A new city traffic control center opened last week, just in time for the Papal visit.

A new city traffic control center opened last week, just in time for the Papal visit.

Tracking the Pope in Philly pilgrims: Inside the city’s nerve center for traffic and pedestrian control

Just around the corner from a shiny new space with wall-to-wall screens monitoring traffic in the city is another room — one that’s older, darker and maybe a little smellier. This is the city’s sign shop, and it’s where workers created upwards of 20,000 signs especially for the upcoming Papal visit.

Welcome to the Streets Department’s new Traffic Operations Center, housed in its Traffic Signal and Sign Shop. This new space that opened last week — just in time to monitor traffic and congestion during the Papal visit — is in the Sign Shop building, a Feltonville neighborhood staple since 1958.

The $4.2 million improvement has in the Streets Department’s plans for more than 15 years, and now allows engineers to monitor city traffic in real time and eventually use the data to improve traffic flow. But this week many of the 600 camera feeds jacked into the center are focused squarely on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Chief Traffic and Lighting Engineer Richard Montanez showed Billy Penn around the new facility and told us of the history of the old one last week. Here’s what’s inside:

Head engineer Richard Montanez stands in the new city Traffic Control Center.

Head engineer Richard Montanez stands in the new city Traffic Control Center.

Anna Orso/Billy Penn

The Traffic Operations Center is complete with an area where employees can monitor the traffic via cameras, and it’s also equipped with a war room where engineers will be cooped up during the Papal visit all day and night.

During special events like the Papal visit, the goal is to monitor the traffic in real time so the Streets Department can adjust signals, signs and throughways accordingly in case there is, for example, a massive influx of pedestrians in one area. If something like that would happen, Streets would push the information to PennDOT, who could adjust electronic messaging signs to tell people to move in different directions.

But during regular business days, the engineers in the traffic ops center are collecting traffic flow data so they can better time things like traffic lights. One of the major partners is SEPTA, and Montanez said Streets employees are collecting data on buses and trolleys. The goal? For buses and trolleys to empty passengers at red lights so they’re free to drive on green, allowing for everyone on the roadways to move through quicker and more efficiently.

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Anna Orso/Billy Penn

Cameras feeding into the Traffic Ops system are coming from a number of sources, including PennDOT, SEPTA, the police department, UPenn and a few others. Currently on the to-do list: Integrating cameras from the sports complexes.

Also on Streets’ big wall of screens are weather maps, traffic signal maps, open construction permit maps, special events maps and, you guessed it, more maps, including some that show energy usage of street lights and how it varies throughout the year.

But behind this glitzy, new, high-tech traffic center is the soul of this Streets Department building — the traffic signal and sign shop, where all the cities signs are created and traffic signals are repaired.

A technician shows us the machine that controls traffic signals.

A technician shows us the machine that controls traffic signals.

Anna Orso/Billy Penn

Yep, that archaic-looking machine under repair in the shop is behind whether or not you get a green light or a red-light when you’re running late for work in the morning. The technology that (somewhat annoyingly) clicks every time a light is supposed to change has been around for decades, and Streets has an “if ain’t broken, don’t fix it” mentality.

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Anna Orso/Billy Penn

Above is another look at a machine — that literally fits into an old suitcase — that controls how traffic lights in the city work.

The Philadelphia Sign Shop.

The Philadelphia Sign Shop.

Anna Orso/Billy Penn

In the next room over, several Streets Department workers were busy creating signs for the city in the sign shop, the same place where all the city’s street signs have been made since the 1950s. While we were there, the Department was focused on creating 20,000 “no parking” signs that were to be placed across the city for the Papal visit.

A pile of no parking signs in the Philadelphia Sign Shop.

A pile of no parking signs in the Philadelphia Sign Shop.

Anna Orso/Billy Penn

Signs of various sizes are printed on an industrial size printer than can handle everything from very thick paper to metal. It’s even used for printing large signs that are sent through in pieces and then welded together to be hung.

Signs that were being created for the Parkway.

Signs that were being created for the Parkway.

Anna Orso/Billy Penn

Employees at the Sign Shop also created 500 new signs for the Parkway to be hung for the Papal visit — they each indicate a location that’s more specific than the signs currently hanging on the Parkway.

A pile of stop lights at the Traffic Signal and Sign Shop.

A pile of stop lights at the Traffic Signal and Sign Shop.

Anna Orso/Billy Penn

The Traffic Signal and Sign Shop has also been used for more than half a century to fix traffic signals, hence this large pile of deconstructed traffic signals chillin’ in this back room.

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Anna Orso/Billy Penn

For updated information on traffic during the Papal visit, follow our Pope In Philly story, and we’ll update you when news happens.

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