Power outages have officials considering backup generators for traffic signals -- Gazette.Net


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The number of traffic signals knocked out by last week’s storm made driving hazardous in some parts of the region.

As a result, Howard County Executive Kenneth Ulman wants to retrofit traffic lights on state roads in his jurisdiction so they can accommodate backup generators. The generators would keep the lights operating during long power outages.

All told, Howard has about 500 traffic signals, most owned and operated by the county, Ulman said. Officials already have connected backup batteries to all the signals, he said. But the batteries only last eight to 10 hours, depending on the size of the signal lights.

At major intersections on county roads in Howard, the signals have been retrofitted so they can be hooked up to the longer-lasting generators.

Maryland officials, however, have not retrofitted the signals on state roads to accommodate backup generators, Ulman said.

The county would like to retrofit about 20 traffic signals on the state routes, at a cost of about $50,000 per signal, Ulman said, adding that the county is willing to pick up the tab.

Ulman said he has spoken to Gov. Martin O’Malley, and the plan is under consideration.

Although the price tag would be high, it is comparable to what the county had to spend in overtime for police officers to direct traffic at major intersections, Ulman said.

The June 29 derecho caused the largest outage since Hurricane Isabel in 2003 and the worst non-hurricane-related outage ever, utility officials said.

Other jurisdictions say that although they are slowly retrofitting traffic signals to operate off backup batteries, they do not plan to do the more costly retrofit for backup generators.

In Montgomery County, about 100 of the 800 traffic signals have backup batteries, said Fred Lees, section chief for traffic engineering studies at the county Department of Transportation.

The battery life is sufficient to handle ordinary outages, Lees said.

Backup generators also require dedicated fuel lines to avoid the costly and time consuming need for crews to refuel the generators at the signals, Lees said.

Currently, Howard County sends crews to refuel their generators, which are similar to portable units purchased by homeowners, Ulman said.

The Maryland State Highway Administration has 2,800 traffic signals across the state, with 2,100 owned and operated by Maryland, said administration spokeswoman Kellie Boulware. The rest are owned and operated by the counties and towns.

About 6 percent of the traffic signals currently have backup batteries and another 4 percent are being installed at this time, Boulware said.

Others will be added in the future when replaced or as funds become available to retrofit them, she said.

cford@gazette.net