The pace of traffic synchronization work in Tulsa could increase substantially in the new year, with the city now poised to add two new engineers to the program, which has been around since 2001.
As chairman of a task force charged with determining what the traffic synchronization program needed in order to make more progress, District 8 City Councilor Bill Christiansen has been advocating for months for the addition of the two engineers. The council passed a resolution in favor of that action in late October, and Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. signed off on the measure in early November, temporarily lifting a hiring freeze for city employees to accommodate the addition of the two employees.
Christiansen said the city's Public Works Department is now advertising the two positions, and he hopes to see both jobs filled shortly.
"It'll be really great," Christiansen said of the addition of the two engineers, which will come at a cost of approximately $160,000 for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends June 30. "I'm really looking forward to seeing what they can do. I'm thankful to the mayor for agreeing to do it, and I had the full support of the other eight councilors."
Christiansen said in September his task force was told by Public Works officials that the addition of three more engineers would give the department the manpower it needed to complete phase one of the citywide traffic synchronization program within 24 months. Only two additional engineers will be hired instead of three, but Christiansen didn't consider that a setback.
The District 8 councilor isn't the only city official who is a big believer in the program. Kurt Kraft, the city's traffic operations planning manager who oversees the program, and Theron Warlick, a city planner who was heavily involved in the city's recent comprehensive plan update, have cited numerous advantages to traffic synchronization, not the least of which is that it allows existing streets to be more efficient and handle an increased traffic volume.
Proponents of the program argue it also cuts down on traffic times and motorist frustration, fuel costs, congestion and automobile emissions while improving safety. Synchronized systems encourage motorists not to speed, since traffic lights are programmed to turn green at preset intervals based on the speed limit.
Kraft also has said there is evidence that when a motorist spends less time idling at an intersection, it saves considerable wear and tear on the pavement. And as Tulsa continues to struggle to meet federal clean air standards, traffic light synchronization will become increasingly important.
Some parts of the city already have benefited from the program, including most of downtown, Memorial Road between 71st Street and 101st Street, 71st Street from Memorial to Garnett, and 21st Street from Utica to Lewis.
But Tulsa has a total of 565 traffic signals, and the city has a long way to go before all of them are part of the system. Kraft has said the signals must be able to communicate with each other, as well as with a central computer at City Hall.
City officials have estimated the cost of implementing traffic synchronization citywide at $2.3 million, though a sizable chunk of that already is on hand -- $1.4 million in 2006 third penny sales tax money and $290,000 in funding from federal sources. But Christiansen has pointed out those funds can only be used to purchase equipment or hire consultants, not to hire more city staff members.
The program currently includes only a handful of city employees. In the communications, design, analysis, implementation and maintenance area, there is 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. That makes for a total manpower commitment of three full-time positions.
So the addition of the two new full-time engineers will provide the program with a significant boost. The $160,000 that will be used to hire them for the rest of the fiscal year will come from savings in the Public Works budget, city officials have said.
Christiansen acknowledged a lot of work remains to be done, but he believes the program will be completed much more quickly with the additional manpower. He hopes it's not too much longer before drivers all over the city experience its benefits.
"It'll make Tulsa a more drivable city," he said. "I'm a happy camper, as will be the citizens when the first phase in completed in south Tulsa."
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