Jam occurs over sensors for traffic County purchased devices not approved for use on state roads; No to 'foreign system'; Systems are designed to trip signals for emergency vehicles


More than a year ago, Howard County's Traffic Engineering Division ordered $69,000 worth of sensors to trip traffic signals for county rescue vehicles.

But now, C. Edward Walter, head of the division, says he doesn't have the staffing to install the devices.

And the State Highway Administration (SHA) says the county can't use them on state roads because they differ from a state-approved system used in every other Maryland jurisdiction.

The county was supposed to submit a study on the new system in hopes of winning state approval to use it, but the traffic department now says it doesn't have enough employees to pull together the report.

Until the state approves the system, the county cannot use the devices it has purchased on its busiest roads, such as U.S. 29, U.S. 40, and U.S. 1.

Meanwhile, county fire and rescue officials are still waiting for a system -- any system -- that will allow ambulance and firetruck drivers all over the county to change traffic signals quickly and safely during emergencies.

Such systems already are in place on state roads throughout the state.

"We're waiting on the people at Traffic and Engineering to put the equipment in," said Howard County Fire and Rescue Chief Raymond Faith. "I've been told there's too much work, and not enough people."

County Executive Charles I. Ecker said yesterday he thought the sensors had "already been installed and were being used." Ecker said his office would have to look into the situation.

County highway officials have been testing the system that Howard engineers prefer -- the Emtrac system -- for more than a year on one state road in Howard: at U.S. 40 and Rogers Avenue in Ellicott City.

The Emtrac system uses automatic electronic sensors and compasses that emit radio waves to change traffic lights and clear intersections 1,800 feet before emergency vehicles get there.

Walter, head of the traffic engineering division, said the Emtrac system is perfect for Howard County's winding, hilly roads because the transmitters change traffic lights through the use of radio waves from as far away as 1,400 to 1,500 feet.

State's preferred system

The state's preferred system, known as Opticom, would not be as effective on Howard roads, Walter said. It uses strobe lights to trigger receivers in the traffic pole box directly.

For that reason, Walter said, county traffic engineering officials went ahead and purchased the Emtrac equipment for use on county roads -- before knowing whether the SHA would grant permission to use the system on state roads.

"We wanted to use the same equipment on state roads," he said. "But we bought the equipment because it's the only kind that will work on our roads. Our emergency vehicles are on county roads much more than on state roads."

The Opticom system is used by every other jurisdiction in Maryland, and the State Highway Administration still would be willing to pick up a share of Howard's costs for using it.

"Opticom was the very first system we tried, and it's worked," said Tom Hicks, director of the office of traffic and safety for the highway administration. "We tried a radio-wave system on the Eastern Shore once, and it wasn't satisfactory.

"But furthermore, what would be the point of having two systems? What the county does with their emergency vehicles is their own business, but usually you don't leap before you know that your path is clear."

Hicks said the highway administration picks up the cost for the Opticom receivers on state roads and two or three transmitters per county firehouse -- enough to cover a quarter of Howard's more than 100 fire and rescue vehicles.

The counties pay for additional Opticom transmitters.

Hicks estimated that each Opticom receiver costs $1,500 to $2,000 and each vehicle transmitter runs $1,500.

The state will not pay counties for using any other system, Hicks said.

But so far, Howard has purchased 12 Emtrac transmitters at $1,689 each, four receivers costing $4,673 each and seven or eight other receivers costing $4,300 each -- for a total of more than $69,000, Walter said.

Strobe lights and electronic sensors have been used by fire companies nationwide for years.

State traffic engineers have said that some mass transit buses use the devices to manipulate light signals for a quicker ride in many urban areas.

Two years ago, officials from the State Highway Administration denied the county traffic engineering division the right to use the Emtrac system on state roads in Howard, arguing against testing a second traffic system.

"We wanted to continue using the Opticom system because our people were already familiar with it," Hicks said. "We also didn't want some foreign system introduced that would perhaps not work."

The highway administration eventually deferred judgment, asking the county Bureau of Engineering to present a study at the end of the test year. That is the report that has not been done.

Meanwhile, many of the costly Emtrac receivers never have been used and have been sitting in a county signal shop for more than a year waiting to be calibrated by their manufacturer.

Most of the county's Emtrac transmitters have been installed in county vehicles, but they cannot be used until the receivers, which would be put into traffic signal cabinets, are turned on.

Equipment on hand for year

Although the county engineering bureau has had the equipment for a year, Walter said, it has had "insufficient personnel to be on top of everything."

So only four traffic lights in Howard -- all in Ellicott City -- have any traffic sensor equipment at all, the U.S. 40 intersection and three at county-controlled lights on narrow, winding Main Street that were put in place in 1994.

The Ellicott City area always has been a problem for emergency vehicles, officials have said.

Walter said the county still intends to stick by its Emtrac system on county roads, and it should be fully operational within three months.

Still uncertain is whether it can be used on state roads.

"We don't know that we'll use anything on state roads," Walter said, adding that, if nothing else: "The trucks can slow down or stop at lights."

Pub Date: 12/11/96

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