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May 21, 2022

The brains behind traffic signals

WATSONVILLE—Do you ever wonder who or what is controlling the traffic signals when you’re languishing at a seemingly endless red arrow, or the green light that suddenly switches in your favor without having to get near your brake pedal?

It’s all run by those metal traffic control cabinets, the size of a small refrigerator, sitting at the edge of intersections. Many of these cabinets are more noticeable now because area artists have dressed them up with original paintings. Inside them is a mash of computers, blinking lights, color-coded cables, circuitry and loops of wires that speak to the traffic signals overhead.

Adolfo Gonzalez, who has been the traffic operations manager for the City of Watsonville the last five years, said most people have little understanding of how much goes on in those cabinets.

“Each month we have contractors that open up the boxes and run a routine checkup,” said Gonzalez, who has over 33 years of experience in the field. “This means each box at each intersection. They check on all connections, for something that may have come loose and they make sure nothing has failed. Our goal is to make sure traffic flows smoothly.”

Recently Jesse Ramirez, groundsman for Bear Electrical Solutions, made a routine check on a signal cabinet on the corner of Main and Second streets. The box is emblazoned with art by Watsonville Mural artist Paul De Worken.

“Most of the time everything checks out fine,” he said. “I’m here to make sure it stays that way. There’s a lot going on inside this box.”

Gonzalez said he works in a changing industry due to technological advances.

“Thanks to adaptive technology, we’re making changes that add greatly to safety and smoother traffic movement,” Gonzalez said. “We are currently implementing this technology along Freedom Boulevard and eventually on Green Valley Road. If you look up at the traffic signals you’ll notice small cameras. These are for vehicle detection that sends signals to the brains in the signal cabinet. We’re no longer using the inductive loops that are embedded in the pavement and we’ve moved into video detection.”

The video works by detecting vehicles approaching in all directions as they travel into a predefined square. That presence lets the electronic controller know there is a car present or waiting. That information gets folded into an overall calculation of the traffic signal’s cycle.

“Each intersection is unique,” Gonzalez said. “One thing we started implementation of on Green Valley Road was advanced pedestrian timing. This modified operation gives a pedestrian a walk indication five seconds before the cars get the green light. This makes the pedestrian more visible.”

When asked about the ongoing waves of power safety shutoffs by PG&E, efforts coordinated to avert wildland fires, and how that affects traffic signals, Gonzalez said the shutoffs will affect some intersections. But the city has been installing battery backups for some signals and that they are continuing to install more.

Though Gonzalez said he can see that traffic flows more efficiently with new developments put forth, he said the general public “sees delays.”

“I see the newer technology is making life a lot easier and traffic is moving a lot easier and freer,” he said. “It’s amazing how technology has developed and continues to develop. There are a lot of changes happening as we speak.”


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