Howard Co. lights its intersections — even in outages

When much of the region went dark during the June 29 derecho, the traffic signals at Howard County-owned intersections didn't miss a beat.

Battery power kicked in, sparing police officers from the dangerous business of directing traffic and motorists at unmanned intersections from having to play a white-knuckle, vehicular version of dodge ball.

"All of our battery backups worked," County Executive Ken Ulman said. "All the signals stayed on. In areas where the power was off for an extended time, generators took over."

The same thing happened in Anne Arundel County, which has battery backup — but not generators — for all 108 of its signals, from Brooklyn Park to South County.

Now Ulman would like to see about 20 busy state-owned intersections upgraded so they, too, can be powered by generators in an emergency. It's a $1 million safety initiative that he says the county will pay for over five years if the state won't.

"It's the kind of thing where you can come up with 10 reasons not to do it and one reason to do it — public safety," Ulman said. "We are ready to make progress."

It's not that Howard County has extra money socked away. Ulman said he believes that, during a crisis, police officers have more important duties than directing traffic and that county taxpayers shouldn't be saddled with paying overtime for such efforts. The county spent $14,000 on overtime — largely to keep intersections working — after Hurricane Irene last August, he said.

Efforts to keep traffic lights on during power failures have been growing since the State Highway Administration installed its first battery backup in January 2006 at the intersection of routes 170 and 100 in Anne Arundel County. Howard County began its two-year upgrade of all 94 county traffic signals months later.

Other jurisdictions followed suit. Baltimore County installed its first battery backup, at Joppa Road and Goucher Boulevard, just weeks before the June 29 storm and it "worked as advertised," said David Fidler, spokesman for the county Public Works Department.

Baltimore County, which has 400 signals and flashers, has nine more battery packs "ready to be deployed at intersections to be determined and, after that, the department is planning to expand the program," Fidler said.

In Baltimore City, 30 of 1,340 signals have battery backup. More are being installed as part of a traffic signal upgrade outlined in the capital improvement budget, said Adrienne Barnes, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Department of Transportation.

But batteries last only so long — about eight hours — Ulman said, and power outages in recent years have extended for up to a week, highlighting the need for generators.

"We have the technology," he said. "Let's put it in and get it done."

Valerie Burnette Edgar, an SHA spokeswoman, said the agency was looking at the problem statewide as it upgrades intersections energy-efficient LED traffic lights. Of the nearly 2,800 state-owned signals, 156 have battery backup, 121 are under construction and 822 are planned. Nearly $14 million has been earmarked for the work over five years.

The state is "amenable" to working with Howard County, but Maryland doesn't have enough money and manpower to supply and maintain hundreds of generators, she said, also noting that generators can be stolen.

"Given that our high-water warning signs and cones are being stolen, we're a little concerned about putting generators out there," Edgar said. "When everybody's lost power, generators are going to be a hot commodity and we don't have the manpower to watch them."

Anne Arundel County officials also are reluctant to leave generators unattended at intersections. Instead, officials use the generators to recharge batteries during extended blackouts, said James Schroll, chief traffic engineer.

During the last storm, 24 Howard County signals lost power. Six had electricity restored before the batteries ran down, leaving 18 in need of a generator boost. Signal technician Jeff McVay hauled 14 portable generators around to recharge the batteries.

Four days after the power went out, the last of the generators were back in the shop.

"The signal doesn't know where the power is coming from," McVay said. "It's happy it's getting power."

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