Sevierville using high-tech system to monitor city’s local, tourist traffic issues

By KATE COIL

As spring flowers bloom, more and more travelers will be heading down Tennessee State Route 66, also known as the Great Smoky Mountains Parkway, on their way to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the area’s natural beauty.
Taking this route brings visitors straight through the city of Sevierville, meaning that city officials have to coordinate traffic to the needs of both the city’s nearly 14,000 residents as well as the approximately 12 million people who visit the area each year. To accommodate these needs, the city is investing in new technology to help improve traffic outcomes and keep an eye on the roads.
Sevierville Public Works Director Bryon Fortner said the city recently invested in 18 additional units of real-time Bluetooth traffic monitoring system, bringing its total to around 20.
“We just purchased the third phase of this system, which is called BlueToad,” he said. “The state is looking into purchasing and using this system statewide. Basically it monitors cars using nodes throughout our transportation system. It registers Bluetooth devices, and every car has four, five, or six Bluetooth devices, especially when people travel. It picks up these devices anonymously and records how long it takes those devices to get from Point A to Point B, giving us travel times.”
By seeing how long it is taking devices to travel to various points in the city, Fortner said Sevierville gains important information officials can then use to determine if there is a road issue or if traffic signals and patterns need to be adjusted.
“The Bluetooth monitoring gives us a report card of how we are doing and can give us real time information,” he said. “For example, if vehicles are slowing down in a certain spot we can pull up cameras to see what is going on and maybe if we need to dispatch someone there. We are mainly using it for data collection. With this latest batch, we are doing a test project called dedicated short-range communication or DSRC. We believe this is the direction autonomous cars are going. The Bluetooth connection between our nodes and the vehicles will give us vehicle to infrastructure communication. It will be able to communicate to cars countdowns to when signals will change to make the system more efficient.”
Another investment the city has made to help ease traffic concerns is the purchase of GridSmart cameras.
“The GridSmart cameras are the other component in our traffic signal system,” Fortner said. “They can count the number of cars for engineering purposes. We have fish-eye cameras that serve as a detection for both the traffic signal as well as calculate how many cars are coming through and turning motions. We have them at about half our major intersections.”
At present, the city has 22 cameras in its system and may install more as needs grow. Fortner said the city is installing cameras intersection by intersection as funds become available or to replace loop sensors that have gone bad.
“We eventually would like to have GridSmart cameras at all of our intersections and on all of our traffic signals,” Fortner said. “It’s a more efficient way to detect traffic than the loop detectors that are under the pavement. For instance, we had an intersection on the east side of town that is really far away from everything else, but it’s the intersection of two state routes. It’s a very important intersection, mainly more to local traffic than tourist traffic. We had a couple of loops go bad and it was going to cost $10,000 to replace the loops. We can spend a little more than that – about $15,000 to $17,000 – that will give us better service in the long term. It works out better to go to the better technology. The technology is not that much more expensive than the conventional ways of doing things, but gives you more data and flexibility. ”
Sevierville is also thinking regionally when it comes to traffic. Sevierville officials are working with officials with Pigeon Forge to install a new traffic system that will coordinate traffic light patterns between the two communities.
“Traffic is very important to us,” Fortner said. “We want people to get here and enjoy our mountains and what we have to offer. We don’t want it to be a bad experience for them. Sometimes it feels like we’re trying to put 10 pounds of potatoes in a 5-pound sack. We are using this data to try to do a better job. The project we are doing with Pigeon Forge will work toward that as well. We are crossing the boundaries to make traffic better in the region.”