20110223-cover-0101Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Tony Tramel is bringing vanguard traffic engineering ideas to Lafayette, and he gets a lot of grief for doing it. By Walter Pierce

The front page photo on The Daily Advertiser last Tuesday was too perfect: Tony Tramel, Lafayette Consolidated Government’s director of traffic and transportation, is literally directing motorists, traffic cop-style, at the newly opened intersection at Camellia Boulevard/Johnston Street/Guilbeau Road. In dress slacks and a tie, mobile phone affixed to his belt, the balding engineer waves a car into the proper lane in what is at first glance — and second and third glance — an exotic system of lanes on northwest-bound Camellia approaching Johnston.

If Tony Tramel had chosen to be a rap artist instead of a traffic engineer, he would be called MC Escher.

Director of Traffic and Transportation Tony Tramel keeps a close eye on motorists from his department’s new offices at the Rosa Parks Center downtown.

Tramel anticipated what a shock to Lafayette’s driving sensibilities the intersection would be by posting an animated simulation of the intersection on LCG’s website weeks before it opened, with a description of it that is almost as confusing as the intersection itself: “A Reduced Phase Intersection (RPI), (which has also been labeled as Continuous flow intersection (CFI) or crossover/displaced left-turn (XDL)), is an at-grade intersection design which relocates the left turning vehicles from the conflicting with the through vehicle movements. The same number of lanes are provided, but they are rearranged so that a separate left turn signal phase is no longer needed. This design therefore reallocates available signal timing more efficiently.”

Tramel’s department also equipped the approaches to Johnston Street with signs explaining to drivers how to use the intersection. But within minutes of The Advertiser posting the story on its website, the gainsayers started chiming in: “If the intersection is so confusing that Toney [sic] Tramel has to direct traffic at it you did a horrible job,” complained one anonymous reader.

All in a day’s work for Tramel, the longtime traffic director who has served two stints keeping Lafayette’s drivers safe if not flummoxed. Tramel worked as a traffic engineer in the old city of Lafayette’s Public Works Department from 1977 to 1985 — before the Traffic and Transportation Department was created under LCG — and spent 13 years in the private and public sectors in various traffic-engineering jobs in Texas and Florida before returning to Lafayette in 1998 to serve as director of the newly created department.

And his willingness to embrace cutting-edge ideas has naturally ticked a lot of drivers off.

“There is a relatively few people — a minority, in the 5 percent range — no matter what you do it will never satisfy them, and all they want to do is complain about why we’re not doing things this way, that way, whatever it is,” Tramel acknowledges. “They’re not engineers; they’re just complainers.”

20110223-cover-0103But complain they do. The reduced phase intersection at Camellia is just the latest in a series of traffic innovations Tramel has brought to Lafayette. Motorists complained about roundabouts, too. And the SafeSpeed/SafeLight program — red light cameras and speed vans? Don’t even get them started.

“I personally went through six months of getting beat up so bad, in my opinion undeservingly, by people who didn’t know what was going on or, No. 2, they were violators of the law, and all I was doing was what the council instructed me to do — I was doing my job,” he recalls. “And I hated that myself and my co-workers were beat up, just beat up.”

Yet Tramel forges ahead, shakes off the carping and embraces new concepts in traffic engineering. It could be said he’s geeky about the topic. He prefers the term “passionate.”

“I love to analyze locations,” he admits. “I do it every day when I go to and from work.”

The Camellia/Johnston/Guilbeau intersection is only the second such intersection in the state — another recently opened in Baton Rouge. Tramel adapted it from an award-winning design that originated in Mexico after reading about it in a traffic engineering magazine.
Yes, there are traffic engineering magazines.

In The Advertiser story on the opening of the Camellia/Johnston/Guilbeau intersection, it was reported that “a few motorists marked the occasion by slamming into one another.” The paper cited an employee at the tire shop adjacent to the project, who said he witnessed the wrecks. But Tramel disputes that there were any.

“It is absolutely untrue,” he insists. “There were no crashes that morning. We were there — we were there the whole morning.”

In fact, the CrimeView website maintained by Lafayette law enforcement — it allows residents to track police calls for a variety of incidents including traffic crashes — shows no accidents at the intersection last week. (One crash was logged on Guilbeau near the intersection, but far enough away that it was probably unrelated to the newly opened lanes.)

Tramel’s embrace of technology includes the SafeSpeed/SafeLight program (above) as well as traffic cameras available for on-line viewing by the public.

But the criticism — hastily composed, breathless rage — mounted in the comment section: “Tony Trammel [sic] was hired to do a job and he has fail [sic] miserably. Instead of confusing drivers he is supposed to be improving driving conditions.”

“The oft quoted cliche is, ‘There is a fine line between genius and insanity,’” says Dee Stanley, LCG’s chief administrative officer. “Tony is a genius who suffers much criticism and personal attack because he functions in an insane world where a term such as road rage exists. Then I see a front page photograph of Tony directing traffic and I think, he really is crazy.”

Married to his high-school sweetheart, Tramel has three adult daughters who live out of state. The Indiana native earned his undergraduate degree from Purdue University and two master’s degrees from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

In his two stints engineering traffic solutions in Lafayette, he has been at the vanguard, certainly within Louisiana. The RPI intersection at Camellia/Johnston/Guilbeau that opened last week is similar to a non-signaled intersection — at Foreman Drive and Eraste Landry Road — he designed a quarter century ago.

The Camellia RPI is actually ingenious, once you get used to it. By reducing the need for left turn arrows onto Johnston from Camellia and Guilbeau — that’s the phase that was reduced — drivers headed north and south on Johnston Street through the intersection get an additional 22 seconds of green light every two minutes. During rush hour, 22 seconds can be a God-send.

“The only way you can get it like that is to do the concepts we’re talking about,” Tramel says proudly at the end of a two-minute dissertation on reduced phase intersections. He really can go on and on about traffic engineering.

In the last decade Tramel’s department began introducing roundabouts in the parish — an idea that has been embraced in Europe for decades but has been slow to catch on in the United States.

20110223-cover-0105Lafayette drivers groused about the roundabouts, too, until they realized the roundabouts really do help traffic flow.

“Not only are they efficient, they are very safe,” Tramel says. “In fact, it’s the only traffic control device that I know that is safer, more efficient and more convenient. Normally we give up one for one or two of the others — safety, convenience and efficiency.

“I can make things very safe in Lafayette today: 5-mile-an-hour speed limits, no left turns,” he adds hypothetically. “But what do we give up? We make it very safe, but it’s not very convenient and not very efficient. But a roundabout — it does all of those things.”

Tramel brought safe, efficient roundabouts like the one at Ridge Road and Rue De Belier (above) to Lafayette.
His latest brain child is the reduced phase intersection at Camellia/Johnston/Guilbeau.

If he had his druthers, Tramel would be building roundabouts all over the parish. “They work so well and people understand them — now,” he says. “The problem we run into is, we just don’t have the money in order to build them all.”

Another innovation Tramel introduced to Lafayette’s intersections is the flashing yellow turn signal. These signals are striking at first blush because they’re uncommon, but motorists, he says, understand them without explanation.

“Well, it’s yellow. Yellow means caution. Be careful. It’s pointing to the left, so it looks like a left turn. Hmmm. Turn left with caution,” he says, working through the logic. “It’s intuitively obvious what this means.”

Just before Thanksgiving 2003 Tony Tramel was waiting for the other shoe to drop. He was sure that his run as director of traffic and transportation was about to come to a screeching halt.

Five years earlier Tramel was convinced by a former colleague in the city of Lafayette’s Public Works Department to return from Texas and serve as the first director of LCG’s Traffic and Transportation Department. Voters in Lafayette had recently approved a bond referendum that would give the new department resources, and LCG’s CAO at the time, Glenn Weber, wanted Tramel back.

This was during the first term of City-Parish President Walter Comeaux. By 2003, with Comeaux in his second term and electing not to seek a third, Weber decided to go after the parish president job. His opponent was a former pet shop owner named Joey Durel.

In the run-up to the election, Tramel campaigned for his boss, Weber, and donated to his campaign fund, which was reported by local media.

And then Durel won the election.

“When Joey won I was prepared to say, ‘I’m moving on to some place else — I was prepared to do that,’” Tramel recalls. “That’s what happens. It’s OK. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but that’s OK.”

The day before Thanksgiving the parish president-elect scheduled a meeting with Tramel. The traffic engineer braced for the proverbial pink slip.

“I thought he was going to say, ‘Well, sorry Tony, I appreciate your service.’ But just the opposite happened. He told me across the table, he said, ‘I believe in what you do, and you’re a straight shooter and I want you to be part of my team.’ And the only part, I told him later, that I screwed up on when he asked me to stay was, I should’ve said, ‘Let me think about it,’ and then I should’ve asked for a raise,” Tramel remembers with a laugh. “But I’ll tell you it was a very pleasant Thanksgiving after that happened.”

“I kept Tony because I knew he was a good traffic engineer,” says Durel. “Just as important, I wanted to let people know that things were going to be different. That it wasn’t the ‘old school’ politics of payback and vindictiveness. I also felt that Tony owed some loyalty to Glenn and felt I could win over his loyalty. In fact, I told Tony that had he not supported Glenn, I might have let him go. If you are not loyal to the people responsible for your paycheck, something is wrong with you.”

The RPI at Camellia/Johnston/Guilbeau is so named because the design reduces the need for a left turn signal, or phase.

When Tony Tramel is sitting at a traffic signal, he looks for patterns: the number of cars, how many are turning left, going straight, the length of time a light is green, yellow, red, the angle of the sun at that time of day and whether it hinders a driver’s vision.

And when he gets word from one of his managers that an intersection needs looking at, Tramel really looks at it: “It’s like a doctor diagnoses a disease: He gathers the data. He researches. He finds the information. He researches publications. He knows when to apply this solution to this problem. And not every solution is the right solution for every set of conditions.”

He admits that Lafayette — any city, really — has its share of bad drivers. And, when you really think about it, that’s what a traffic engineer’s job is — helping the bad drivers drive a little bit better. So he’s also been keen on striping and signs.

One such sign, off eastbound Ambassador Caffery turning right onto southbound Johnston in front of Hobby Lobby, tells motorists, “NO STOP REQUIRED. LANE CONTINUES.” Tramel and Co. came up with the wording for the sign, one of several friendly reminders around town for drivers who are easily confused.

“We have that at that location, and we have it at I-10 and Ambassador going eastbound, we have it at University Avenue going toward the airport at [Evangeline] Thruway,” he says. “Anytime the lane continues, we’re trying to tell people, ‘Please don’t stop. Move on. Don’t run out there and stop and have someone run into the rear of you when there’s no reason to stop.’”

But some, naturally, still stop, and if Tramel is the guy behind them, he’ll let them know. “I love to honk at people when they don’t comply with rules like that,” he says. “That’s me.”

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