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Published February 02 2013

Traffic engineers look to overhead cameras on F-M streets, intersections

FARGO - If you’re waiting for a traffic light at a major intersection here and you feel like you’re being watched, there’s a good chance you are.

As Fargo-Moorhead grows, traffic engineers are increasingly looking to overhead cameras – Fargo alone has 41 of them – to provide real-time images of streets and intersections and help fine-tune traffic flows.

Fargo police also tap into the footage sparingly when investigating major injury accidents and major crimes such as armed robberies, Lt. Joel Vettel said.

And, in the not-too-distant future, transportation planners hope to funnel video feeds from across the metro into a centralized traffic operations hub.

Wade Kline, executive director of the Metropolitan Council of Governments, which is coordinating the effort, recalled last week how many people voiced concern in September when Fargo police installed three surveillance cameras to try to curb downtown crime.

“But there’s traffic surveillance cameras all over Fargo,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize that.”

Cameras more common

Fargo installed its first pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) camera in 2008 at the busy crossroads of 13th Avenue South and 45th Street.

The two-year pilot project was deemed a success, and since 2010 the city has put cameras on traffic signal standards at 40 intersections, or about one-fourth of the city’s signaled intersections.

The main function of the 360-degree cameras is to provide traffic engineers with real-time images that help them adjust the timing of signals for optimal traffic flow, said Jonathan Atkins, Fargo traffic operations engineer. Engineers can alter the timing and see results within minutes.

On heavily traveled 13th Avenue South, the cameras have enabled engineers to tweak signals and reduce travel times by about 10 percent, he said.

Atkins said he has been asked if the cameras are another way for “Big Brother” to watch over the public, but he said traffic engineers have no license – or reason – to zoom in on motorists or others.

“We have very strict policies that (say) use it for a specific purpose and only that,” he said.

Traffic cams have been watching over freeways in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area for years, and they serve a useful government purpose in helping to regulate traffic and respond to accidents, said Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.

“We haven’t seen any huge civil liberties problems,” he said.

The downside, he said, is “you’re being photographed.”

“The law right now is so terrible. It used to be that you’d have an expectation, maybe not of privacy, but (that) you wouldn’t be under surveillance,” he said.

How the video is used and how long it’s stored are the main concerns, Samuelson said.

“If you’re not keeping the images, then I’m OK with that. But if you’re using this as a surveillance tool to track” people going about their daily business, “then I have a really big problem with it,” he said.

Police: Footage helpful

The footage recorded by Fargo’s cameras is stored for 12 hours and then deleted, Atkins said.

Samuelson called that “reasonable.”

Fargo police use the traffic cam video as the need arises, Vettel said.

“It’s been helpful in a number of cases,” he said.

One of those involved a June 4 fatal crash between a semitrailer and a motorcycle at 25th Street and 23rd Avenue South.

The events leading up to the crash were captured on video. A prosecutor played the footage in court during a recent hearing for the truck driver, who’s charged with manslaughter.

Atkins said the city plans to install PTZ cameras at four additional intersections as the signal standards are replaced.

Each camera costs about $1,500 installed, but Atkins said they save the city money in the long run because engineers don’t need to spend as much time and fuel manually observing traffic flows and signals.

“They’re definitely a useful tool that I feel is very good for the people of Fargo, because it saves them on some tax money, too,” he said.

The city is currently testing a high-definition PTZ camera at 25th Street and 32nd Avenue South. It costs about $500 more than the standard definition camera, and as Atkins demonstrated, the quality is far superior, providing a clear picture from two blocks away.

“We see that as a really good benefit for the cost,” he said.

Others catching up

While Fargo has led the way with traffic cameras, other metro agencies also have adopted the technology or plan to do so soon.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation has PTZ cameras installed in its high-mast lights at eight locations along I-29 and I-94, but the live video isn’t recorded, said Bob Walton, Fargo district engineer.

“We can see problems real-time, and that’s primarily what we use it for,” he said.

That includes sometimes getting the first look at an accident scene after it’s reported. The DOT makes that information and imagery available to the Highway Patrol for a more efficient response.

“It’s not fine detail, but you can really see what’s going on,” Walton said.

Engineers also may refer to the video feed to adjust the fixed vehicle-detection cameras at intersections, he said. For example, vehicles may line up differently because lane markings are covered in snow, requiring a camera realignment.

Because the PTZ cameras have a zoom range of roughly a mile, they aren’t needed at every interchange, Walton said. On I-29, the cameras at Main Avenue and I-94 are able to cover both sides of the 13th Avenue South interchange.

West Fargo plans to install PTZ cameras when it erects traffic lights at four new intersections this summer, and the goal is to eventually put them at all major intersections, said Chris Brungardt, assistant director for public works.

The city now has 18 signaled intersections with fixed cameras that detect when vehicles approach. The cameras also may be used for speed studies and traffic counts, but they don’t record video, he said.

In Moorhead, where several major thoroughfares are maintained by the state, the city has no traffic cameras.

“From our perspective, the corridors that we have that are just city ones, it’s just not as big of a need,” Assistant City Engineer Tom Trowbridge said. “I would imagine we’ll eventually get there.”

As in Fargo, Moorhead’s traffic light system uses electromagnetic induction loops in the pavement to detect when vehicles are approaching intersections.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation’s only traffic cams in the F-M metro area provide still images from the Red River Bridge on I-94. But this summer, it will add 10 PTZ cameras during upgrades to Highway 10 and Eighth Street/Highway 75 in Moorhead, said Jerimiah Moerke, spokesman for MnDOT District 4.

Central hub is goal

Just as metro-area law enforcement agencies have combined dispatch services at the Red River Regional Dispatch Center in downtown Fargo, MetroCOG’s Kline said the goal with the traffic cameras is to create a centralized hub for the video feeds.

“What we’re trying to do is to get to an operations center so that we can do a little bit more of what you would call active traffic management,” he said.

It’s a concept MnDOT adopted in the Twin Cities metro district in the early 1970s to manage the freeway system. The joint 911 dispatch and traffic operations center in Roseville, formally known as the Regional Transportation Management Center, confirms traffic incidents with 450 close-circuit TV cameras posted along 340 miles of metro-area freeway, according to its website. The cameras also are used to verify that freeway ramp meters are responding to real-time conditions.

Kline said an F-M traffic operations center may or may not be co-located with the RRRDC, but the priority would be to give 911 dispatchers access to those images in real time.

The concept is a major piece of MetroCOG’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Plan, which will be updated this spring.

“We’ve been studying this and looking at it and moving toward it for probably 10 or more years, and we’re getting close,” Kline said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528