Driv­ers don’t have to see red be­cause of bad traf­fic flow

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION - Cal­le­gari, r-Katy, is a li­censed pro­fes­sional en­gi­neer. he is a mem­ber of the house trans­porta­tion Com­mit­tee and is chair­man of the house trans­porta­tion sub­com­mit­tee on traf­fic im­prove­ment.

Most of us have been there: sit­ting in traf­fic wait­ing for a red light to change as no cross traf­fic goes by. Then there are the times when the traf­fic sig­nal fi­nally turns green and you go straight to an­other red light. And then an­other.

Throw in a scream­ing kid, a bro­ken air con­di­tioner in the Texas heat or a late ap­point­ment, and this sce­nario trans­lates into a recipe for high blood pres­sure, and pos­si­bly a few words that might earn a PG-13 rat­ing (or worse).

The U.S. Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion iden­ti­fies poor traf­fic sig­nal tim­ing as a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor to traf­fic de­lays on ma­jor road­ways. Bad things hap­pen the longer cars idle in poorly man­aged traf­fic. Pro­duc­tive hours are wasted. Wait­ing ve­hi­cles burn more gaso­line, in­creas­ing harm­ful emis­sions. Driv­ers at­tempt­ing to avoid poorly timed traf­fic lights might cut through res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hoods, cre­at­ing a safety haz­ard. Mo­torist frus­tra­tion in­creases, driv­ing some to road rage.

Poorly timed traf­fic sig­nals can ruin a pub­lic road’s pur­pose. Fix­ing these sig­nals helps move traf­fic.

Some Texas cities al­ready have taken the lead in im­prov­ing traf­fic sig­nal op­er­a­tions with mea­sured re­sults. In 2007, Austin traf­fic en­gi­neers im­ple­mented changes to their traf­fic sig­nal man­age­ment that re­sulted in a 9.8 per­cent over­all re­duc­tion in travel time for ma­jor ar­te­ri­als, re­duc­ing traf­fic de­lays by 2.3 mil­lion hours. These changes con­trib­uted to a 3.5 per­cent re­duc­tion in fuel con­sump­tion, sav­ing nearly 1.3 mil­lion gal­lons of gas and mil­lions in mo­torists’ dol­lars.

In Plano, in­stal­la­tion of a new traf­fic sig­nal sys­tem cou­pled with im­proved sys­tem man­age­ment amounted to a fuel sav­ings of 848,000 gal­lons, 745,000 fewer hours of traf­fic de­lay and an op­er­at­ing cost re­duc­tion of nearly $13.3 mil­lion.

Broader stud­ies cor­rob­o­rate Austin’s and Plano’s ex­pe­ri­ences: Bet­ter traf­fic sig­nal man­age­ment can re­sult in a 10 to 15 per­cent im­prove­ment in mo­bil­ity and re­duce fuel con­sump­tion by nearly 10 per­cent. More ad­vanced im­prove­ments can de­crease travel time by as much as 25 per­cent.

Traf­fic sig­nal im­prove­ments do not come cheap. In­stalling state-of-the-art sig­nals at a stan­dard, four-way in­ter­sec­tion costs be­tween $90,000 to $160,000. Be­yond fi­nan­cial re­sources, our state and lo­cal trans­porta­tion agen­cies need more per­son­nel with ex­pe­ri­ence in the art and sci­ence of traf­fic sig­nal op­er­a­tion.

The ben­e­fits of bet­ter traf­fic sig­nal op­er­a­tions out­weigh costs, how­ever. One pro­gram ad­min­is­tered in Texas in the mid-1990s found a 32-to-1 ben­e­fit-to-cost ra­tio, where ev­ery dol­lar spent to im­prove traf­fic lights saved mo­torists $32 in time and fuel. De­spite this suc­cess, the pro­gram was dis­con­tin­ued for lack of fund­ing.

Clearly, bet­ter man­age­ment of our traf­fic lights im­proves mo­bil­ity and re­duces con­ges­tion while al­low­ing for bet­ter use of ex­ist­ing roads. Un­for­tu­nately, the tenor of to­day’s trans­porta­tion pol­icy de­bate cen­ters on the need to build — and pay for — more roads to meet Texas’ fu­ture trans­porta­tion needs. Cer­tainly, ab­sent an un­fore­seen revo­lu­tion in ev­ery­day com­mut­ing, we will need more roads.

Build­ing roads is ex­pen­sive, how­ever. The Texas Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion es­ti­mates that con­vert­ing an ur­ban non-free­way to a free­way costs $8.5 mil­lion per lane mile, while widen­ing an ex­ist­ing ur­ban free­way costs be­tween $7.9 mil­lion to $11 mil­lion per mile. Ex­pand­ing a ru­ral road­way from two to four lanes costs $1.2 mil­lion per mile. Mul­ti­ply these fig­ures against hun­dreds of miles of needed roads, and the fi­nal price tag is stag­ger­ing.

Ex­pand­ing our pol­icy fo­cus to in­clude im­prov­ing traf­fic light sig­nal­iza­tion and man­age­ment — as the House Trans­porta­tion Com­mit­tee has done un­der the lead­er­ship of Chair­man Joe Pick­ett, D-El Paso — shifts the dis­cus­sion from pay­ing for more roads to mak­ing more ef­fi­cient those that tax­pay­ers al­ready paid for. So­lu­tions do ex­ist: in­stalling smart light sys­tems or ex­pand­ing the corps of spe­cial­ists with the ex­per­tise and know-how to best man­age traf­fic sig­nal sys­tem. Other so­lu­tions might be more low-tech, such as us­ing blink­ing yel­low lights on some streets dur­ing off-peak pe­ri­ods or us­ing sig­nage to al­low traf­fic to move more freely.

Bet­ter traf­fic sig­nal man­age­ment will not be a panacea. Rather, it is a so­lu­tion that im­proves mo­bil­ity while sav­ing mo­torists’ time and re­duc­ing fuel con­sump­tion and emis­sions. All of this comes cheaper than build­ing road­way.

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