Over the next several months, the Conway’s traffic light system will receive an entire IT (infrastructure technology) upgrade.
The Log Cabin Democrat had the opportunity to sit down with Department of Information Systems and Technology’s Aaron Knight and Finley Vinson, the director of the transportation department and city engineer, on Thursday to get a run through of exactly what that would look like.
“Behind the scenes, a lot of work has been put into improving the overall health of our traffic network, from an IT perspective, and this aligns with our efforts to simplify and improve our overall IT infrastructure city-wide,” Knight said.
His department, he said, has partnered with Finley’s department regarding the Dave Ward Drive adaptive traffic signal project to “refresh hardware at each of the intersections” along the corridor to “enhance the reliability of communication,” including new temperature hardened DOCSIS 3.1 modems, modern managed POE switches and upgraded video encoders.
For Conway’s nearly 60 traffic lights, the project costs a total of $47,124 — four others were purchased as spares.
Knight told the LCD they got every modem in on Thursday.
“There had been some issues with reliability of communication with those intersections back to the traffic network,” he said. “That’s when we started taking a hard look at it and trying to figure out how do we resolve some of those communication issues and that’s kind of what started us down the path.”
The LCD asked for a bit more explanation.
Vinson spoke up. He said each traffic cabinet has a controller that ties directly into the traffic network and the traffic software systems communicate back and forth.
The cable modems, the switches, the detection pieces and video encoders, Knight said, weren’t reliable anymore.
“All that equipment was quite dated, some of it 12-plus years for the most part,” he said.
From the IT perspective, Knight said, anytime they get a chance to refresh hardware and make those needed improvements is a good thing and aligns with what they have tried to do as a department. In this case, though, they had issues that needed to be troubleshooted to improve that needed connectivity and communication back to the network.
He said they’ve narrowed down the issues — Conway was having intermittent outages in those intersections where they wouldn’t be communicating back to the traffic network — they found and are integrating a solution to bring more reliable connection.
The “whole idea” Knight said, is that those intersections are pulled by the network, which feeds data back to build better models for timing and other things.
“Essentially, the controller acts like a computer,” Vinson said. “It’s essentially a very simple computer that operates the timing and the light, but it’s pretty dumb and as things get more complicated, that computer takes higher level commands from the server back at our office. If there’s outages in communication and it’s not getting those higher level commands then the signals [aren’t] operating.”
The LCD asked the duo, as a result, what the city was seeing.
“To simplify, it was more of what we weren’t seeing,” Aaron said. “We weren’t seeing those intersections in the tactic software and being able to communicate with them so they weren’t getting feedback in real time, so to speak.”
In addition, Vinson added, they were seeing unnecessary congestion.
“That’s the byproduct of the technical issues,” Knight acknowledged, Vinson agreeing.
As far as what “communicating” means, Vinson said it’s more than just making sure one light turns red and another green, which he described as a “base level function.”
“The higher level issues are like on a corridor like Dave Ward,” he said. “When westbound green begins at intersection A, then a certain amount of time should pass before westbound green begins at intersection B.”
Vinson said since the two signals don’t communicate with one another specifically, they have to take orders like that from the server.
“If they’re not getting those orders at the right time, then those two intersections aren’t in sync and that’s where it can cause congestion,” he said.
It’s not just one intersection they’re talking about but all the 58 or so in Conway and optimizing timing on all is the “to-do list item” right now, Vinson said.
Knight said there’s not necessarily an urgency to get this project done — right now crews have gone out and installed eight — but it’s more like a maintenance issue.
“It’s just like a clock that the batteries dying,” he said. “It just gets further and further behind and I think that’s kind of the reality is, we saw a lot of these issues and they were intermittent at times, so we didn’t really dig into it too far.”
That was until they realized that other projects — like the adaptive signals on Dave Ward Drive the city was working on — depended on this.
Knight added that every modem they ordered has come in though.
The project’s next steps:Knight’s staff has to configure each of the switches and the video encoders to sync with the traffic network — IP addresses. Once that’s done, his office will send the new items to Vinson’s street department crews. Crews will then physically go out to each intersection and each traffic cabinet and swap out the dated hardware for it’s new replacement.
“It’s not a complicated process,” Vinson said. “I think Aaron’s team has to do the heavy lifting primarily because they all have to be tested and encoded and things of that nature.”
Knight predicted the modem project to be completed over the course of the next several months.
As far as what residents can expect, the LCD asked if the upgrade would be noticeable.
“The thing is, it’s hard for me to say whether that improvement would be enough for the average driver to notice but a few good seconds of delay compounded over a population of a town with 65,000 people becomes very significant,” Vinson said. “A few seconds may not be noticeable to each individual person but it matters to me because I know it’s a real savings to people’s time and to the environment and I see it as important.”
He said the fact was that it was an improvement they knew would work so they’re doing it — with money that comes out of the street department budget.
Knight compared it to the upkeep of a house.
“If you keep putting it off, things get worse and worse,” he said. “We delayed upgrading this equipment for quite a while. It probably was well past most of its useful life and this was kind of a ‘one big whack at it approach’ but it was necessary to kind of get the technology up to where it needed to be.”
More than anything else, the two mentioned the big point of all the projects was the interdepartmental cooperation.
“My guys understand the modems and the switches and [Finley’s] guys understand the controllers and the cameras,” Knight said.
From his perspective, he said, the takeaways from this whole project are a couple of things: one is it’s better cooperation between the involved departments and entities to solve an issue; two, it’s an overall improvement in the traffic network that’s ultimately going to provide better connectivity and better results for the citizens and, three, to Finley’s point, it may not be a “noticeable, per person,” impact.
“The cumulative effect is important,” Knight said. “The totality of it is important.”
To read more about what the city has on its to-do list, check out the other story in the Log Cabin Democrat’s Friday edition by reporter Hilary Andrews.