Here’s the link to my August Statesman column. I hope you enjoy it. — Tim
A photo above a desk at the Ada County Highway District offices depicts “a blind, one-armed marsupial with a head wound.”
The stricken marsupial, according to a long-ago Statesman letter to the editor, could easily do a better job of timing Ada County’s traffic signals than the guy who actually does the job.
The computer-generated photo graces the office of the guy who’s been doing the job longer than anyone. I’ve silently (and not so silently) cursed this gentleman while stopped at red lights that seem to have no earthly reason for being anything other than green. Cursed him without even knowing his name.
That, of course, is patently unfair. What do I or other motorists who take his name in vain know about how he does his job, how difficult it might be or the problems he faces?
So I spent some time with him to see if he’s as incompetent as we think he is.
He isn’t. The man with much of the responsibility for timing the county’s traffic signals, all 432 of them (plus some 80 pedestrian signals), is neither blind nor a marsupial with a head wound. His name is Mike Boydstun, and he’s quite good at doing a difficult and often thankless job.
“It’s not rocket science,” he says, only half joking. “It’s more complicated than that.”
ACHD’s traffic operations engineer, Boydstun divides his time between working in his office, driving to trouble spots and working in the district’s Traffic Management Center.
I’d envisioned a cramped office with a single display of complex information about traffic flows. The reality is quite different. The traffic management center is a spacious room painted a soft shade of blue, with 52 flickering video screens on one wall.
The screens display real-time images of intersections throughout the county. The images come from 181 closed-circuit television cameras at intersections around the county. Boydstun and five other district employees take turns watching for traffic-flow problems.
If they see one, they can activate advisory messages on electronic reader boards along roadways. They can send pertinent information to the Idaho Transportation Department, the media and Micron (the valley’s largest employer) so it can alert its employees in the event of freeway traffic blockages. Engineers can fix problems by changing signal timing remotely, or by making changes at the signals themselves.
A big part of Boydstun’s job, a part that can keep him awake nights, is adjusting the timing of signals to make traffic flow more smoothly.
“Sometimes the problems are troubling and we keep thinking about it and not coming up with a solution,” he said. “Sometimes it helps to get away from it. You have to walk away, and when you’re not even thinking about it, sometimes in the middle of the night, the answer hits you.”
A recent example is a new timing plan to improve northbound rush-hour traffic on Glenwood between State and Chinden. It was an idea that hit him when he wasn’t thinking about it.
“I wouldn’t call it a silver bullet; maybe a tin bullet,” he said. “It made it so that it doesn’t seem to be quite as congested during the afternoon peak.”
Two of my pet peeves are the lights on Front at Avenue A and Park Center at Mallard, both of which tend to evoke the frustrated motorist’s refrain: “Why can’t these (expletive deleted) signals see that there’s no traffic on the side streets?”
Actually, they can. Like many signals in the district, they have a “vehicle-detection” feature. In the case of Front and Avenue A, however, traffic flow improved when it was deactivated.
“If there’s just one car on Avenue A, we could use vehicle detection to give it a green light for a short time and then turn the green back to Front,” Boydstun said. “But that would mean that drivers would get to the next signal early and have to stop there, resulting in a choppy traffic flow on Front.
“By changing it to a fixed-time operation regardless of the number of vehicles, you get stopped at Avenue A but then you should be be clear all the way to 13th during non-peak hours.”
The key phrase being non-peak hours.
OK. But what about Mallard?
“You say the light is red on Park Center when there’s no cars on Mallard?” he asked me.
“Yes. Even on Sunday morning, when there’s no traffic at all.”
“Hmmm. We may have a problem there. I’ll send a signal tech out to check the cabinet.”
Every intersection in the county with a traffic light has a traffic signal controller cabinet. In Downtown Boise and certain other locations, they’re the boxes decorated with artwork. Traffic signal engineers adjust equipment in the cabinets to change the timing of traffic and pedestrian signals.
Later the same day, Boydstun sent an email saying the technician had found a problem at the Mallard-Park Center cabinet and that it would be fixed in a couple of days.
Red lights at pedestrian crossings can be another source of frustration. Why do we have to wait forever for flashing red lights when there are no pedestrians in the crosswalk?
Answer: We don’t. Stopping is only required for the flashing yellow and solid red. It’s okay to proceed on the flashing red – provided you don’t mow down any lingering pedestrians.
“A lot of people don’t realize that they can go on the flashing red, which is the benefit of it. It helps move traffic.”
Many people, he added, also don’t know the meaning of dashes painted on the pavement at the ends of solid lines denoting bicycle lanes. They tell motorists they can turn there (while yielding to any bicyclists that may be present), and they warn cyclists to watch for vehicles making turns.
Boydstun, 54, has worked at ACHD for 17 years as a traffic operations engineer and before that an assistant traffic operations engineer. Prior to working for ACHD, he spent just over 13 years as a signal technician and engineering assistant with the Idaho Transportation Department. His degree is in electronics engineering technology.
He likes his job “most days because every day is different. I never know when I come in what will happen that day.”
The days he doesn’t like?
“When everybody’s calling and yelling at us.”
He responds to every phone call or digital complaint from motorists who think that anybody, just anybody, can do a better job of timing the traffic signals than he’s doing.
“Most people are nice, but some just want to vent. They ask me if I actually drive the problem spots. Yes, I do.
“… A lot of people who complain focus on just the one thing that’s bothering them. They don’t see the big picture, that changing something in one place can affect other places.
“The biggest thing for people to be aware of is that we do try to be proactive and make things as efficient and effective for the public as we can. There are times when we have peak congestion and there’s not a whole lot we can do. But what we can, we do.”
Tim Woodward’s column appears monthly in The Idaho Statesman and is posted a day later on woodward blog.com . Know someone with an interesting story for him? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have a new appreciation for actors.
Not that I haven’t always appreciated them. How the best ones do what they do rises, in my opinion, to the level of high art.
At the opposite end of the spectrum were my “performances” in last week’s production of “The Music Man” for Boise Music Week.
This was Music’s Week’s hundredth anniversary. Boise’s 1918 Music Week was the first in the nation, and for a century our Music Week has relied on local talent.
“Talent,” in my case, being a bit of a stretch.
My first and until now only appearance in a play was in a high school production of a play whose name I’ve long since forgotten. I played the boatman who ferries dead people across the River Styx, a role which called for nothing more than dabbling a paddle in a sea of dry-ice fumes. Mercifully, no lines.
So it couldn’t have been more of a surprise when Allyn Krueger, “Music Man’s” director, emailed to ask whether I’d be interested in a bit part in “The Music Man.” Mayor Dave Bieter and I would be the production’s “celebrities,” each of us playing a train conductor at alternating performances.
Having been a bit of a train buff all my life, I enthusiastically accepted. The prospect of wearing a conductor’s uniform like the one John Irving wore in “The Cider House Rules” and shouting “All Aboard” from the stage of the Morrison Center for the Performing Arts was enormously appealing.
Only after a couple of rehearsals did I begin to have an idea of the challenges involved.
The things that actors say and do onstage? The ones they make look so natural and easy? They aren’t. I had six lines. And do you think I could remember all of them and say them at the right times?
Years ago, I memorized a considerable portion of Stephen Vincent Benet’s lengthy poem, “The Mountain Whippoorwill.” I’ve memorized the lyrics to scores of songs and sung them onstage without a hitch. But there’s something different about memorizing lines for a play. Whatever part of the brain it is that allows actors to do that I either don’t have or have in short supply.
On opening night, after diligently practicing them at home, I managed to say my first two lines without incident, but missed my queue for the third line. That left me standing onstage, as my mother used to say, “like two cents waiting for change.” As this was my last line in the scene, I was more or less hung out to dry, standing there like an inanimate prop before noticing people in the wings madly gesturing at me to get offstage. Happy to oblige, I lamely exited stage left.
In the second scene, I was supposed to walk across the stage and say, “River City! We’re across the state line into Iowa. River City, population 2,212!”
Except that I forgot to say the second “River City,” reducing Iowa’s 1912 population by roughly 99.9 percent.
Thinking about that while trying to fall asleep that night, alone in a darkened room, I felt myself blushing.
My second and last outing went much better. I said the right lines at the right times and even managed to get a few laughs at a line I tried to make funny.
Move over, Daniel Day Lewis.
If someone had told me a month ago I’d be onstage in a play at the Morrison Center, I wouldn’t have believed it. A career as a newspaper columnist brings a certain low-rent celebrity and some surprising opportunities, but a part in a play at the Morrison Center?
This is one of the highest rated venues of its kind in the nation. Tony Bennett, Neil Young, Carole King, Mikhail Baryshnikov, casts of Broadway plays … these are just a few of the great performers who have graced that marvelous (and intimidating) stage. If I’d thought about that while waiting in the wings, the power of speech would have left me.
This would have been especially inconvenient given the fact that I had the play’s opening line.
So next time you go to a play and see an actor falter or stumble, remember that it’s not anywhere near as easy as it looks. Good actors just make it look that way.
Thanks to Allyn for giving me an unexpected and wonderful opportunity, and to all the members of the cast and crew who were so patient and helpful with a bumbling journalist pretending to be John Irving.
Blown line aside, it was a lot of fun. If Music Week ever needs someone to ferry dead people across a river of dry ice without speaking a word, I’m their man.
Anyone who visits or drives by the Downtown St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center knows things are a bit chaotic there these days – closed roads, detours, mountains of dirt …
The disruption isn’t limited to the hospital alone. A nearby clinic where one of my doctors works looks like the last thing standing in a bombing range.
Amid the turmoil of the hospital’s expansion, however, are islands of beauty and tranquility. The flower gardens surrounding St. Luke’s – literally thousands of tulips, pansies and hyacinths in spring and marigolds, petunias and zinnias in summer – bring “oohs” and “ahs” from passersby and comfort to those dealing with pain and loss. They’re East Boise institutions.
Lee Barnard, who grew up in the neighborhood and lives half a block from the hospital, says he’s “always admired St. Luke’s commitment to the tulips and the other flowers. They’re gorgeous. I’ve loved them for as long as I can remember.”
The grounds are beautiful even in winter. As a black-thumb gardener who has managed to kill everything but weeds, I’ve often wondered who it is that keeps them looking like something out of “Gardens Illustrated.”
That would be Jose de Jesus Garcia, himself an island of tranquility. He isn’t the only gardener at St. Luke’s, but he’s tended the gardens there for 26 years – longer than anyone. Gentle, soft spoken, he all but radiates kindness. Ask anyone at the hospital about him and the response invariably begins with, “Jose? He is just the nicest man.”
Lead grounds worker Pat Allen, who regularly works with Garcia, describes him as “dependable and friendly.”
And a really nice guy.
Garcia grew up in a small town in Mexico, where his mother’s rose garden was locally famous, and has loved flowers all his life.
“I like the way they look and the way they smell, he said. “I like everything about them.”
His favorite thing about his job?
“Being outside. I worked in the laundry for a while when I first came here, but I’d rather be outside with the flowers. And I enjoy meeting people. That’s the beauty of my job. It combines the two things, gardening and being with people and answering their questions. Most of time I reverse the questions. I find out they have more knowledge than I do.”
Somehow I doubt that. Still, it speaks to his intrinsic modesty. Asked his job title, he avoids overblown terms like landscape specialist or senior grounds work and answers simply, “gardener.”
His work days begin at 6 a.m, with the first few hours devoted to cleaning the grounds.
“We do a lot of entrance cleaning. Picking up papers and cigarette butts, things that blow in off the streets, making it look sharp. About 9 a.m. we start doing the actual gardening. This time of year it’s checking for dry spots and weeds and pulling out the spring flowers when they’re finished. Then we’ll start putting in the summer flowers.
“… Children have a tendency to pick the flowers, but we don’t see much of that anymore because parents tell them not to do that. We don’t like to say anything. We keep our mouths shut. But the parents tell them for us. They want to keep it looking sharp, too.”
The gardens are a source of accolades for the hospital. Sarah Jackson, who supervises the employees at the lobby’s information desk, says workers there “are frequently reminded by patrons of how beautiful our courtyard, the route up to the circle drive and the flowering planters are … I often see oncology patients in the courtyard, relaxing and enjoying the quiet, peaceful setting.”
Garcia’s part in creating all that was considered significant enough that last year he was awarded a St. Luke’s President’s Award. Dr. Jim Souza, the hospital’s chief medical officer and the person who nominated him, noted that he “is routinely the first groundskeeper onsite during bad weather. In the particularly bad winter we just had (last year’s “Snowmageddon”), there were lots of opportunities to see Jose and his work. His long hours and commitment to getting it right made our campus safer for everyone.
“He always did it with a smile and a pleasant attitude, which is what made it really stand out. Patients, staff members, runners and walkers … Nearly everyone in Boise has at one time or another been moved by Jose’s meticulous flower beds, brilliant spring tulips and the fall foliage he has nurtured.”
His reaction to receiving the award?
“I was overwhelmed.”
Now 60, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1979.
“There were some Americans in the town where I grew up. From the time I was a little boy, I loved listening to them speak English. I thought it sounded really cool and wanted to be where I could learn that beautiful language.”
He worked as a gardener at naval stations in California for nine years before moving to Boise.
“I came here with a friend and liked the slower pace,” he said. “I thought it would be a great place for my wife and me to raise our children (a son and a daughter, now grown). Four months later, I was here.”
I was surprised to learn that patients and visitors have a say in what’s planted on the hospital grounds.
“We used to have daffodils, but a lot more people told us they liked the tulips so now we have tulips instead. People tell me which colors they like the most, what they think is beautiful. They comment about certain plants, and little by little we start cultivating those kinds of plants.”
And not just flowers. Ornamental cabbage and kale in the winter, trees, ornamental grasses, shrubs …
Pansies, tulip bulbs, and ornamental cabbage and kale are planted in the fall. When the tulips fade, they’re replaced with summer flowers – mainly profusion zinnias and marigolds.
“Profusions are easy to grow, they’re tolerant to mildew and they cover the ground well so they don’t allow weeds to pop up,” Allen said. “We try to keep everything as low maintenance as possible.”
Low maintenance, high public approval.
“Every day ten to 15 people stop to talk about the flowers or take pictures of them,” Garcia said. “Pat jokes that we should charge $5 a picture.”
The construction has taken a toll on the grounds. Several flower beds, including the prominent one at Broadway Avenue and Idaho Street, have been lost.
“That one will be replaced and will be triple its size,” Allen said. “As the construction progresses we’ll put in some other areas to make up for what we’ve lost.”
No one is is looking forward to that more than Garcia. He takes pride in the grounds looking their best. Gardening may not be his life, but it’s a big part of it. He grows flowers and vegetables at home, volunteers to do gardening work at his church. When he and his wife want to relax, they take a picnic lunch to a park end enjoy the flowers there.
One of the best parts of his job, he says, is making blossomy interludes available to those who need them most.
“I like knowing that this is here for the people who have loved ones in the hospital. They can come outside and enjoy the colors. They don’t have to go somewhere else to find beauty.”
Sorry, I don’t think the link I just posted for Sunday’s column works.
Could it be possible that I made a technical error?
Will try again later, when I can get a grandkid to help:) Sorry for the delay.
Longtime readers know that I am prone to vacation blunders, mishaps and occasional disasters. A recent trip to Mexico was no exception.
My wife and I sat in the seats next to the exit on the flight from Boise to Phoenix. Before we took off, a flight attendant woke me from dozing (we’d gotten up at 3:30 a.m.) by blurting out a mostly unintelligible – to us, at least – pronouncement. He finished by looking expectantly at me and saying I needed to answer him in the affirmative. I did.
Neither of us has the hearing of a teenager. After he left, we looked at each other and confessed that neither of us had understood a word of what he’d said. Across the aisle, our daughter dissolved in laughter.
“What’s so funny?” we asked.
“You don’t know?”
“No. Why are you laughing?”
“When you said yes? He was asking you if you were capable of deploying the emergency exit.”
As we were boarding the plane in Phoenix, she started laughing again.
“Whats funny now?” I asked her.
“I’ll tell you when we get to our seats,” she said, tears streaming down her face.
That took a while, as our seats were near the back of a large, completely full airplane. She continued to laugh as we bumped and jostled our way back. When we were seated and she’d finally stopped laughing, she told me that I’d been bashing passengers in the head with my shoulder bag for the whole length of the plane.
It used to be that my wife and I were the ones who handled the details, logistics, etc., when we traveled with our kids. Now we’re just along for our entertainment value.
To her credit, the daughter who was accompanying us has acquired a fair amount of tourist Spanish, meaning that it works some of the time. The first place we went after clearing customs was to stock up on groceries. When she asked a clerk at the store a question, he responded in rapid-fire Spanish, giving her an excuse to try a phrase she’d seen on road signs and had been itching to use: “Reducidar de velocidad.”
Reduce your speed. Or, “slow down,” right?
The clerk looked at her as if she had three heads. Later, we learned that it doesn’t mean reduce your speed, or, as she intended it, “speak slower.”
It means “speed bump.
The next day, after emerging from the pool and returning to what I thought was our table, I asked what had happened to all the towels we’d brought. No response, so I asked again. I was about to compliment our daughter on her new swimsuit when I realized I was at the wrong table. The woman I was talking to wasn’t my daughter all. She was a complete stranger, who looked as if she was about to call security.
This, however, were minor mishaps. No ATMS ate our debit cards this trip, and I didn’t screw up our plane reservations coming home, lose my wallet and all my money in the ocean or otherwise court disaster.
More than a few readers have told me that my vacations make theirs look good.
Next year, we’re thinking about going someplace more exotic. You’re going to love it.
From now on, I’ll be posting the Statesman link to my columns. Just click on the following link to read the latest one. If you have problems, please let me know using the comment mode. Thanks? — Tim