The crawl up Charles and the slog back down St. Paul could become a little more bearable thanks to a new high-tech traffic management center that will give Baltimore greater control over its stoplights.
About 1,000 of the city's 1,300 signals are already linked to the center, where operators monitor busy intersections, adjust the timing of lights to move traffic around accidents or events, and reset faulty signals.
Formally opening the $2.9 million facility yesterday, Mayor Sheila Dixon said the primary goal is to make it easier to get through the city, but less idle time in vehicles also means less money wasted on gas and less pollution in the air.
"When I have meetings with businesses ... you would think they would talk about high taxes and a whole host of issues," Dixon said. "But you know what the No. 1 issue they talk about is? It's synchronizing the lights."
Baltimore has been updating its signaling system - last overhauled in the 1970s - for years. In 2006, the city switched to LED bulbs, which last longer and use less electricity than traditional bulbs. Five years ago, the city began replacing signal controllers at every intersection.
The effort, officials said, has cut commute times for roughly 250,000 drivers who use one of the city's major thoroughfares every weekday.
"What this is about is making our city more livable," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who helped secure $2.3 million in federal funding for the project. "This will save gas, but the more important thing is it'll bring a quality of life."
Baltimore's system is not as advanced as those in some other cities, but officials said they are laying the groundwork for a center that will monitor pavement temperatures in the winter-the better to predict icy conditions - provide real-time traffic flow measurements and automated alerts to the public when traffic backs up.
Phil Tarnoff, director of the Center for Advanced Transportation Technology at the University of Maryland, said the key to making the systems effective is keeping them well staffed and having plans to change traffic patterns in advance of an emergency.
"Where the benefits of a computerized system are, if there's construction or an incident - bad weather or snow - where there's need to override those plans, then the computer does play a significant role," he said. "Baltimore has come a long way in a fairly short period of time."
Tarnoff said that midsize cities - such as Seattle and Austin, Texas - have been able to develop more sophisticated synchronization systems than larger cities because the infrastructure investment required in urban centers such as New York and Los Angeles would be so huge. Seattle, for instance, uses its system to offer signal priority for buses, he said.
A half-dozen city employees worked under a large map of Baltimore projected on four television screens, where every signal was plotted in red and green. Cameras showed live images from more than a dozen busy intersections, including Howard Street at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Lombard at President streets.
At Baltimore's traffic center - which will be staffed 24 hours a day, Dixon said - operators will be able to override pre-programmed signal schedules to manage traffic around accidents or during Orioles and Ravens games. Later, the city hopes to be able to monitor 125 intersections by camera and have more direct control over signals.
The site will also be the city's emergency operations center, which is most frequently used during major snowstorms.
"As we've gotten more used to crime being down in downtown and being cleaner, the downtown community has been concerned about just being able to move around a little bit," said J. Kirby Fowler Jr., president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. "One way that this project will help more than anything is to get out information."
Leaders who toured the site, in the 400 block of N. Calvert St., brought personal complaints to the meeting. Cummings jested that the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and Presstman Street causes his stomach to turn every day. When an operator pulled the intersection up on the screen, she discovered that the central computer was not communicating with the light.
Alfred H. Foxx, director of the city's transportation department, said maintaining the signal infrastructure will be key for managing traffic as the city and region continue to grow, bringing even more congestion to Baltimore's clogged streets.
"The longer you sit in one place, you're idling, you're spending money wasting gas and you're polluting the atmosphere," Foxx said. "This is the start to helping us manage that traffic."