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They work behind the scenes to keep Hillsborough traffic moving

Johnson on a laptop in front of a bunch of screens looking at different intersections throughout the county, with some other people staring at the screens in front of him.
Sky Lebron
There are 36 total screens that the traffic center uses to hone in on different intersections, and they can combine screens to zoom in on specific intersections if needed.

It may feel like the county's roadways are always jammed. These two engineer associates are tasked with clearing up some of the congestion that crashes and closures create in real time.

Hillsborough County opened its Traffic Management Center in 2022.

The staff monitors 36 TV screens fixed on intersections in the region, and help ease traffic jams in multiple places at the same time.

WUSF’s Sky Lebron spoke with engineer associates Rafael De Dios and William Johnson about how they’re able to change traffic patterns when accidents happen.

De Dios starts by talking about how exactly its done:

Rafael De Dios: So think that the controller out there at every single traffic signal as a clock, but all in all, it is a computer, right? A computer that behaves as a clock. So that clock, we can manipulate what it’s doing per time of day. So right now, it usually runs around four patterns per day, Monday through Friday, about three patterns during the weekends, if there's coordination at that intersection. And what we do is that we override what it’s doing. Let's say right now it might be running the midday pattern. We force it to do a p.m. pattern or a different configuration, so we can completely change the behavior of the traffic signal as we need.

How much of a difference can that actually make?

William Johnson: That can reduce about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the situation or how the traffic has been moved around, we can decrease a major delay. We've seen numbers about 30 minutes difference, if there's something major in the freeway, something that probably would have taken you four hours to go through that incident, it probably will take you two hours.

man on a computer with a few screens, in front of multiple screens with a ton of intersections, including 9 screens looking at one intersection with an accident
Sky Lebron
"We're not in the business of getting pats on the back. Nobody knows we're here. Nobody knows we exist ... We're typically the unsung heroes," Johnson said.

During hurricane season, how does this place transform?

William Johnson: This is the hub for all traffic signal damage assessment throughout the county. So, we have teams of damage assessors that report here. We give them their assignments, and they go out, spread out throughout the county, and do damage assessment to see if the signals return, if they're operational, if they're in flash, a variety of different things that come along with high winds and heavy rains. And we're here basically as the processors, basically, intaking all that information, putting it in a database, disseminating it to management and other entities. EOC, emergency dispatch, so this place definitely is a central figure post-storm.

And so I guess a lot of people don't really think about all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes, right? Because you're thinking, oh, there's a traffic jam up and nobody's doing anything. But that’s not really the case.

William Johnson: We're not in the business of getting pats on the back. Nobody knows we're here. Nobody knows we exist unless we get exposure from people like yourself. We're typically the unsung heroes. We work behind the scenes to make sure that you know people can navigate around incidents, road closures, and things of that nature.

Rafael De Dios: It not only involves our team. It also involves the signal technicians team. They're heavily invested into the maintenance of the signal systems. We have a big system for such a county. We’re are at 582 traffic signals that we operate and maintain.

A ton of screens on two sides of a wall while there are desks with chairs in front of them, but no one sitting in them.
Sky Lebron
De Dios says their traffic light manipulation can shave a couple minutes off of the impact of a traffic buildup, to as much as 15 minutes or more.

Does your job at all change the way you view traffic jams when you’re on the road?

William Johnson: Oh yeah … we just see things through a completely different set of lenses. We see inefficiencies with traffic signals. Say we're sitting at a traffic signal. The opposing street is just on green, and there's nobody there, and it's just sitting there on green. The average person's gonna say, ‘Oh, this is a very long traffic signal,’ as opposed to he and I are gonna say, ‘There's something wrong with the detection at this signal. Let's get our maintenance guys on the phone and have them come out and look at it.’

If there was something that you guys wanted people to know in regards to traffic in the county and traffic management in the county, what would that be?

William Johnson: The biggest message that I would put out there is slow down. We are in the business to where we see injury and death on a daily basis. And it's not pretty, and it's not worth it. Studies have been done — aggressive drivers really do not shave much — if any — time off of their commute. It's all a perception thing. And it's gonna take you the same time to get from A to B, regardless of if you're on a Sunday drive, or you got to the pedal to the floor.

Rafael De Dios: There's family waiting for you at home. So for us it’s a big concern. We see day-in, day-out, major accidents. So we are basically in the business of moving traffic around. When there's a major crash, we see it firsthand.

As a host and reporter for WUSF, my goal is to unearth and highlight issues that wouldn’t be covered otherwise. If I truly connect with my audience as I relay to them the day’s most important stories and make them think about an issue past the point that I’ve said it in a newscast, that’s a success in my eyes.
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