Canned cameras

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July 19, 2004 // UPDATED 2:38 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

A high-tech camera system cost $6.3 million and cut Downtown traffic times almost 20 percent. So why isn't it turned on?

Look atop any light pole at a Hennepin or 1st avenue intersection Downtown and chances are you'll see a camera. You might think it's there to spy on criminals, or nab speeders or red-light scofflaws. In fact, it's part of a high-tech system that uses real-time images to switch traffic signals and move cars through Downtown more efficiently.

One problem: the $6.3 million system hasn't worked since 2000.

City staff said a number of cameras got disconnected during various Downtown streetscape projects. It got to the point where the system no longer worked well, so the city turned it off.

Getting it up and running again will take a lot of work. Right now, traffic staff is focused on fixing higher-profile traffic-light timing issues caused by the arrival of light-rail transit.

City Councilmember Scott Benson (11th Ward) said if street work can cripple the high-tech camera system, then the city has a problem -- because Downtown always has projects under way. He called system a "boondoggle."

Asked Benson, "How valuable can this be if it hasn't been operational in four years?"

The system is named SCOOT: Split Cycle Offset Optimization Technique. Steve Mosing, assistant traffic operations engineer for the Minneapolis Public Works Department, said the city installed it in 1996 and had it working by 1997.

The cameras -- there are 138 of them throughout Downtown -- are SCOOT's motion detectors.

The cameras send traffic information to a software program connected to the city's traffic light system. SCOOT "digests that information and spits out new signal timings," Mosing said. "It can address greens on the go."

The SCOOT camera coverage area centers on Hennepin Avenue from the Mississippi River to Dunwoody Institute. Additional cameras are set up on intersections on either side of Hennepin, mostly to the west, according to a city map.

The city installed the system to improve traffic flow, particularly after Target Center events, Mosing said. An evaluation showed it reduced travel times by approximately 19 percent.

Then the projects started. They included work associated with Block E's construction, 600 Hennepin Ave. S., installing the Hennepin Avenue streetscape improvements between 5th and 10th streets and 2002's complete repaving of Washington Avenue North, Mosing said.

Throughout the projects, workers removed old streetlights and put in new ones, disconnecting cameras in the process.

At one point, 40 of the 138 cameras were disconnected, making the SCOOT system ineffective, Mosing said. SCOOT needed the information to correctly model traffic flow. So the city turned off the system.

Getting SCOOT running again is not as easy as flipping a switch now that the projects are complete, Mosing said. It is relatively easy to reinstall the cameras, but workers have to recalibrate all of the cameras with the software.

Three workers must spend several hours per camera to "tweak" the system so the SCOOT software correctly interprets the cameras' traffic information, he said.

The city chose the camera system thinking it would have less disruption than sensors built into the roadbed to read traffic flow.

But instead of roadwork disturbing in-ground sensors, streetscape improvements disrupted cameras' perches.

In choosing the camera system, "we outsmarted ourselves," Mosing said. "We underestimated the amount of development that would occur Downtown, specifically in and around the [SCOOT] project."

If SCOOT is, for now, a monument to government waste, only about one-sixth of the dollars came from city taxpayers. The Federal Highway Administration contributed nearly $3 million for SCOOT, Mosing said. Private industry contributed $1.8 million in equipment and labor. The city used $1.1 million of its municipal state aid and the Minnesota Department of Transportation spent nearly $400,000.

St. Paul-based Image Sensing Systems (ISS) developed a prototype camera and contributed to the project, said Craig Anderson, vice president for marketing. Minneapolis provided a pilot site for the new technology.

Anderson said he was disappointed the city had to disconnect the system but that the pilot was nevertheless successful. The company began selling the camera in 1998 (the version Minneapolis has) and updated it in 2000 with a faster processor, he said. "We went to a color camera with a zoom lens," he said. "That is by far our most popular product."

(The University of Minnesota holds the patent on the "Autoscope" camera, Anderson said. It has received $3 million in royalties, which support research at the university's Center for Transportation Studies.)

Public Works has fewer staff to do the work of jumpstarting the system. For instance, the Transportation Division had a 13 percent personnel cut in 2004, from 115 to 100, according to the city budget.

Mosing said staff would focus on SCOOT after the LRT light timing issues were under control. He did not have an estimated budget or schedule.