Portland studies Pittsburgh for technology solutions

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PORTLAND — To become smarter, city officials looked west to Pittsburgh last week.

“We have this canvas, a landscape open to piloting new technology and new ideas,” City Manager Jon Jennings said Oct. 26 about spending almost three days meeting with consultants, staff at Carnegie Mellon University and Pittsburgh officials on applying technology to municipal operations.

Jennings said the trip, where he was accompanied by city Communications Director Jessica Grondin, Planning Director Jeff Levine, Sustainability Coordinator Troy Moon and Public Works Deputy Director Dan Mirabile, followed the city’s replacement of streetlights with more energy-efficient LED bulbs and its installation of Surtrac traffic signals at Morrill’s Corner in early July.

The signals alter the static timing pattern of traffic lights by sensing traffic flow from all directions, and are credited with reducing wait times at the intersection of Forest, Stevens, Warren and Allen avenues by 20 percent.

The signals will also be installed at Woodfords Corner, where Forest and Deering avenues and Woodford Street meet.

Surtrac was developed at Carnegie Mellon and spun into a private company. The signals are also being tried in some Pittsburgh neighborhoods.

As much as city officials could learn about using artificial intelligence to make city operations more efficient, they also brought a substantive amount of real-world experience to share, Andrew Butcher said Monday.

Butcher, an executive fellow at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College, facilitated the visit.

Portland is actually ahead of others in some ways, said Butcher, who has lived in the city with his family for about a year and a half.

“There are compelling activities happening here and the time is ideal to define and distill what the city’s innovation strategy and agenda is and will be,” he said.

One area of progress are the LED light installations, which city officials estimate will save the city $1 million annually. Butcher said Pittsburgh is now just embarking on getting the lights installed.

He appreciates the walkable nature of Portland, and said he can go a week without getting into a car, but he also values Jennings’ willingness to look ahead.

“I don’t believe technology solves all things, but it can be a way to alleviate some problems,” Butcher said. “Not many humans geek out on this kind of stuff.”

As an older city with streets that are not always designed to handled large traffic flows, Butcher said local and regional approaches need to be part of the planning.

Jennings said a critical area to study was how municipal officials and academia collaborated in Pittsburgh and how the University of Southern Maine may become involved locally.

More immediately, the city is looking at improving traffic flow and pedestrian safety on Franklin and Commercial streets, he added.

Highly automated shuttle vehicles could be coming to those streets within two years, Jennings said at a forum last month. On Oct. 26, he said it may be time to look at using artificial intelligence to time pedestrian crosswalk signals on Commercial Street.

On Oct. 23, Jennings said the group met with Pittsburgh officials in part to learn more about the extensive digital platform offered to request city services, track police calls and arrests, code violations and permits.

“We are looking overall for better streamlining, better customer service and better outcomes,” Jennings said. “We are trying to prove government can be efficient.”

David Harry can be reached at 780-9092 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Traffic moves through Morrill’s Corner on Oct. 25 in Portland. New traffic signals that communicate with each other have cut wait times by 20 percent.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.