What's Up With That?: Street cameras not pretty, but they’re valuable

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I’ve noticed some curious structures on our roads out here lately — the latest ones showing up after they repaved Northeast 99th Street in Sifton — between 130th and 137th avenues.

You can see the boxes that are placed on a 12-foot pole, on the north side of Northeast 99th, just west of 137th Avenue. You can also see another device like it on the traffic light poles at the same intersection.

Similar devices are present on I-205 in the median between state Highway 500 and Mill Plain.

They stick out like sore thumbs, but we have no idea what they’re for! The devices on the traffic light poles look like cameras. But what in the world is hidden inside those innocuous-looking boxes?

Can you tell us what they’re for — what they do? I’m sure there are a lot of people wondering the same thing!

— Dave Anderson, Sifton

Well, Dave, we’ll tackle the cameras first.

You know how frustrating it is to sit at a red light when no one is coming in any other direction but the light won’t change and you want to do the right thing, so you sit … and wait?

These camera-on-a-stick devices should help move things along a little faster. They are pan-tilt-zoom cameras that can spot vehicles at or near an intersection. Previously, loop detectors were buried in the asphalt to sense when to change the signal. These weren’t as effective as the county had hoped, so they added video-detection cameras and then radar. According to the county, this triple-technology signal system is designed to improve coordination and traffic flow.

Now, if you are the lone car, the light should turn green, giving you the right of way.

The boxes that you see on the freeway are traffic detectors. They collect and feed data to the Washington State Department of Transportation congestion flow maps on the Web. They can be seen at http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/traffic/vancouver/.

These maps show nearly real-time traffic patterns on major thoroughfares in Washington. This can come in handy if you are planning a trip to, say, Portland and want to know which route over the river will have less traffic.

This data is also archived so WSDOT can examine historical traffic patterns. The information can be used to determine where to put more detectors, see what happens during certain hours and weather events, and help plan future road projects, according to Abbi Russell, a WSDOT spokeswoman.

And to ease your mind, video images are not being recorded, it is all about collecting data, monitoring and managing traffic flow.

Ruth Zschomler

Got a question about your neighborhood? We’ll get it answered. Send “What’s Up With That?” questions to neighbors@columbian.com.