The chairman of a City Council task force examining Tulsa's traffic light synchronization program hopes to figure out by Oct. 1 how much money is needed to step up implementation of the program.
After that, he plans to go fight for that money.
District 8 Councilor Bill Christiansen has become a recent evangelist for the benefits of traffic light synchronization, explaining that his preferred north-south route through south Tulsa is now Memorial Road, which has synchronized lights between 71st Street and 101st Street, allowing him to traverse that route without hitting a red light. Most of downtown's traffic signals -- 89 of 97 -- are synchronized, as are the lights on 71st Street from Memorial to Garnett and 21st Street from Utica to Lewis.
Christiansen hopes for a day when the same is true of every traffic light in the city, all 565 of them.
"They used to call Tulsa 'the 20-minute city,'" he said, noting that, not too long ago, it was possible to get anywhere in town in that time frame. Those days are long gone, he acknowledged, although he sees the expansion of the traffic light synchronization program as perhaps the best solution to fighting Tulsa's traffic problems.
"It's a good stop-gap measure until we have all the money we need to widen roads," he said.
Traffic synchronization is nothing new in Tulsa. The program has been around since 2001, when the decision was made to develop coordinated systems. Work has been ongoing since then, and the goal of Christiansen's task force is to grease the skids.
"It's to speed up the process by getting synchronization citywide much quicker than would occur if we didn't have the task force," he said. "It's an educational process the council has to go through to see the real benefits and lock down the exact cost, the dollars we need to speed the program up."
Kurt Kraft, the city's traffic operations planning manager who has been overseeing the program, said that prior to 2001, downtown had its own centralized traffic system that controlled systems inside the Inner Dispersal Loop. City officials decided at that point they wanted to extend the system to the rest of the city.
Kraft said there are two different architectures for such systems, called 170s and NEMAs, explaining that it helps to think of the two systems the way computer users think of the differences between personal computers and Macs. The system inside the IDL was based on 170s, while the system throughout the rest of the city was based on NEMAs. The two systems do the same things, he said, but, unfortunately, they don't interface.
So a big part of the problem in implementing the system citywide is working around those technological differences, he said. And thanks to solutions pioneered by traffic engineers in New York and California, there is now a way to run a 170 controller inside a NEMA cabinet -- the silver utility box found on the corner of every intersection. Kraft said the cabinets cost about $20,000 each and are too expensive simply to replace.
There are other technological challenges, as well, he said, mostly associated with allowing the signals to communicate with each other, as well as the central computer at City Hall. A fiber-optics system connects the central computer system with every city building throughout the city, and Kraft said if his department can put an antenna on each of those buildings, it can use that to communicate with each nearby intersection, where transmitters are positioned.
"That's what we've been building since 2001," he said.
Why go to so much trouble?
The benefits of synchronized traffic lights extend far beyond simple convenience, both Kraft and Christiansen said. In addition to cutting down on travel times and frustration, the systems save motorists fuel costs, reduce congestion, reduce automobile emissions and improve safety. Synchronized signals encourage motorists not to speed, since traffic lights are programmed to turn green at preset intervals based on the speed limit.
"You know you don't have to accelerate real fast," Christiansen said. "You're not going to get there any quicker."
There is evidence to support the theory that when motorists spend less time idling at an intersection, it saves considerable wear and tear on the pavement, Kraft said, noting that the weight of cars braking for and stopping at a red light contributes to the washboard effect. He also said that as Tulsa continues to struggle to meet the Environmental Protection Agency's clear-air standards, traffic light synchronization will become more important.
"Cars pollute more when they're sitting there idling," he said.
Already, Early Benefits of PlaniTulsa
City planner Theron Warlick is another supporter of the program, pointing out it was one of the recommendations that emerged from the recent PLANiTULSA process for updating the city's comprehensive plan. He pointed out that the estimated cost per intersection for implementing traffic synchronization is about $70,000 -- not much when you compare that to the estimated $5 million to $10 million it costs to widen an intersection to accommodate more traffic.
He cited a synchronization project in Los Angeles, Calif., that was completed in 1995 that reduced travel times by as much as 24 to 29 percent, saving motorists hundreds of millions of dollars per year in vehicle costs.
"For an outlay so small, the benefits are so big," he said. "Some people would argue that the timing is finally here for this. And PLANiTULSA really helped raise the awareness of that."
Kraft said his crew soon will begin work on bringing the Yale Ave. corridor online from 15th Street to 71st Street, then begin the process of developing the timing plans for those intersections.
"Beyond that, there are several other corridors we'll be working on, including Sheridan, Harvard, Riverside and 41st Street near Promenade Mall," he said. "We're trying to hit all the major corridors."
As it stands now, it will take many years to incorporate every traffic signal in the city into the program, Christiansen said. That's because the city's Public Works Department lacks the staff to perform the time-consuming work more quickly. According to a city handout, the program is being worked on only by a handful of employees.
In the communications, design, analysis, implementation and maintenance area, the program has one part-time engineer and one technician. In signal timing and development, there are two engineers, both part time. In data collection, there is one collector, also part time.
Christiansen hopes to change that. His task force has met three times already, he said, and has been told by Public Works officials that the hiring of three more employees would give the department the manpower it needs to finish the first phase of the program within 24 months. He hopes to have an answer soon in regard to how much that additional manpower would cost.
The estimated total for completing the synchronization of all signals citywide is a little more than $2.3 million, and there is already a fair amount of money set aside for the program -- $1.4 million in 2006 third penny sales tax funds and $290,000 in funding from federal sources. The problem, as Christiansen said, is that those funds can only be used to purchase equipment or hire consultants, not to hire more city staff members. So the resulting funding gap of more than $700,000 is actually a little misleading, he acknowledged.
"We're really looking at other outside sources to do this," Christiansen said. "What will come out of this task force by Oct. 1 is a dollar amount to continue the first phase of synchronization, and the idea is to include this in the council's compendium of needs, then incorporate it into next year's budget."
Christiansen already is seeking help from Congress for the program, and he said a representative of the Indian Nations Council of Governments (INCOG)is expected to appear before the task force at its next meeting on Sept. 14 to talk about federal grants that might be available.
At that meeting, Public Works officials also are expected to unveil a map of the project's second phase, he said.
"There's got to be something in it for all of Tulsa," he said. "Right now, we're doing it by the main arterials, mainly from downtown south. But everybody's got to feel like they're going to benefit."
Christiansen said his job will be to sell the rest of the council on the need to come up with extra money for the program, then convince Mayor Dewey Bartett Jr. of its worthiness, as well. He says he knows that won't be easy.
"The reality is, I have to be able to make a presentation to the other councilors, each of whom is concerned about other things that are a priority -- pay raises, furloughs and other things that have been cut," he said.
The success of his sales job, he said, likely will come down to what the next three or four months bring in terms of the city's sales tax receipts.
"If we continue to have a surplus over the budgeted amount, over what we estimated, I think I'll have a better chance of success," he said. "In all candidness, I think I can gain the support of the councilors. My real job will be to sell the program to the mayor. He's been reluctant to spend any excess money because of a fear for the future, and I can't fault him for that. But there's never a good time to do something like this."
Kraft declined to make any estimates about when the various phases of the program will be done. But he said a little extra manpower will make a significant difference.
"It'll be real slow if we don't' get anybody else," he said. "It'll get done much faster with a couple more people."
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