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Public safety

Public-input session on use of traffic-camera revenue

Monday night, April 4, at 6:30 pm (corrected) the City will conduct a public meeting for input on the use of traffic camera revenue. The meeting is at the Civic Center social room. I’ll be there, and I will be interested to hear what residents have to say. I’ve already shared some of my views on this blog, but it’s time to say some more.

Council members have already heard from citizens with opinions on the use of this money. Many support the idea of traffic safety improvements, but I have also heard from people who want the City to use this money to pay down the city’s debt, as well as folks who support other specific expenditures.

Regarding the idea of paying down the debt, the idea is appealing. In effect, we’ve already done some of that. The first year’s revenues from the traffic cameras (that is, revenues for fiscal 2010) totaled about $950,000 and were applied to improving the city’s financial position by increasing cash reserves. This did not directly reduce the existing city debt, but it avoids some additional borrowing, provides a cushion against future emergencies, and helps the city maintain a good credit rating that reduces the cost of borrowing. There are good reasons not to use additional camera revenue to pay down city debt. First, I have learned that on most municipal debt obligations, it is not possible to prepay principal. (This has to do with the way the borrowing is structured.) Also, the amount of money generated by the traffic cameras (I expect that it will be about $600,000 this year) is unfortunately very small in comparison to the total city debt (at the end of fiscal 2010, this was about $107 million for schools and city government, plus about $61 million for electric/water/wastewater facilities) and even the city’s annual expenditure (over $7 million) for debt service. Finally,  interest rates on the debt are very low right now, so prepaying debt wouldn’t save us much in the way of future interest.

I think it is best to use this money to addresscity needs that might not otherwise be addressed — through projects that will have a noticeable positive impact on people’s lives and well-being. Furthermore, since Oak Ridge should not depend on the camera revenue being available forever (because it is possible that the cameras will be eliminated, and even if they are retained, it is expected that the level of violations will decrease), the money should be used for one-time purposes instead of continuing programs. And, as I discussed in my earlier blog comments, because the stated purpose of the cameras is safety, the first priority for use of this money should be safety improvements. (Some of my fellow Council members pledged to do this back when the camera contract was approved.)

Some residents have suggested building an overhead walkway to connect the high school and civic center. This would be a safety improvement that would address a long-time city need. City staff did recommend an overhead walkway due to several factors. Not only would it be extremely expensive (due in part to the requirement to provide either elevators or long wheelchair ramps on both ends), but experience elsewhere indicates that when there is a long stairway or ramp to get to a pedestrian overpass, people often decide to take their chances by jaywalking instead of using the overpass. Instead, staff has recommended installing a “pedestrian signal” (i.e., stoplight with walk light) at the crosswalk between Oak Ridge High School and the Oak Ridge Civic Center. This should be an effective (and cost-effective) way of achieving the desired results from the overhead walkway  — and I have a hunch that this stoplight could eliminate the need for the speed camera and crossing guards currently deployed at this location. As stated earlier, it’s my top priority for spending traffic camera money — and I think it would have a big positive impact on both our quality of life and newcomers’ perceptions of the city.

Other safety-related proposals I’ve heard from residents include adding more  school resource officers  and funding driver’s education at the high school. Neither of these ideas fits the test of being a one-time expenditure — once started, people would expect the funding to continue in the future (even if the camera money went away).

Besides the crossing at the high school, there are other traffic/pedestrian safety-related projects on the staff’s list that I believe address important city needs — and possibly could help ameliorate some of the situations that led to installation of the cameras:

  • Pedestrian safety improvements at the intersection of Oak Ridge Turnpike (SR 95) and Illinois Avenue (SR 62).
  • A northbound left-turn signal (traffic-activated) on Illinois Avenue at the intersection of Robertsville Road
  • A walk light and pedestrian crosswalk at the intersection of Oak Ridge Turnpike with Tyler and Administration Roads.

These projects likely would absorb this year’s camera money, which is the focus of the resolution that is currently up for Council consideration. Other initiatives a little bit farther down the staff priority list are also worthwhile, but I don’t necessarily agree with all of their priorities. Some additional initiatives that I think are particularly worth pursuing (or at least considering) are:

  • Create a physical barrier between traffic and the bike-ped trail where the Emory Valley Greenway is on the shoulder of Emory Valley Road. It’s not clear what arrangement will work best there, but something needs to be done to protect bicyclists from traffic — and to ensure that drivers don’t have to swerve to avoid young bicyclists who veer into the traffic lane.
  • Add a walk light and pedestrian signal at the intersection of Oak Ridge Turnpike with New York Avenue and Lafayette Drive. There are plenty of good reasons for people to try to walk across the Turnpike there (walking to work or walking from a workplace to a lunch spot, for example), but there is no way for pedestrians to request that the light change to red on the Turnpike to allow crossing (not a problem when traffic is heavy, but a real issue at some hours), and it’s not clear that the red light duration is adequate for pedestrians to cross.
  • Create a protected pedestrian crossing of Melton Lake Drive near Emory Valley Road, where the Emory Valley Greenway crosses. This is a high-volume crossing point where a safer crossing would have a positive impact on residents and visitors. However, there is a vision for a roundabout there, and I would want to know that a new pedestrian crossing should be able to remain after the roundabout is installed.
  • Install “humped” crosswalks at locations on local streets, particularly in residential neighborhoods and near schools, where there is an identified need to get traffic to slow down. I can think of a few candidate spots in Woodland and and on Outer and West Outer Drives.
  • Acquire new reflective street signage that federal regulations will require cities to install over the next few years. The increased reflectivity of the new signs will enhance safety, and using traffic camera money for the signs would save money that otherwise would  come from property taxes — or additional city debt.

Those are relatively small projects. Some big-ticket items that I think we should consider in the future are:

  • Two roundabouts: One at the Melton Lake Drive and Emory Valley Road intersection and another at “Malfunction Junction” where Pennsylvania, Providence, North Tulane, and East Pasadena come together.
  • “Intelligent transportation systems” controls for stoplights on Illinois Avenue (and possibly later on Oak Ridge Turnpike) to ensure smoother traffic  flow. This would have several types of benefits. It’s easy to see how residents and visitors would appreciate improved traffic flow through town  — as would local businesses that may lose prospective customers who stay away to avoid being delayed by frequent stoplights.  I also see it as a safety measure — because a smoother passage through the stoplights would reduce the driver frustration that can tempt drivers to speed or run red lights. Finally, reducing stop-and-go driving would have environmental benefits by reducing emissions of tailpipe pollutants and greenhouse gases.

It will be helpful for staff and City Council to hear from residents and business owners (Monday night and at other times) about these and other possible priorities — plus other ideas that people might have.

If the cameras are around for more than a couple of years, and if people continue to get ticketed for speeding and  running red lights, there likely will be an opportunity to consider other uses for the revenue (and the suggestions I’ve heard range from preschool to senior center, plus all life stages in between), but for now I see opportunities for traffic-safety enhancements that I think will noticeably improve the quality of life in Oak Ridge for many years to come.


Progress delayed by a silly misunderstanding

The New Year is past, but Monday night’s Council meeting indicates that I need to make and follow a resolution for future meetings: Whenever I’m commenting on or asking questions about an agenda item, I should always mention (probably more than once) how I intend to vote on that item (unless, of course, I still haven’t decided), ideally using words of one syllable. Call it “Communications 101.”

One item on Monday’s agenda was a resolution supporting the use of traffic camera revenues for traffic and pedestrian safety improvements. I am under the impression that I have repeatedly endorsed this in the past — for example, I was quoted in the Oak Ridger supporting this back in January — and I recently made a comment to the same effect here on this blog as well as on Facebook. My position has been that the camera revenue should be used for one-time purposes (because we should not depend on having this money forever — there is a chance that the cameras will be discontinued as a result of a political or legal decision, and if they remain drivers ought to start behaving better and paying fewer fines) and because the stated purpose of the cameras is safety, the first priority for use of this money should be safety improvements. And as the newspaper reported in January, I have commented that some  safety improvements  could eventually eliminate the need for some cameras.

The resolution presented to City Council on Monday would authorize using “the Special Programs Fund [that’s the city account where the FY 2011 traffic camera revenue has been directed] for traffic capacity/safety, school crossing, and bicycle/pedestrian safety improvements.” I pushed for the creation of this separate fund in City budget discussions last year, and whenever the topic of the use of this money arises I have mentioned improvements related to traffic safety. Accordingly, I fully intended to vote for this resolution, but I (along with the rest of Council) was prevented from doing so on Monday because fellow Council member Charlie Hensley was convinced I was going to vote against it — and he managed to get Council to delay action for 5 weeks (until the next City Council meeting) to avoid what he was sure would be (in the absence of Council member Jane Miller) a 3-3 vote.

I’m not entirely sure what I said Monday evening that led Charlie to firmly believe that I had switched 180 degrees on this topic (and I don’t have access to a video recording of the meeting), but I do know what my position is — and what I thought I said.

The City staff has generated a list of projects for which the traffic camera money could be used, and that list was attached to the resolution. City engineer Steve Byrd and his staff have developed conceptual designs  for some of the higher-priority projects. I have a few questions and doubts about design details (many of which are subject to change before implementation), but I believe it is high time to move forward on the highest priority projects.

  • The top item on my priority list (and number 2 on the staff’s “major” project list) is installation of a “pedestrian signal” (i.e., stoplight with walk light) at the crosswalk between Oak Ridge High School and the Oak Ridge Civic Center. I believe there is strong community support for making this crossing safer (the main disagreement being from people who would prefer a pedestrian overpass), and I have a hunch that this stoplight could eliminate the need for the speed camera and crossing guards currently deployed at this location.
  • I also think it’s appropriate to move forward on the staff’s number-one “major” enhancement project, which is a package of pedestrian safety improvements at the intersection of Oak Ridge Turnpike (SR 95) and Illinois Avenue (SR 62). That complex intersection is not friendly to pedestrians in its current form, but staff has defined ways that it could be made much safer without detriment to traffic.
  • Those two projects could absorb all of the funds currently available, but there are two projects at the top of the staff’s “minor” enhancements list that are related to the locations where cameras are installed and that I think should be pursued without further ado: a northbound left-turn signal (traffic-activated) on Illinois Avenue at the intersection of Robertsville Road and a walk light and pedestrian crosswalk at the intersection of Oak Ridge Turnpike with Tyler and Administration Roads.

Monday evening I said that those four projects should move forward, but that I thought some of the other projects on the staff list (lower on the list than these) reflected the loudest voices in the city and were not necessarily the highest priorities, so I wanted additional public discussion regarding the priority list before proceeding on those items. Since I expressed disagreement with some elements of the staff proposal and since two other Council members were calling for public discussion before passing the resolution, Charlie misinterpreted my remarks as indicating that I would vote against the resolution.  He announced that the resolution was going to fail by a 3-3 vote (mystifying me, as I counted at most 2 votes against it) and moved to defer action for one month to allow for a public meeting on the proposed traffic enhancements, and his motion passed 5-1 (I was the only one to oppose it).

I’m disappointed in this result, as it means an unnecessary 5-week delay in making something very positive happen in Oak Ridge. Next time, I must remember to repeat “I intend to vote for this item” in the beginning, middle, and end of my comments — and hope that Charlie is listening to what I am actually saying and not what he thinks I am saying.


How not to communicate your views to a public official

Although I didn’t vote for the city’s Redflex contract that led to the installation of traffic cameras, one of these days the nastiness contained in the letters that City Council members receive regarding the cameras might just inspire me to head out on the streets carrying a sign in support of those cameras.  Insulting remarks may win fans for certain stand-up comedians, but my experience tells me that insults do not win the hearts of city council members.

This rant is inspired by today’s entry in the “how not to communicate to a public official” category. The sender of today’s e-mail message used his name (it’s a common name — I guesstimate that hundreds of  Tennesseans share his name) but gave no address (few of the ultra-nasty correspondents do — presumably because they don’t live in Oak Ridge). He did use a valid e-mail address, from which I found out where he lives (about 2 hours from Oak Ridge), where he works (he has a professional job — in a local governmental agency, even), and that he has a good-looking family.

He might be a nice guy, but his message is anything but nice:

Taking down camera signs: Despicable

I hope one day you all go to jail. The cameras infringe on my constitutional rights and now you are infringing on our right of free speech. Have you ever even read the constitution? How you can take an oath and then violate it, is beyond the pale. SAY IT LOUD AND SAY IT PROUD OAK RIDGE SUCKS! You are nothing more than a money grubbing assholes. Your time is almost up, good luck finding another job.

I don’t have any idea what he’s talking about regarding “taking down signs,” but his message doesn’t inspire me to want to find out — and it sure wouldn’t inspire me to change a vote!

There’s much discussion these days about the need for civility in public discourse. Civility is a good thing — not only because it may help “keep the peace”, but because uncivil communication is ineffective communication.

Followup: Aha! Here’s the story behind the message, from the Knoxville News Sentinel website:
Anti-traffic camera activists wage sign wars with Oak Ridge officials


TSAB wants to stick with TDOT’s speed limits

The Traffic Safety Advisory Board held a long and thoughtful discussion of the west Turnpike speed limits, deciding to recommend sticking with the TDOT limits, but continue to monitor the situation.

Based on the 85th percentile speeds, city engineer Steve Byrd opined that the 50 mph limit is appropriate for the section that has that limit, as the the 85th percentile driver is going about 3 to 7 miles above the limit.

In the 40-mph section, the 85th percentile speed is about 13 mph above the speed limit, suggesting that a higher limit would be right for the road. However, there are concerns about setting a speed limit that is higher than the road’s official design speed, which is stated to be 40 mph in that section, where there are 5 lanes and no median. Also, board members commented about the presence of Girls Inc. and other youth programs on that section of the Turnpike that produce a lot of turning-vehicle activity at certain times of day. They expressed concern about the possibility of accidents — and liabilities if the speed limit is set higher than the official design speed. However, it seems to be agreed that the redesigned road in that section is safer than it used to be and that the road’s physical alignment is consistent with a 60-mph road (which helps explain why so many people are driving so far over the limit).

There was some sympathy for creating a consistent speed limit, but desire for speed limits that fit the road was stronger, leading to the recommendation to keep the TDOT limits. Regarding consistency of speed limits, Steve Byrd provided the information that after completion of the current construction on Hwy 95 west of this section, the 45 mph speed limit is supposed to remain in place for the 5-lane section of road, which will extend to  a short distance west of Southwood Lane. At that point, the median will begin and the speed limit will be 55 mph until the K-25 site area, where it drops back down to 45 mph.

In response to my comments about determining speed based on the road’s context, the professional traffic engineers in the room told me that this needs to be done before the road is designed, because once a road is built its characteristics will largely determine traffic speed.

One of the context issues is bicycles. TSAB members noted that the 50 mph limit means that many people will choose to drive about 60 mph, and there was concern expressed about the safety of bike lane users on such a fast road. Steve Byrd pointed out that the bike lanes are part of a standard TDOT road design (which suggests that someone judges them to be safe, even though they run alongside fast traffic). He said that he is not aware of guidelines on setting speed limits for roads next to bike lanes.


Turnpike speed limits again

They’re back (west Oak Ridge Turnpike speed limits, that is)! The Traffic Safety Advisory Board (TSAB) discusses them at its meeting Tuesday evening at 7 pm. The city engineer has conducted motorist speed surveys and is recommending that the city not make any adjustments to the state’s speed limits.

How we got to this point
In December, City Council enacted a change in the city speed limit ordinance for this road segment. After opposing the change in the first round of two votes on the proposal, I supported it in November and December, after discovering that I’d been working under a misconception. A bit contrary to what the November 17th Oak Ridger reported, my misconception (which appears to have been shared by other Council members and many citizens) was to think that City Council has any discretion in choosing a speed limit on the west Turnpike.

We were all wrong. That road is a state highway. Under Tennessee law, the speed limit for a state highway is set by the state. TDOT didn’t give the city a “recommendation” on an appropriate speed limit for the Turnpike following construction – instead, TDOT set the new limit. Regardless of any City Council action on speed limit, the posted speed limits were legally enforceable by both city police and the state highway patrol. Confusion developed because of the city ordinance that lists speed limits for every street in the city. For most city streets, City Council legally sets the limits, but for state highways it merely coordinates the city speed limit with the state’s legal limits — unless the city has done its own traffic engineering study that supports different limits, in which case the city can change the state’s limit. Since City Council periodically is asked to vote to change speed limits for both state highways and city streets, members had the impression that the City Council had authority to make decisions on speed limits on all of those streets.

I’ve asked why Oak Ridge even bothers to have a city ordinance that duplicates state law. Staff has explained that it is beneficial to the police to be able to ticket a speeder under a city ordinance because challenges to city tickets are heard in city court. This means police officers don’t need to take as much time away from patrol as if had to go to the courthouse in Clinton or Kingston. City tickets also carry a smaller fine, which is a small benefit for speeders.

When City Council voted to make the city speed limit ordinance match state law, it was with the expectation that the city’s professional engineering staff would do a traffic engineering study soon. (The city’s professional engineering staff has done several of these studies during my three years on Council, and the Council adjusted a few speed limits based on their findings.) That’s happened, and their report is what TSAB considers on Tuesday.

Why I’ve been concerned about the posted speed limits
My experience as a motorist leads me to think that the fluctuating speed limits that TDOT posted on the west Turnpike are confusing. It violates the “keep it simple” of safety communications (and leads to allegations of a “speed trap” situation) when there are several different speed limits in a short distance. It is particularly un-simple when (as is the case on this road) a westbound driver is allowed to speed up to 50 mph while traveling through a settled area, then must slow down to 45 mph just when the road seems to be leaving “town” behind (or vice versa, then the eastbound driver is allowed to speed up a little just as the population density starts to increase. Also, the new TDOT-specified speed limits were based on the physical geometry of the road (things like curvature and sight distance) and do not consider the context of the roadway (things like business entrances, driveways, street intersections, and pedestrians). I was hoping for the traffic engineering study to address not only road geometry, but also these types of “context” factors, which are important to the safety and well-being of Oak Ridge citizens and visitors. While the road geometry clearly supports speeds of 50 mph (or higher), it’s not clear to me that this speed (which we know will be interpreted as “up to 60 mph”) is appropriate for an area where people live, make turns in and out of local businesses and side streets (not to mention residential driveways!), and where we’d like more people to ride their bikes in the new bike lanes and walk on the new sidewalks (as of now bicyclists say they don’t feel safe in the bike lanes). (Consideration of “context” is consistent with the principles of “context-sensitive planning” that TDOT has embraced in recent years — but not at the time over 10 years ago when they designed this particular road project.) Also, I’d rather see a consistent speed limit than one that fluctuates, and 45 mph seems like a good choice if the goal is consistency.

What the staff report says
The staff report says that the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) provides guidance on setting speed limits “and states that speed zones shall be established in accordance with traffic engineering practices and shall include analysis of the current speed distribution of free-flowing vehicles.” After a construction project is completed, it says “the road can be analyzed through speed studies to determine if changes are needed to the posted speed limits. Some of the speed study factors to be considered include the 85th percentile speed, vehicle crash experience, pedestrian/bicycle volume, traffic volumes and adjacent land development, if significant changes have occurred since construction.”

Staff measured speeds at three spots during December and January weekday mornings (9 to 11 a.m.) with dry weather — a period of “free flow”. East of Jefferson Avenue in the 40 mph zone, the 85th percentile speed (meaning 85% of traffic is slower and 15% is higher) was 53.3 mph eastbound and 52.5 mph westbound. In the 50 mph zone, the 85th percentile was traveling at 57.8 eastbound and 58.8 westbound near Bermuda Road and at 53.4 eastbound and 57.5 westbound near the Roane-Anderson County line. Unsurprisingly, given the time of day, time of year, and the newness of the bike lanes and sidewalks, there weren’t enough bikes and walkers to bother counting them.

Staff notes that the measured 85th percentile speeds were about 13 mph above the posted speed in the 40 mph zone and 3 and 9 mph above the posted speed in the 50 mph zone. Because 40 mph is the design speed for the first segment and because “MUTCD guidelines recommend that the posted speed limit be set at or 5 mph below the 85th percentile speed,” staff is recommending that the TDOT speed limits should be kept in both segments.

Closing thoughts
I’m still concerned about the inconsistency in speed — and about my perception that the 50 mph speed is more consistent with an expressway than with an urban street. Clearly, Oak Ridge Turnpike has some aspects of both of these types of roads. However, after TDOT went to the expense of building bike lanes and sidewalks (having rejected the city’s 1997 request to separate these features from the roadway), I’d like for people to feel safe enough to use them, and I’m not at all sure that a 50 mph speed limit does that.

I’ll be interested in seeing how the TSAB members address this Tuesday evening. They are a thoughtful bunch with many valuable perspectives on traveling Oak Ridge’s streets.


Who recommended the Turnpike speed limits?

Orange safety cones at edge of highway

New permanent signs will be a welcome change from orange cones.

I was out of town for a couple of days, and I’m catching up with news.  WATE-TV reported that the Tennessee Dept of Transportation didn’t recommend those speed limits, after all. A TDOT spokesman said that the Oak Ridge city government (not TDOT) has the authority to establish speed limits on this road. The most puzzling part of the report is this quoted statement by a TDOT spokesperson:

“Last week, the city called our operations specialist supervisor to request we lower the speed limit on these two stretches of road in question. TDOT has explained that the city has the authority to establish the speed limit. TDOT did not recommend changing the speed limits on SR-95.”

I learned a long time ago not to believe everything I read in the media. News media reports are mostly accurate, but they often contain mistakes. Still, this confusing report strengthens my view that the most sensible choice (at least for now) is to keep the current 45 mph limit.


Speed limit(s) on west Oak Ridge Turnpike

Oak Ridge Turnpike project in 2008 -- before the trees came do

Construction has been going on so long, it's hard to remember when it started.

As Friday’s paper reported, City Council has been asked to approve new speed limits for west Oak Ridge Turnpike (SR 95) — to take effect after TDOT’s seemingly interminable widening project is finished. This portends  an end to the construction that we west end residents have endured  for the last 2-1/4 years (reportedly, TDOT has bought the new signs and is ready to put them in the ground), but I think the new limits recommended by TDOT don’t make sense, and I want to share the full story of my concerns.

Currently, city ordinances set the speed limit at 45 mph on Oak Ridge Turnpike from Illinois Avenue west to a point 200 ft west of Rarity Oaks Parkway (about 1 mile west of Wisconsin Avenue), where it increases to 55 mph. (Yes, many of us always thought the 35 mph speed limit applied west to a point somewhere around  Jefferson or Louisiana Ave., but the ordinance says the 45 mph limit starts at Illinois Ave.)

The proposal would replace that single speed limit with four different limits in  a few miles’ distance:

  • 35 mph for the first 1300 ft west of Illinois Avenue (to a point just before the first entrance to the South Hills Garden Apartments)
  • 40 mph for the next 2/3 mile or so, to a point 700 west of Jefferson Avenue
  • 50 mph for about 3-1/4 miles west of that spot, to a point 380 ft west of Oklahoma Ave.
  • 45 mph west from there to that point 200 ft west of Rarity Oaks Parkway

This proposal was discussed at a City Council work session on September 7 and was voted on at the Council meeting on September 13, so it seemed like old news to me by the time it hit the newspaper on September 17, but it’s not law until it has passed on second reading, which is scheduled for October 11. As the newspaper reported, I spoke against the change and voted against it (Anne Garcia Garland also voted against the proposal, which passed 5-2 on first reading). Here are some specific concerns I presented at the meeting:

  • Frequent changes in speed limits can be confusing to drivers, who may not see all of the signs giving notice of different limits.
  • 50 mph seems too high for safety in view of the number of businesses, residences, and street intersections along the roadway that require turning movements; plus the new sidewalks and on-street bike lanes that are being created as part of the project
  • It is particularly illogical (and confusing) to lower the speed limit (from 55 to 45 mph)  for drivers entering town from the west, then raise it again (to 50 mph) where the road enters a more congested area
  • The closeness of the road to many homes is also a concern

I pointed out that just last year the City Council had heard from residents living near Hwy 95 on Southwood and Sweetgum Lanes (west of the gatehouse, near Wisconsin Ave.) who were concerned about safety for residents and noise from the roadway, particularly after completion of the TDOT project to widen that section from 2 lanes to 4. We discussed the fact that highway noise is much greater at 55 mph than at 45. After considering the residents’ concerns and receiving a report from the city engineer on his evaluation of the situation, City Council voted to lower the speed limit near their homes from 55 mph to 45 mph.

After that action last year, it seems incongruous to be talking now about raising the speed limit on a section of the same road that is closer to more homes, has higher traffic counts, has many more turning movements associated with intersections and driveways, and will have sidewalks (adjacent to the curb) and on-highway bike lanes that will expose pedestrians to traffic. It would be inconsistent to set the limit at 50 mph on this section if the city decided that 45 was the right speed to protect the public welfare on a section with fewer potential safety and noise issues. (Not only are some residents closer to the road in this section than on Sweetgum or Southwood Lanes, but because their homes are uphill from the roadway, they receive more road noise than the downhill homes on those “S” Lanes. Also, unlike the “S” Lanes, residents in some west end neighborhoods who had long been buffered from road noise by wooded areas were not informed that they would lose those trees until after TDOT’s contractors started clearcutting.)

At first I intended to proposed an amendment to the proposal to simplify it by specifying just two speed limits: 35 mph in the areas where TDOT recommended 35 or 40, then 45 in the areas recommended as 45 or 50. However, I abandoned that idea after seeing the level of opposition by city staff. Due to past litigation about speed limits, city staff doesn’t want to change speed limits without doing an engineering evaluation first, and it has been suggested that the evaluation can’t be done until after the completed project is open to traffic. Considering that the new road configuration will be only slightly different from the 4-lane configuration that existed before the project (in spite of the long project schedule, the only substantial changes are addition of a median and those bike lanes and sidewalks), I believe that  the city has all the necessary data for an evaluation now (notably, the engineer has many years of traffic counts and knows the physical layout of the road, including intersections and driveways). Reportedly, TDOT’s recommendation is based only on physical design of the road — things like grades, curve radii, and sight distances. If TDOT engineers can make recommendations on that basis before construction is complete, surely an Oak Ridge engineer can look at that same information, along with factors like turning traffic at businesses and residential driveways, and make an even better recommendation before the reconfigured road reopens.

I think there is ample time to do an evaluation before the Oct. 11 second reading of the proposed new ordinance. However, if no new study is going to be done, I think the next best plan is simply to keep the 45 mph speed limit that’s on the books now. Accordingly, I voted against the proposed new speed limits.


Are license-plate readers in our future?

The PBS website has an article about automatic license-plate reading devices, a new technology being offered to police departments. The vehicle-mounted device scans the tag numbers on passing vehicles, records the GPS location and time, and runs a check against a database of Amber Alerts, cars reported stolen, etc. — all fast enough that the police can pull over the vehicle if they get a “match” to the database.

This sounds like a new twist on the traffic camera technology that Oak Ridge and other cities are using now, and I have a hunch we’ll be hearing more about it in the next few years. Apparently not many cities are using “ALPR” now, but it seems to be an effective police tool. The article says that in the first 6 months of using this system, police in Long Beach, California, made 50 arrests, “identified nearly 1,000 stolen or lost license plates and seized 275 stolen vehicles.”

As expected, there are critics. The Washington ACLU calls ALPR a threat to privacy because the system can “monitor and track the movements of ALL vehicles, including those registered to people who are not suspected of any crime.” They say, “Without restrictions, law enforcement agencies can and do store the data gathered by the license plate readers forever, allowing them to monitor where you have traveled and when you traveled there over an extended period of time.” I figure that when my car is in a public place, it has no privacy (I can’t prevent it from being photographed, whether by humans or by automated cameras), but the idea of police keeping detailed long-term electronic records of my car’s movements is really creepy. I’d feel better about the idea of ALPR if the system automatically purged old data after a short time (30 minutes or an hour, for example), so this doesn’t turn into a way for police to keep detailed records on the movements of citizens.

I have a hunch that license-plate readers are in our future, but I sure hope that we discuss and resolve the privacy issues before the technology is installed…


Use traffic enforcement camera money for one-time traffic-safety-related improvements

Taxi crossing elevated pedestrian crosswalk

"Humped-zebra"-type crossing in Sydney, Australia.

Knoxville News Sentinel reporter Bob Fowler asked Oak Ridge City Council members for our views on use of the revenue from those controversial cameras that enforce speed limits and red-light compliance. His article on the answers that he got from five of us is in Friday’s paper. My full answer didn’t make it into the article, but I can provide it here:

City Council has never budgeted for this revenue, although some individual Council members have made public statements about its use that some residents now interpret as having been promises from the full Council.

I have told city staff that I think this money should be placed in a special revenue fund so that its expenditure can be tracked separately from the General Fund.  I want the money to be used for one-time improvements that will have long-term benefits for the safety of motorists and pedestrians in the city. It should not be used for recurring expenses because the city shouldn’t count on having this revenue forever, and it should be used for traffic safety because traffic safety is the stated purpose of the cameras.

Some possible uses are traffic-calming measures such as roundabouts and “humped zebra crossings” (that’s a British term for striped pedestrian crosswalks that are elevated above the road surface for greater visibility and to slow traffic), new walk light signals, additional signs to alert drivers to the speed limit, and more stop signs to slow down the drivers who speed through residential neighborhoods on streets like Outer Drive. Also, there is a federal mandate requiring cities to upgrade the reflectorization on all street signs and pavement markings within the next few years — I think that would be an appropriate use for traffic camera money.


Bicycle-Pedestrian Forum, January 5, 2010, 6 pm

The Oak Ridge city staff and and the Knoxville Transportation Planning Organization (TPO) have been working quietly to get started on a process to update the city’s pedestrian and bicycle plans. City Council found out earlier this week that an advisory committee had been formed and several meetings have been held. Currently the city has a sidewalk plan for the center city and a greenways master plan, but neither of these is recent, and some sort of comprehensive pedestrian-bike plan is needed to qualify for certain grants.

A forum for public input will be held on January 5 at the Civic Center A/B Room. Here’s a classy announcement of the forum that’s being distributed.


Bicycle Pedestrian Technical Advisory Committee Invites

You to a Public Forum

January 5th, 2010 @ 6:00 p.m.

Oak Ridge Civic Center A/B Room

The City of Oak Ridge, the Bicycle Pedestrian Technical Advisory Committee, and the Transportation Planning Organization have joined forces to prepare a Bicycle Pedestrian Master Plan for the City of Oak Ridge.  During the first public forum we will be seeking input for establishing policies, programs, and priorities for the plan.  If you have any questions you may contact the Community Development Department at (865) 425-3531 or the Parks and Recreation Department at (865) 425-3450.  We look forward to seeing you there.