State earns barely passing grade for lights in national traffic signal survey

Drivers to see upgrades in system within a year

April 22, 2005|By William Wan and Doug Donovan | William Wan and Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Stuck in traffic with her foot seemingly glued to her car's brake pedal, Bililynn Savage muttered, "Another day, another headache."

In front of her along Lombard Street, yesterday's evening rush was a sea of brake lights as drivers honked, yelled and inched their way homeward. On days like this, when she hits every red light, said the 47-year-old, she glares suspiciously at the city's traffic lights and wonders aloud if they are conspiring against her.

According to a national study on traffic signals, she may be not far off.

The results, released this week, support what Savage and other frustrated commuters have long felt: Red lights are too long, green lights too short - and they never seem to work together.

Along with the study, the National Transportation Operations Coalition issued a "report card" based on a sampling of the nation's estimated 265,000 traffic lights.

The average grade nationwide was not the kind that a traffic engineer's mom would put on the refrigerator door.

The survey was based on information from 378 government agencies, which together control about a third of the nation's traffic lights. The result: an average grade of D-minus.

Maryland's Department of Transportation, which was included in the study, earned a slightly higher D-plus.

The conclusion, the authors say, is that state and local governments could create shorter commutes, lessen road rage incidents, have better air quality and reduce fuel consumption if they allocate more money and resources to their traffic systems.

The Lombard Street scene notwithstanding, that's what Baltimore is doing, according to city transportation officials.

The city was not individually graded in the survey but has been implementing the commute-improvement technology endorsed in the study.

The city is less than 12 months away from finishing a three-year, $21 million project to build a new centralized timing system that will control its 1,300 traffic signals, said David Brown, a spokesman for the city's Department of Transportation.

"When we're complete we'll have one of the most advanced traffic management systems in the nation," he said. "Baltimore is a trailblazer."

Already, new control boxes have been installed at more than 500 signals.

But tell that to the drivers.

"Improvements? Not on any of the streets I drive on," said Julie Stewart, 31, as she got into her blue-green Saturn on President Street and braced for her drive home to White Marsh.

Hardened by years of that commute, Stewart said it would take a miracle to fix Baltimore's traffic problems.

"I try not to get mad. I try to be safe, but it's a nightmare," she said.

Upgrading system

But city officials insist that change is coming. Future upgrades will include a central traffic center on Calvert Street to control all of the city's signals. Using surveillance cameras, traffic planners will be able to monitor 12 targeted intersections.

In addition, the transportation department's project includes a new timing study that planners hope will change the computerized phases controlling Baltimore intersections.

For example, at Harford Road and 25th Street, a new northbound left-turn phase was recently added to the light sequence, said Frank Murphy, acting city traffic chief.

Such changes are much needed, officials said. Timing patterns and phases throughout the city have been unexamined for so many years that neither Brown nor Murphy could recall the last such survey.

Savage says she has conducted timing studies of her own - based on the upbeat Mexican love ballads she plays to mellow her daily drives. Sometimes entire two- or three-minute songs end before red turns to green, she said.

Some commuters, like Stewart, blame city officials and planners for traffic woes.


But the new report, while harsh in its grading, cites lack of funding, not incompetent planners, as the main source of America's traffic problems.

The study estimates that almost $1 billion per year would be needed to get the most efficient use out of traffic signal systems.

With the current lack of funding, agencies are forced into a system of "fighting fires on a daily basis," the report states.

"The nation's professionals are doing the best they can with the resources they have," the report says.

Researchers conducted the study using a self-evaluation survey they created with the help of other agencies including the Federal Highway Administration, Institute of Transportation Engineers and American Public Works Association.

"The survey was a good exercise for the country to go through," said Thomas Hicks, director of the Office of Traffic and Safety for Maryland's State Highway Administration, because problems will only worsen as traffic increases.

The report found that between 1980 and 1998, roadway capacity increased by 1 percent while the amount of travel grew by 72 percent.

Terry McCormack, 55, an Ellicott City resident who drives downtown frequently, said the study tells Baltimore drivers nothing they don't already know.

"Everyone knows the downtown traffic is terrible," he said with a sigh. "You learn to just grin and bear it."

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