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Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2008

Intelligent Traffic Signs

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What can you do with a stop sign that hasn't already been done?

That question nagged Rick Bergholz, CEO of Traffic and Parking Control Co. (TAPCO) for decades. Eight years ago he found the answer: a solar-powered, Wi-Fi stop sign that detects cars as they approach the intersection. The technology morphed into Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), or what Bergholz calls "high-tech solutions to old problems."

Studies show that lighted traffic signs are easier to see, and thus reduce traffic accidents. Wireless capability connects signs to vehicle detectors planted in the road, so cities can coordinate traffic lights or school-zone traffic signals with oncoming traffic. TAPCO's solar-powered signs save money, and run off a nickel-metal hydride battery that can keep the lights blinking continuously for 30 overcast days.

In the high-stakes world of traffic engineering, Bergholz's brainstorm is the proverbial better mousetrap. But not every municipality is beating a path to TAPCO's Elm Grove factory door.

"It's a heavily regulated business, and I literally had to approach the transportation departments in each of the 50 states to get these systems on the road," Bergholz says. It took four years for the feds to sign off on his signs, and another four years to lobby individual states.

"In some places I can't give my signs away, and other places, such as Ohio, are buying them 150 at a time," he says. "The most common objection I hear is, 'If we use a sign at one intersection, then the whole city will want them.' There's a resistance to change, even if change means saving lives."

Solar-powered signs also save energy, and Bergholz claims a two-year payback when a city replaces a hard-wired blinking sign with the greener version. He also sells solar-powered parking-meter collection boxes and lighted street signs. Further savings come when a city replaces the standard 169-watt traffic light bulbs with LED lights that use 2 watts or less per bulb.

"The LEDs last longer, maybe 20 years," Bergholz says. "It's hard to say because they haven't been around that long."

TAPCO thrives, thanks to its innovations and a diversified product line that includes Milwaukee's distinctive harp lights, highway crash barriers, standard reflective highway signs and more. While many manufacturers are cutting back on production and workers, TAPCO will soon move from its current cramped facility to a spacious new building on Brown Deer Road. The privately held company enjoys annual sales of $25 million, and expects to eventually double its work force from the current 120 employees.

Bergholz's green approach to traffic control extends beyond solar. For years, TAPCO has been using plastic recycled from milk jugs to make the car stops found in parking lots around the world. Metal signposts are forged from recycled scrap steel.

"Although it may cost a little more to make and sell recycled products, our customers tell us it's worth it to them," he says. "They really like the idea of helping out with the recycling of waste products that would have wound up in the landfill."