Synchronized signals are a cheap way to move traffic, says UVA transportation engineer Byungkyu "Brian" Park. But there are more controversial measures.
Simulating: Software models traffic on West Main.
COURTESY BYUNGKYU PARK
Can you imagine zipping up U.S. 29 north through green lights and reaching the airport in a matter of minutes, so efficiently that, wait, we don't need this new $436 million, forest-cutting, mountain-moving road that just been revealed to cost double earlier estimates?
Okay, maybe that's not in the wildest imagination of planners.
What is imaginable is that the 14 traffic lights that the Western 29 Bypass will avoid could be synchronized for just $42,000, according to UVA transportation engineer Byungkyu "Brian" Park. A man whose ideas and computer models have won him acclaim in national transportation journals, Park remains practically unknown in Charlottesville.
Yet, in a place that may soon hold the dubious distinction of building a bypass that doesn't actually bypass some of its key bottlenecks, shouldn't Charlottesville and Albemarle synchronize all their lights before embarking on a six-mile, VDOT-estimated $400-plus-million project, a project so controversial that it's been stalled for 20 years, and whose most ardent supporters concede won't solve the congestion on U.S. 29 north?
"Typically, cities and state DOTs don't have enough money to do the timing," Park says helpfully. "They've got to do the potholes, too."
Park pegs the synchronization cost at just $3,000 per intersection, and that estimate includes going out to collect traffic counts at peak hours and setting up models.
"It's not like you're building a bridge," says Park. "You just change the settings. It's fairly cheap."
Park's computer models suggest that every traffic light in the United States, all 340,000 of them, could be synchronized to keep traffic moving, saving fuel and travel times. At a coast-to-coast cost of $1.02 billion, and with improved travel times ranging from 10 to 30 percent, the question arises, why aren't all the traffic lights in this country synchronized?
"That's a good question," Park says.
This area has seen some signal synchronization. One longtime resident remembers special signals– removed in the 1990s– along West Main Street telling motorists what speed to drive for optimal red-light avoidance.
West Main was re-timed in late 2005. Yet $200,000 worth of software still required a technician to manually reset the lights each day for a year and another $180K in additional software, former city councilor Kevin Lynch recalls.
"One of my concerns was the amount of money thrown out," says Lynch. "It's not rocket science to synchronize lights."
Park echoes the sentiment. And it turns out Charlottesville officials are once again trying to sync West Main lights, and this time it should be a lot cheaper.
"We already have the hardware," says city traffic engineer Jeanie Alexander, "and we've been collecting data this week."
The new West Main project stretches from Ridge Street to 14th Street, and also includes intersections on nearby Roosevelt Brown, Cherry Avenue, and Crispell Drive, "so we don't cause problems there," says Alexander, who puts the cost for 12 intersections at about $25,000.
Emmet Street/U.S. 29 was supposedly synchronized in 2009. On the city's portion of that busy corridor, travel time was reduced 15 percent during peak morning hours and 12 percent during peak afternoon commutes, Alexander says.
U.S. 29 from Hydraulic to Airport Road was resynchronized in 2008-2009 for a travel time savings of about a minute, according to VDOT regional operations manager Dean Gustafson.
"We've had nothing but positive comments about that," he says.
Some recent 29 travelers, after sitting through three or four traffic lights on a trip up to Target, might beg to differ. Over time, with new businesses, shopping centers, and subdivisions popping up, efficient traffic flow is degraded, says Park. And then there are people's perceptions.
"Their view is that they're going to drive up the road, and every light will be green," says Steve Williams, Thomas Jefferson Planning District executive director. "But you're still sitting at lights. The funny thing is, you can get pretty good improvement, but people don't perceive it."
As it turns out, unless you're in a downtown situation with one-way streets and short blocks, a string of greens may be the holy grail– but equally unattainable.
For the rest of the world, when lights are timed, there are measurable improvements, along with reduced fuel use and pollution, says Williams, but on a busy corridor like 29, green-after-green, he says, is "not going to happen."
We just happened to be taking a phone call from Wendell Wood on Monday, September 19, when the developer of Hollymead Town Center stayed on the line, encountering nothing but greens as he drove from Ivy Road to a point past Wal-Mart without hitting a single red light– something he says he can't predict even though he paid for four of the intersections along the way.
"It works when it works," says Wood.
The number of lights on U.S. 29 goes far beyond the 21 signals in Albemarle: there are three in Greene, five in Madison, three in Culpeper and nine in Fauquier, according to VDOT.
In exchange for Western 29 Bypass and priority road projects funding, Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton has said the rest of the Albemarle U.S. 29 corridor will be a "test bed" for limited access, with fewer lights and curb cuts, and– you guessed it– better signal synchronization.
There are alternatives for reducing congestion, but they may be even more controversial than bypass building. Park notes that the 18.4 cents-a-gallon gas tax, which goes to the Highway Trust Fund, hasn't been raised since 1993. Meanwhile, cars have become more efficient, which means proportionally less money going into highway infrastructure.
Park points to the so-called congestion fees that have been slapped on commuters from London to the Netherlands. "If you are causing additional congestion at peak hours," says Park, "you pay more."
Could it happen here? "Both experts and politicians are looking at that," he says.
On September 19, Governor Bob McDonnell announced he's gotten the okay for tolls on I-95, so with Albemarle's portion of U.S. 29 now a test bed for corridor cleansing, who knows?
Updated September 20 with I-95 announcement and Charlottesville Tomorrow's report that VDOT's unofficial cost estimates are more than double what the Commonwealth Transportation Board was told.