Raleigh to finish synchronizing stoplights by end of year

ccampbell@newsobserver.comJanuary 7, 2014 

— City traffic engineers are nearing the finish line on a $28 million solution to drivers’ most frustrating scenario: hitting every red light on a single stretch of roadway.

By the end of the year, Raleigh will have synchronized traffic lights on dozens of its busiest roads, speeding commutes and saving time and money. Drive times have already been cut on streets such as Capital Boulevard, where commuters can sail through multiple green lights in a row.

So far, the effort has saved drivers an estimated $22 million per year – and the project isn’t done yet. “The return on investment has been huge so far,” senior transportation engineer Jed Niffenegger said.

The busy stretch of Capital Boulevard in the Mini City area sees about 50,000 cars a day. The traffic lights there were synchronized last July, speeding up commutes by an average of 45 seconds on the three-mile stretch, or about 13 percent less time than a rush-hour trip used to require.

That’s saved drivers a total of $58,000 of gas money over the following four months. Add in a dollar value representing the time saved, and city officials estimate the annual savings from the fix at $2.4 million.

Among the other roads that got speedier in 2013 include Wake Forest Road from Millbrook to Whitaker Mill, the south end of Atlantic Avenue, Six Forks Road around North Hills and North Raleigh Boulevard.

Plenty of streets remain on the city’s to-do list before the project wraps up at the end of this year, among them U.S. 401 south from Chapanoke Road, New Bern Avenue east of WakeMed and multiple sections of Glenwood Avenue.

The new system does have its limitations, though. Don’t expect an uninterrupted trek on Capital from downtown to Wake Forest. Capital Boulevard and other lengthy thoroughfares are broken into sections, so the entire road isn’t on the same traffic light pattern.

“If you do a very long stretch, it becomes very difficult to do,” Niffenegger explained, adding that engineers have to balance the needs of secondary streets so they don’t experience an endless red light.

The revamped traffic lights are connected to each other and to the city’s traffic monitoring system downtown by a network of fiberoptic cables. In the basement of Raleigh City Hall, five staffers monitor more than 200 traffic cameras throughout the city to identify any major backups. When major roads bottleneck, the staffers can adjust the light cycles to help clear up jams.

Those tweaks – which likely go unnoticed by most drivers – reduce commute times and improve safety. Niggenegger said the monitors pay close attention to freeway exit ramps that could back up into speeding traffic and cause accidents.

All of these resources will come in handy as the rebuild of Interstates 40 and 440 kicks into high gear this year, likely shifting traffic onto city streets.

“The side streets like Tryon Road will be utilized in lieu of (I)-40,” Niffenegger predicted, adding that stoplights will get adjusted to make the detours work better.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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