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Synchronized signals would help traffic flow on Mid-Cities corridor

Driving the Mid-Cities Boulevard corridor is a true test of patience.

Between Saginaw and Dallas/Fort Worth Airport there are at least 32 street corners with traffic signals and, during a typical morning or afternoon drive, motorists must stop at nearly all of them.

The road -- also known as Western Center Boulevard, Watauga Road and Cheek-Sparger Road -- passes through or skirts nine cities along a 16-mile route. The signals aren't synchronized, and a recent Star-Telegram experiment concluded that the average speed was below 23 mph.

"It takes like 20 to 30 minutes longer to get somewhere," said Raymundo Escamilla of Haltom City, who takes the road each day to a job at Liberty Tax Service. Escamilla, who on a recent morning was outside the store dressed in a Statue of Liberty costume to lure customers inside, also uses the road for personal trips because he says it feels safer than nearby Loop 820.

If only the cities along the Mid-Cities corridor would work together and retime the signals. The technology exists, and although the equipment wouldn't be cheap, taxpayers wasting hours per year stuck in traffic might view it as a sound investment.

But many cities throughout Dallas-Fort Worth aren't willing to cede control of their traffic signals to other cities or perhaps to a regionwide entity that could keep a big-picture eye on traffic as it moves from one city to another.

"The software allows that capability, but obviously the cities have to be comfortable with it," said Natalie Bettger, who oversees a traffic signal program at the North Central Texas Council of Governments. Her agency is striving to keep cities talking about ways to improve traffic flow.

To ease cities into a more coordinated effort, the council of governments plans to begin work this summer on a "plug-in system" that would allow 17 participating cities plus Denton County to connect their respective traffic centers digitally. Each city would still control its own signals but would be able to view what other cities were doing, she said.

Zipping into the future

The day will soon arrive, they say, when artificial intelligence -- under the guiding gaze of humans -- controls virtually all traffic flow on North Texas highways and city streets. And, despite the lack of a regionwide system, some cities are investing in traffic signal technology.

Among them is Fort Worth, where $6.5 million has been spent renovating the old "zipper building" on downtown's south end into a high-tech traffic management center. (A former Williamson-Dickie factory, it is known for its giant zipper mural facing Lancaster Avenue.) Most of the money was spent on emergency operations, but about $600,000 was spent on computers and new cameras to watch traffic downtown.

From that building Marisa Conlin, a traffic signal projects manager, works from a windowless room where she enjoys a unique view of Fort Worth's traffic landscape. Conlin's job is to keep an eye on downtown traffic by watching live video footage from cameras mounted on buildings. When she sees a traffic jam forming, she can change red lights to green with a few computer keystrokes.

Fort Worth can remotely control about 170 of its roughly 740 signalized intersections using cellular technology and underground cables -- the rest must be retimed on-site. But armed with a $2 million federal grant, Fort Worth officials plan to add remote controls to about 100 additional traffic signals each year, so that within about five years the entire city will be covered.

In Grapevine, a $2.1 million adaptive traffic light system was installed to improve flow on thoroughfares -- an initiative considered vital during the reconstruction of the Texas 114/121 corridor as part of the $1 billion DFW Connector project. The city installed cameras and wireless connections that allow remote retiming of several dozen intersections along busy streets such as Dove Road, Texan Trail and Texas 26.

The average number of stops that vehicles make at street corners was cut nearly in half along some corridors, officials told the Grapevine City Council, based on an initial study of the improvements.

North Richland Hills officials are synchronizing Mid-Cities Boulevard, Rufe Snow Drive and Davis Boulevard, but only within the city limits, Mayor Oscar Trevino said. Many smaller cities can't afford synchronization equipment. Some rely upon the state Transportation Department to run their signals.

Highways

At the department's TransVision headquarters at Interstate 20 and McCart Avenue in south Fort Worth, officials use hundreds of traffic cameras to monitor congestion on DFW highways. Employees monitor that video footage and keep motorists updated on traffic trouble spots by posting messages on dozens of electronic message signs.

While the TransVision system usually doesn't aim its cameras at city streets, it did help get the word out about a problem in Fort Worth in July when a police officer was shot at a barbecue restaurant on East Berry Street. TransVision officials aimed a camera on nearby Interstate 35W down East Berry, saw that the road was closed off and posted an electronic message to motorists to avoid the area.

But much work remains.

In Fort Worth, manpower is still an issue. The city's center hops with activity when there's a special event -- a winter storm, a major sporting competition or, more recently, a visit by first lady Michelle Obama -- but the expensive equipment goes unused on a normal day. "We don't have the staff for it," said Russell Wiles, Fort Worth intelligent transportation system manager.

Investing in "intelligent transportation" also isn't cheap, but in many cases it's less expensive -- and more efficient -- than trying to add a lane. "If you can't build extra lanes, the existing capacity is going to have to be maximized," said Jimmey Bodiford, director of transportation operations for the Transportation Department's Fort Worth district. "You have to make better use out of what you've got."

In Los Angeles, one of the world's most advanced traffic systems tracks data from 400 video cameras, 3,100 traffic signals and 18,000 sensors. There, the technology is under one roof. The machines, and the several dozen employees at the helm, make often-subtle timing adjustments throughout the day to keep everyone moving. By some estimates, drivers now make up to 30 percent less stops on city streets.

In North Texas, council of governments officials hope that more sharing among cities of information about traffic signal timing leads to a more regional approach. The day may come, Bettger said, when cities do cede some control of their own traffic signals in favor of a multicity system, much like some cities today share police and fire services.

One idea, she said, would be for neighboring cities to watch one another's traffic signals in shifts, which would save on labor costs.

1 route, 2 trips

Only a fraction of the roughly 5,500 street corners with traffic signals in DFW are synchronized between cities.

The Star-Telegram's recent experiment on Mid-Cities Boulevard, while not scientific, shows that if signals were timed so motorists made fewer stops, the corridor could get people from one end to the other in roughly the same times it takes on freeways such as Loop 820 and Texas 121/183.

Avoiding rush hours, the Star-Telegram began at 7:32 p.m. on a Tuesday traveling east 16.3 miles between Farm Road 156 in Saginaw and Texas 360 in Euless. The trip was measured with a global positioning application on a smartphone. The idea was to get a sample of how quickly a trip could be made in the corridor with less congestion on the road.

Traffic was so smooth that most signals remained green during the journey, and those that were red quickly changed. In all, it took 34 minutes, 55 seconds at an average speed of 28 mph including stops -- comparable to the rate traffic moves on Northeast Loop 820 and Texas 121/183 between Saginaw and DFW Airport during peak periods.

The speed limit is 40 mph for most of the Mid-Cities corridor -- and as low as 30 mph in at least one spot -- but it was a relaxing trip, and the vehicle moved most of the time. At one point, the vehicle reached 48 mph, according to a record kept by a smartphone app using global-positioning system data.

A vehicle driven on the same route beginning at 4:47 p.m. on a Wednesday stopped at nearly every signal.

The second trip took 43 minutes, 10 seconds and averaged 22.8 mph.

Officials from several cities and agencies said there haven't been serious discussions about synchronizing signals along the route.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson

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