Synchronize those traffic signals

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

The sales tax for transportation improvements was defeated and governments are parsing ways to slice their budgets, but agencies and municipalities across metro Atlanta are focusing on smaller fixes to keep traffic flowing. Traffic signal synchronization is one way. Today, I write about ways both the state and some cities are working to upgrade the technology that can ease our gridlock close to home, and a GDOT leader explains a new grant program designed to expedite money to locals for traffic relief.

Commenting is open below Todd Long’s column.

By Tom Sabulis

A frequent comment lobbed over the transom during this summer’s transportation tax debate went something like this: We don’t need more roads or rail to zap gridlock. Just synchronize the traffic lights!

Some made the suggestion sound like it was simply a matter of flipping a switch — a cost-free panacea to our traffic woes, a no-brainer so easy that managed to escape all those graduate-degree engineers at the Georgia Department of Transportation.

For me, it was not something I ever thought about, for one reason: After 21 years of driving in this city, I assumed our traffic signals already were synced — wired to make me stop at every intersection, even at midnight.

It’s been my experience that you rarely find a choreographed succession of green lights in this town, fluidly sending you down the road in almost martial fashion, providing a sense of unimpeded progression, like some traffic montage in a Philip Glass movie. Sure, it may happen on some arterial somewhere but — like discovering a turn lane on Peachtree Street — it’s not going to happen very often.

There is a homegrown reason for our traffic light challenge: Atlanta does not have standard intersection spacing like cities built on grid patterns. “If every intersection has a half-mile in between traffic signals, you can make better timing plans because you can progress the traffic in both directions,” said Grant Waldrop, Regional Traffic Operations Manager for GDOT. “We don’t have that. We have irregular spacing.”

Modern signal light maintenance can keep traffic moving, but it requires vigilant monitoring and costs thousands in manpower hours each month. The bill is much more for the latest technology, up to $150,000 to completely rebuild an intersection’s signal system. As Richard Mendoza, commissioner of Atlanta’s Department of Public Works, told the AJC in July, much of Atlanta’s traffic infrastructure uses 1990s technology: i.e., copper wires unable to carry digital signals and servers that can’t transmit much data. To upgrade the system using fiber-optic cable, he said, will cost about $40 million.

Newer cities have laser-beamed their focus on traffic flow. Sandy Springs has been upgrading its signals since it incorporated as a city in 2005. City Manager John McDonough said that 97 of the city’s roughly 120 signals are now connected through fiber-optic and computer programming. Sandy Springs also has 41 CCTV cameras monitoring intersections, which helps prevent sending workers into the field to fix a problem.

GDOT helps Atlanta and others maintain traffic signals through its Regional Traffic Operations Program, which has upgraded about 500 intersections in the city. Antiquated detection systems are the chief culprit at many intersections, where wiring that relays information about cars stopped at the light has worn out or is malfunctioning.

“It’s very difficult to have a good intersection timing if you don’t have detection so you know where the vehicles are at the intersection,” Waldrop said. “We need those systems to operate correctly. We also need remote communications so we can do things like keep the time clocks at the intersections set correctly. Then we can change plans remotely if we need to.”

One thing not fixed remotely are the blinking lights that tie up intersections when storms knock out power. “For safety reasons, we do not take intersections out of flash remotely,” Waldrop said. “We want to visit that intersection and make sure. We don’t want to reset an intersection only to have it go right back into flash. You don’t want that kind of confusion at an intersection.”

GDOT would also like to install more battery backup systems on the major corridors it monitors so that traffic signals keep working when the electricity goes out. Some are deployed in Atlanta, but they’re expensive, too – about $8,000 per intersection.

It’s a constant battle to move forward, and Waldrop knows public perception is tough to change.

“People don’t recognize when they’ve been through a well-timed system,” he said. “They notice it when they stop and they don’t think they should have to stop, not the part where they didn’t have to stop as long, or when they have gone through the last three lights without stopping.”

Wait a minute… three lights in a row without stopping? That happens?

Faster state money for local roads

By Todd Long

There are some 20,000 miles of federal and state highways in Georgia – the interstate system and major roads that link our cities one to the other. carry our commuters to and from employment centers and give structure to our thriving logistics industry and interstate commerce.

There are another 100,000 or so miles of city streets and county roads – veritable appendages of daily life.

The former are the responsibility of the Georgia Department of Transportation; the latter of their respective county or city governments. Both are hugely expensive to grow and maintain.

And while there’s never enough money to go around, the department historically has assisted local governments in funding their work.

Faced now with new legislative mandates and a stubborn economy, Georgia DOT has developed a streamlined, user-friendly program to get grant monies to cities and counties faster and simpler than ever before. The Local Maintenance and Improvement Grant (LMIG) program began two years ago as a consolidation of previous department local assistance programs. New matching-fund requirements resulting from the July transportation referendum vote prompted us to retool LMIG – to recast it so it best helps cities and counties help themselves.

We are in the process of providing the state’s roughly 700 cities and counties information on the “new” LMIG program and Fiscal 2013 application packets. With approximately $110 million at stake, we expect most cities and counties to apply. The grants will range from around a thousand dollars to four million dollars, based on the population and number of roadway miles in the city or county.

The General Assembly, in adopting The Transportation Investment Act (TIA) and its statewide sales tax referendum held this past July 31, stipulated that local governments in districts of the state where the referendum passed would have to provide a 10 percent local match to receive their LMIG grants; those in districts where it failed, a 30 percent match. Some wonder if that is fair to local governments, especially those where TIA failed.

It is. In reality, cities and counties always contributed to DOT assistance programs. For resurfacings, they always had to patch and prepare roadways before the state could put down new pavement. On new construction projects, local governments always were responsible for any preliminary engineering and needed right-of-way purchases and they always provided most of the project’s funding. So there is no new burden.

Actually, local governments stand to benefit more than ever from a revitalized LMIG program: the $110 million dedicated to LMIG this fiscal year is tens of millions more than in previous years and we’ll now give local governments their total grants in upfront single payments, instead of as work is completed.

This will give them flexibility to decide which projects to build and to begin work sooner. As it should be, cities and counties will control their funds, their schedules and their projects.

21 comments Add your comment


October 2nd, 2012
3:58 pm

It was a mistake to install traffic signals at locations other than actual INTERSECTIONS. Look at the mess in Snellville on SR124 with the number of signals installed merely to accomodate shopping center ingress/egress. That’s where No Left Turn signs come in handy, and a helluva lot cheaper. The heck with stopping 30 cars so one nimrod can exit from Old Navy, etc.