Atlanta traffic center unstaffed on heavy travel day

by: Richard Belcher Updated:

ATLANTA - A Whistleblower 2 Investigation found the city of Atlanta is far behind several other local communities in the use of new technology to manage traffic congestion.

A whistle-blower first raised the issue to Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher, suggesting that Atlanta's traffic control center may look good but is often unstaffed and relies on outdated technology.

Belcher traveled to Gwinnett County's traffic management center which has 130 cameras monitoring critical intersections and spoke with Tom Seaver of the Gwinnett County Department of Transportation. Seaver recalled what happened at his management center the Friday before Memorial Day.

"We were looking at a significant backup on state Route 20 around the Mall of Georgia area. We made some adjustments and the backup was dissipated in about 20 minutes," Seaver said.

When Belcher visited Atlanta's traffic control center during that same Friday during afternoon rush hour, he found it closed because of broken switches.

"Once we do receive those switches -- they were on back order -- the TCC [Traffic Control Center] will be brought back up operational," said Richard Mendoza of the Atlanta Public Works Department.

"So it's just not working?" Belcher asked.

"I would have to check on that, but that's correct," Mendoza replied.

Belcher visited Cobb County's high-tech traffic management center, a 25,000 square foot, three-story transportation management center. He also toured Clayton County's center which is getting a $4 million upgrade including 40 new cameras to monitor key intersections.

Even when Atlanta's traffic-control center is working, it has limited capabilities. Atlanta has no closed-circuit cameras to monitor intersections. Atlanta has 946 traffic signals but it can only monitor 15 percent of them from the TCC and it cannot reset the signals from the center.

"If the other 85 [percent] go out, then we rely on citizens or APD reports to call it in," said Mendoza.
Compare that to Clayton County's system which has 110 cameras and full remote connectivity to 90 percent of its traffic signals.

"Literally we can log onto the computer in the field or out at the traffic signal and we can reprogram it," said Jeff Metarko of the Clayton County Department of Transportation.
Cobb County has 540 traffic signals, every one of them remotely controlled from its transportation management center.

Without that capability, David Montayne of the Cobb County Department of Transportation said, "It could take weeks or longer to know that you have a problem and then go out and resolve it."

Atlanta's center is often empty. Cobb County staffs its center Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.  Gwinnett County staffs from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Clayton County staffs its center from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

"If we weren't here, it wouldn't be seen. It would go back to how it was 15 to 20 years ago, and the citizens wouldn't see the benefit," said Metarko.

Belcher asked Mendoza how he would grade his own system.

"In this present condition, I would give my system a D-minus," Mendoza said.

The commissioner told Belcher he is not especially optimistic about improvements any time soon and estimates it will take about $40 million to get Atlanta's system fully up to speed.

He is hopeful that the city will commit some new money to traffic management if the regional transportation sales tax passes later this month.

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