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Street Smart

Hoping to ease Orlando's notorious traffic woes, central Florida leaders are developing plans for a commuter train that eventually will run through Volusia, Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties from 5 a.m. to midnight.

In the meantime, the state Department of Transportation has awarded HNTB Corp., a Kansas City, Mo.-based traffic engineering firm, a new $1.5-million, three-year contract to troubleshoot problems on central Florida roads -- and come up with ways to prevent accidents.

SAFETY MEASURES: David Gwynn heads HNTB's Lake Mary office.Orlando traffic is consistently rated among the worst in the country. A recent study counted 17.6 fatalities per 100,000 residents in 2003, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, ranking Orlando third in the nation and top in the state.

HNTB has held DOT contracts in the area for 10 years. David Gwynn, vice president in charge of the firm's Lake Mary office, says in the past the company has put up guardrails along turnpike medians and installed flashing lights in the pavement along an off-ramp in Fort Lauderdale as a test case.

In central Florida, traffic engineers have installed cameras above I-4 to give law enforcement and rescue workers a bird's-eye view of how traffic is moving and letting them respond to accidents more quickly. Along city streets, "confirmation lights" at intersections are helping police catch drivers running red lights -- an offense that drew 97,617 citations last year in the six-county central Florida area. The devices on the back end of traffic lights flash when the signal turns red, allowing officers to better judge when a violation occurs. And this year, the Legislature decided to increase fines for running red lights to $125 instead of $60.

The commuter trains are expected to ease traffic -- beginning in 2009 -- in more ways than one. Besides giving commuters an alternative to driving on I-4 during rush hour, they'll help alleviate tie-ups at railroad crossings. State DOT officials are looking at rerouting and rescheduling freight trains so they run in the middle of the night, when the commuter trains are off-duty, says Jim Harrison, director of growth management for Orange County.

The difference: Drivers can sit at railroad crossing gates for an average of four minutes -- and in reality up to 15 minutes -- waiting for freight trains to pass and unload. The shorter commuter trains will zip through in 30 to 40 seconds, which is the equivalent of waiting at a stoplight.

"It will have a dramatic improvement on traffic," Harrison says. "And they're much quieter than freight trains."