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Highway 17: New traffic signals will go with the flow

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The final piece of the $3.75 million Highway 17 median project through Pawleys Island is in place.

An “adaptive control” system now operates the four traffic signals that allow turns across the paved median between Martin Luther King Road and Waverly Road. It also controls three signals farther south, including two installed to accommodate development along the highway.

“They’re still tweaking it some. All of the bugs haven’t been worked out,” said Michael Bethea, the district traffic engineer for DOT. “The average driver I suspect wouldn’t notice a whole lot.”

Mark Hoeweler has been driving out of his way to check the wait times at the traffic lights. He is the senior staff member for the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study, which allocates state funds for regional projects. “I’m continually looking,” he said. “I have noticed it working on the side streets.”

The system, called SynchoGreen, is produced by Trafficware, a Texas-based company. Each traffic signal has a controller that gathers data that is fed into a central server in Columbia. The data comes from “signal loops” installed in the pavement, those are critical to the reliability of the system, the company says. While conventional timed signals have loops at the stop lines, the adaptive system has them in each travel lane in advance of the intersection.

The SynchoGreen software determines the level of demand at each light for a green signal. It uses the highest demand to determine the “critical intersection” and allocates time to the other intersections proportionally. And it makes those calculations continuously.

“Adaptive is one of the most appealing ways to better utilize a roadway’s capacity,” Barbara Carlin, the marketing director for Trafficware, said in an e-mail. “Not to mention, drivers love it.”

She is based in Sarasota, Fla. “I just wish my coastal town had adaptive to manage all the tourist traffic,” Carlin said.

There are a few similar systems around South Carolina, but this is the first in the eight county district that covers the Pee Dee. Bethea hopes it lives up to its expectations, but he is cautious. “I don’t think it’s going to be that great a difference over our existing system,” he said. “It doesn’t make traffic disappear.”

The goal of installing the adaptive controls in the median project area was to create gaps in the traffic to allow left turns and U-turns at the breaks in the raised median. When signals were added at Petigru Drive to accommodate traffic to Publix and Tyson Trail to handle traffic at Lowes Foods, DOT agreed to tie them into the adaptive controls.

Another benefit of the system, according to the manufacturer, is that it can adjust the signal for traffic in a left-turn lane: either adding time so the lane can clear or shortening the time so oncoming traffic isn’t waiting.

Since it’s new, Bethea isn’t sure how DOT will evaluate the system. “We’ll ride through and observe” he said. And they’ll gauge feedback from the public to determine if there are problems. “They won’t call and tell us it’s great,” Bethea said.

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