondered if it was just a proposal.

I also wondered if a car owner would have to take some action to add the $5 or an action to avoid it.

The out basket: Brad Benfield of the state Department of Licensing says car owners have had the choice since January of last year. He said the 2009 Legislature voted to go from the “opt-in” system that has been in effect since then to the more devious (my word, not Brad’s) “opt-out” system that will require the car owner to check a box to avoid the fee.

“During the last legislative session,” he said, “a bill

was proposed to make this voluntary donation much more prominent on the (renewal) notice and to change it to an ‘opt-out’ system.

“This bill passed and we are in the process of changing this voluntary donation to the ‘opt-out’ system the new law requires,” he said.

The current notices “provide a blank line where a vehicle owner

could write in a donation to state parks and then make a payment that included all of their fees plus the donation. If a vehicle owner didn’t write in an amount and add that amount to their payment, then they didn’t make a donation. The donation amount wasn’t included with the fee total.

“When we switch over to the new ‘opt-out” system, scheduled for September 2009,” he said, “we will begin adding in the donation amount to the fee total. It will then be up to the vehicle owner to subtract it from the total they pay if they don’t want to make the donation.

“So, the donation is still voluntary, but vehicle owners will have to take action to choose not to pay it.”

“Your Speed Is” sign on a trial run

The in basket: There’s a shiny new “Your speed is” sign on Silverdale Way heading south. I asked the county whether it’s something we’ll be seeing more of.

The out basket: Jeff Shea, Kitsap County’s traffic engineer, says “The sign is a demo loaner from a vendor so we can evaluate its effectiveness. 

“Other communities, including Seattle, Tacoma, and Bellevue, have had success in calming traffic with this type of sign. We used the same sign a few weeks ago on Lemolo Shore Road. We saw a fairly significant slowing of traffic due to the sign.”

The sign told me I was doing 23 mph when I passed it in Silverdale Wednesday evening, so something was slowing traffic.

“If the sign proves effective, we may request funding in the next budget cycle to acquire some,” Jeff said. “The signs cost between $5,000 and $10,000 each.”

What do “No turnaround” signs mean, exactly

The in basket: Denis Kuwahara writes to ask the meaning of “No Turnaround” signs. “I have always

wondered what they were  trying to say beyond that the road dead-ends,” he said. “And, does it truly mean that once you go there, there is no coming back?”

I have always figured the message is that if I proceed past the sign, I’d better plan on backing out. Then I saw one on Lake Drive on the east side of Kitsap Lake and followed it to a dead end wide enough for a U-turn in my Mazda 3.

That’s in the city of Bremerton, but I asked Kitsap County officials what their standard is for posting the signs.

The out basket: Jeff Shea, Kitsap County’s traffic engineer says, “Situations like your reader describes do exist on county roads. Residents sometimes request them to try and discourage motorists from using their streets, but we do not install them unless motorists must use private property to turn around or when the geometrics or condition of the road end require motorists to use someone’s driveway to go back the other way.”