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Synchronize lights, let traffic flow

It would be nice if the folks in public office did something to make our day easier, instead of whacking us over the head.

They have the power to save us money, save us time and ease anxiety when we are behind the wheel. Instead, we get drawn and quartered.

OK, I am ranting. But it is hot, I am tired, and there is no small irritation larger than playing stop-and-go on every traffic-lighted street.

Technology ought to be on our side. We can watch a movie on a hand-held screen. We can record images on a cell phone. So, too, the science of traffic management has gone from prehistoric to techno-riffic.

Computers and video cameras can monitor traffic flow and adjust the timing of traffic lights. Instead of a stop-and-go, hurry-up-and-wait every time we hit the road, we can have a seamless, relaxing cruise. It is within our power -- but bureaucracy and greed stand in the way.

Mayor Byron Brown's latest scheme to reach into our wallets involves installing cameras at 100 intersections to catch folks running red lights. The cameras would record license numbers, and you would be mailed a ticket for $100.

I am not picking on Brown. Every town and village posts cops behind hedges and walls to nab offending motorists, protect public safety and fill the municipal trough. My counterpoint: Fewer motorists would speed through the red if traffic lights were coordinated so drivers weren't stopping and starting every 20 seconds. After a while, even the most Zenlike driver mashes on the gas when green turns to yellow.

Ill-timed traffic lights cost us time and money. Moving from a dead stop gobbles fuel. With gas at $3 a gallon, even a three-mile, 20-light commute dents the wallet. Beyond that, time is money. Untimed lights add hours to a yearly commute. What is the point, when we have the tools to retool?

All of it awakens my paranoia. In one sense, the money to be made from red-light-running motorists is a disincentive for the city to coordinate its traffic signals. The more stressed drivers are, the more likely they are to slip past a changing light. Every driver caught by the same technology that could instead synchronize the lights adds another 100 bucks in the city's bank account. So why coordinate traffic lights, when dysfunctional roads promote profit?

In truth, the problem is not a conspiracy, it is bureaucracy.

Our regional transportation council last year was supposed to study our dysfunctional system of 1,800 traffic lights, controlled by dozens of governments in two counties. Lights would then be synchronized to get us places quicker, calmer and safer. Our neighbor, Monroe County, did it years ago.

Do not get your hopes up. The two-county study was scrapped. Instead, we will get new traffic signals, with improved timing, on about four major byways in the city. Instead of a loaf, we get a slice.

Hal Morse of the regional transportation council, a Washington-funded agency, admitted that inert bureaucracy breeds bumper-to-bumper traffic.

"Everything takes so long in government," said Morse. "The [routine] is study and wait, study and wait."

Instead of doing the two-county traffic study and waiting (for funding, for approval, for the green light), Morse instead jumped on a small, four-corridor, city-only project that is ready to launch.

"It is an actual project [as opposed to a study]," said Morse.

After the four byways are done, others will be looked at. If things proceed at the usual erosionlike rate, traffic lights in the two-county region should be synchronized by the time that new bridge gets built.

Study and wait, study and wait. It is what gives us stop and go, stop and go.

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