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Smart Driving

SMARTway system could ease expressway congestion.

By Bianca Phillips

Interstate traffic jams caused by construction or accidents may be alleviated when the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) implements its new SMARTway transportation plan in four of Tennessee's major cities -- Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Memphis.

The SMARTway plan, a system of cameras and roadway sensors that measures the amount of traffic on the road in hopes of curbing congestion, was launched in Nashville on Friday. TDOT says the design for the Memphis system will begin this summer, and the first series of cameras should be installed within a year. Construction begins in the fall for Knoxville's system, and Chattanooga is scheduled to have a camera system within a year.

With the SMARTway plan, highway traffic is monitored by video surveillance at a Traffic Management Center (TMC). As TMC attendants notice back-ups, the information is entered into a computer and broadcast onto large digital-message signs posted at various points above the roadway. The signs will suggest alternative routes to avoid congestion. Nashville currently has 56 cameras and 20 signs. The numbers for Memphis have yet to be determined.

The plan also includes a system of roadway sensors buried in the pavement. They resemble solar panels and monitor the speed of cars as they pass over the sensors. The panels will store past and current speed data and will alert the TMC attendants when a dramatic decrease in speed occurs.

"If, historically, people are going 65 mph on a certain stretch of road and suddenly it goes down to 40 mph, then the operators know something's happening out there," said Kim Keelor, public-relations officer for TDOT.

Keelor says the system will never be used to enforce traffic laws. Speeds are only monitored to indicate congestion problems as well as the accidents that may have caused them. According to research from similar systems in other cities, this up-to-the-minute information system can cut emergency response time to accidents by as much as 30 seconds per incident.

"At the grand opening in Nashville Friday, we saw a car smoking on the video. It pulled over to the side and blocked traffic, but within three-and-a-half minutes our help truck was dispatched," said Keelor.

In addition to assisting drivers already on the road, the system can also help drivers planning their route from home. As a public service, TDOT will provide local television stations with feed from the live cameras at no charge. The stations can use the footage in their traffic reports. Views from the cameras will also be available on TDOT's Web site, TDOT.state.tn.us.

Gas Pains

High natural-gas prices won't mean high utility bills -- yet.

By Mary Cashiola

Although nationwide natural-gas prices have risen significantly lately, a spokesman for MLGW says customers won't see increases in their bills this month.

Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan told members of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee last week that the price of natural gas closed in July at $6.31 per million British thermal units (Btus). In comparison, in July 2000, the price was $2.55 and in July 2002, $3.65.

Even with the price jump, Mark Heuberger, MLGW's director of corporate communications, says residential consumers won't feel it because natural-gas consumption is low during the summer months when gas is used mainly for cooking or hot-water heaters.

During the winter of 2000-2001, MLGW's gas prices caused what Heuberger called "sticker shock" among the utility's residential customers. Bills tripled, city councilmen were outraged, and MLGW was forced to set up payment plans as citizens complained of having to choose between heating and eating.

The reason for the outrageous bills? The significant rise in natural-gas prices nationwide, according to MLGW. Prices peaked at $10.10 that January, but Heuberger says the utility bought its gas for less than that amount.

"We learned during the winter of 2000 going into 2001 that customers don't like 'sticker shock.' They don't like cruising along and then, not because of something MLGW did but because of the natural-gas market, see their bills shoot up," said Heuberger. "As a business, we were used to it. We saw it shoot up every year."

Heuberger said that since then MLGW has purchased more storage capacity and bought more gas in the summer months when prices are cheaper. That way they can mix the high- and low-priced gas in the winter and keep bills lower.

"[The gas-purchasing department] told me that the price of gas dropped significantly last Thursday to under $5, but it could shoot up again," said Heuberger. "It's often compared to the stock market."

As part of his committee testimony, Greenspan said that futures markets expect the natural-gas price to increase through the summer and peak next January. He added that there was a 25 percent probability that prices would exceed $7.50 per million Btus.

"Right now, primarily due to the fact that it's summer, we're not going to see a significant effect on MLGW prices," said Heuberger. "If this were winter, this conversation would be different."

Parents Plus Pupils

School board adds new P2LUS after-school program.

By Mary Cashiola

The Memphis City Schools board refocused its after-school programs this week with the adoption of the new P2LUS program.

"Parents + Pupils Linking for Ultimate Success" will begin next year at the 13 elementary schools classified by the state as "On Probation." The five-day-a-week program will focus on reading and math but will also offer tutoring from community volunteers on Wednesdays and educational field trips on Fridays.

"I've been working on this initiative for a year," said Commissioner Michael Hooks Jr. "We've got the Wharton plan, we've got No Child Left Behind. I think of this initiative as the board's plan. Everybody says they want to help Memphis City Schools ... this is a way."

The school district has explored other after-school programs, but they were offered only two or three days a week, some used uncertified teachers, and they were not as academically focused as this program, administrators said.

Although Title 1 funds were re-allocated from existing after-school programs for P2LUS, the district hopes to expand the program to first include the elementary schools identified as "On Notice" and "Improving" and then to encompass all the elementary schools.

Speaking Up

State prepares for renewal of low-income funding.

By Janel Davis

The state department responsible for providing services to thousands of Shelby County residents is up for funding renewal at the end of this month.
The Department of Human Services (DHS) will hold a public hearing next Wednesday in Nashville for input on a statewide funding plan for fiscal year 2004-2005. The hearing must be held before the Child Care and Development Fund Plan can be submitted to the Administration for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Although the hearing is being held in Nashville, Shelby County residents can submit their comments to the department before the proposed plan is sent to Washington on June 30th. Shelby County, with its large indigent population, has the most recipients of DHS services like Families First and TennCare. The 2002 rolls listed more than 66,000 individuals receiving Families First assistance, and this year more than 26,000 children received child-care certificates for free or reduced-price care.
“The proposal covers DHS, specifically child-care licensing and the certificate program for Families First recipients,” said Gina Brawley with the department. Last year, Tennessee received more than $110 million under the plan. For fiscal year 2001, federal funding assisted Tennessee in helping 31,000 families and almost 60,000 children each month through some type of state program.
To obtain funding, this year’s grant fund required states to implement the Good Start, Grow Smart program announced by the president in 2002, designed to improve early-childhood learning for all children. According to Brawley, Tennessee has partnered with the U.S. Department of Education to create learning strategies and so far has compiled a rough draft for implementation.
This type of plan is submitted to the government by each state to obtain federal monies for state programs catering to low-income parents and children. Tennessee’s plan provides funding for child-care subsidies, health care, employment services for parents, and food stamps.

Making Room

Save Our Shell plans to decrease seating in Overton Park arena.

By Bianca Phillips

There will soon be more room for vendors and shade for picnics near the main entrance of the historic Raoul Wallen-berg Shell in Overton Park. Save Our Shell Inc., a nonprofit group that's funded numerous shell improvement projects, plans to remove several rows of bench seating to make way for grassy terraces and new trees.

"The terraces would look like golf tees and would slope down gradually with grass. That way I could get six or eight trees saw-toothed in," said John Larkin, stage manager of the shell. "The trees might block the view of anyone standing outside the fence, but there's only a donation [for admission], so they should come on in."

The shell originally had 4,000 seats, but several rows of damaged benches have already been removed. Larkin said there's currently 3,500 seats, and he wants to remove about 1,000. The Mud Island Amphitheatre, the city's other outdoor arena, has 5,000 seats.

Save Our Shell, Inc. has funded improvements to the shell through donations since 1986. The group has received money from the city only once over the years. Previous projects included the replacement of rotted wood in the offices and on the stage and the construction of wings and lofts for storage. Larkin said other enhancement projects are in the works.

"The shell is moving back up in the food chain," he said.

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