A view from the 360-degree camera installed at the intersection of Main and Water streets. City councilors recently approved the installation of another birds-eye camera at State and Oak streets after the wire loop installed there failed. CITY OF ELLSWORTH PHOTO

Eyes in the sky aim to improve city traffic

ELLSWORTH — Tired of getting stuck in traffic?

City officials are working on it, said Information Technology Systems Administrator Jason Ingalls, in part by installing 360-degree view Gridsmart cameras at all of Ellsworth’s 12 intersections with traffic lights.

“It’s an efficient method of detection for traffic signals,” Ingalls said. “It’s also part of our bigger plan … With this data that we’re collecting we can have new timing plans designed using real-life, real-time data.”

Not long ago, said Ingalls, city officials who wanted to get an idea of how many cars were passing through an intersection would have to have a person sit at the intersection, counting cars.

“It was all manual,” Ingalls said. “We would have a guy sit at the corner with a special device that they use.”

To manage signals, the city first installed loops, said Ingalls, literally wire coils buried under the pavement. They feed information to a light to tell it when a car is there and the light needs to change, said Ingalls, “but it doesn’t count that car, doesn’t tell you how big it is.”

The loops fail every 10 years or so, exposed due to frost heaves and wear and tear, and cost roughly $4,000 each to replace.

A single intersection may have multiple loops—one for each direction of traffic.

The Gridsmart cameras have roughly the same lifespan but provide much more data. The cameras count the number of cars traveling through an intersection, how fast each car is going, how heavy it is and whether and where it is turning, said Ingalls. This gives officials a much better idea of how to manage traffic flow.

The system, which the city began installing in 2010 as its underground loops began to fail, requires just a single camera at each intersection. The cameras, which are sold by Gridsmart Technologies Inc., cost roughly $23,000 apiece and last around 10 years, Ingalls said.

Replacement cameras cost less (Ingalls said he wasn’t sure how much) but the money is worth it for better traffic flow, Ingalls said.

“This camera is probably more expensive than loops, if you had loops installed all at one time,” he said. “But loops don’t fail all at one time.”

They fail periodically, meaning the city has to shut down the intersection, dig up the wires and replace them. They also don’t provide any data, said Ingalls, adding, “the engineering firm we use can take that data and develop new signal plans.”

City councilors recently approved the purchase of a Gridsmart camera at State Street and Oak Street after the loop installed there failed. It will be the eighth Gridsmart camera, said Ingalls, including one at the intersection of Main and Water streets and several along High Street and the Downeast Highway. The plan is to eventually have the cameras at all intersections in the city.

The city does not record the footage, said Ingalls, although the cameras do have the capacity to attach a hard drive.

“It’s a live view only,” Ingalls said. “We’re not big brother. You can’t even read a license plate with them.”

They will not be used for traffic enforcement, he said, as Maine banned enforcement with traffic surveillance cameras a decade ago.

And although the data can be requested, said Ingalls, “No data is sent outside of the system. It’s all internal.”

The cameras have some limitations on foggy days, said Ingalls, but overall “They’ve been awesome. We can log in, we can see the intersection, and we can see if it’s working correctly. It helps with troubleshooting; they’re more efficient than our loops.”

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Kate covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. She lives in Southwest Harbor and welcomes story tips and ideas. She can be reached at [email protected]
Kate Cough

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