A lightning rod for criticism, Lafayette traffic director retires

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Lafayette Traffic and Transportation Director Tony Tramel is retiring, having served city-parish commuters for 23 years. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Lafayette Traffic and Transportation Director Tony Tramel is retiring, having served city-parish commuters for 23 years.

Roundabouts, traffic cameras, that unusual intersection at Camellia Boulevard and Johnston Street.

Drivers can thank — or blame — Tony Tramel for those developments.

Tramel, who has served as head of the Lafayette City-Parish Traffic and Transportation Department since 1998, retired effective Friday.

All told, he has served as Lafayette’s chief traffic engineer for 23 years, when counting a prior stint with the city from 1977 to 1985.

Tramel has sometimes served as a lightning rod for public complaints about anything and everything related to traffic, and his role in the city’s traffic camera enforcement program brought personal attacks that he said were so vicious he questioned public service.

But he leaves behind a tangible legacy of major projects and initiatives.

“Tony will remembered for leaving this community a lot better than he found it, but with that task comes controversy, not something Tony relished, but something he often found himself in,” Lafayette City-Parish Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley said.

Tramel oversaw the design and construction of the new Rosa Parks Transportation Center in downtown Lafayette, launched the ongoing initiative to convert the city’s bus and vehicle fleet to run on cleaner-burning natural gas and pushed a number of novel solutions to city’s traffic problems.

“I’m like a doctor,” said Tramel, explaining how he enjoys diagnosing a clogged roadway and developing a treatment plan.

One solution he has championed over the years is the roundabout, a circular intersection that takes the place of four-way stop or traffic lights.

Lafayette’s first roundabout was built in 2003 at the intersection of Ridge Road and Rue Du Belier, once the site of long lines of traffic.

Skeptics questioned the strange looking intersection, but the long lines of traffic disappeared almost overnight.

There are now 14 roundabouts in the parish, many built at the behest of local leaders seeking to ease traffic woes on the rural roads that move commuters to and from Lafayette.

“If we just had the money, we should build as many (roundabouts) as we could,” Tramel said.

He said roundabouts can help move traffic without the major expense of building new roads or widening existing ones, and in an area that is already developed, more roads are not an option.

“The roads and streets are the cards we’re dealt,” Tramel said.

He said the puzzle is in trying to re-configure an existing road or intersection.

Tramel said many solutions are easy, such as squeezing in another turn lane by reducing the size of the other lanes.

“Sometimes you can solve problems with paint. Just getting people in the right spot,” he said.

In other cases, major surgery might be required, as in the case of the new intersection at Camellia Boulevard and Johnston Street.

The intersection, dubbed a “reduced-phase intersection,” requires drivers coming from Camellia on one side or Guilbeau on the other to turn left across oncoming traffic a few hundred feet before the intersection.

Those drivers then proceed along a special left-turn lane that’s on the left side of oncoming traffic.

The drivers can then turn left from that special lane at the main intersection, and oncoming traffic does not have to wait for drivers turning left.

It’s an unusual site and a relatively new idea in the traffic engineering world, but Tramel said it has greatly improved traffic flow.

A similar type of intersection is being considered near Acadiana Mall at Johnston Street and Ambassador Caffery.

Tramel recognizes that even with such improvements, drivers often clamor for more and bigger roads, but new roads take money, and neither the state nor city-parish government has had much to spare.

“We know exactly what needs to be done. Having the resources to follow through with it is another thing,” Tramel said.

Despite his traffic engineering work, Tramel is likely more associated in the public eye with the city’s automated traffic camera enforcement program, which began in 2007.

The cameras take pictures of the driver and license plate when a vehicle runs a red light or speeds through an intersection, and the alleged violator is mailed a citation.

Tramel credits the traffic cameras with reducing crashes and improving driver behavior.

“I’ve invested a substantial amount of my career in that arena,” Tramel said of his advocacy for the enforcement program.

The traffic camera program has its critics, and the criticism has at times crossed the line into virulent personal attacks on Tramel.

He’s been labeled as ignorant, arrogant, the devil, among other things.

“It was pretty difficult to take. My wife told me it wasn’t worth it. I don’t think any public official should take that kind of abuse,” Tramel said.

Still, Tramel said he’s generally enjoyed public service, though he does look forward to deleting his city-parish government email account from his smart phone.

“One thing I won’t miss is getting 150 emails a day,” he said.

Tramel, who turned 63 on Friday, said he will continue working through his new consulting business, along with playing golf and traveling.

The position he held will be eliminated as part of a departmental reorganization that is still in the works, City-Parish President Joey Durel said.

Durel said much of the traffic engineering work will shift to the Public Works Department, where it had been before Tramel arrived in 1998.

Durel said the separate traffic department had essentially been created for Tramel to lure him to Lafayette.

Tramel has a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering from Purdue University and holds two master’s degrees, one in engineering and one in city planning, both from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“They couldn’t pay him enough as a division head to attract him here,” Durel said.