When the traffic lights are working, commuters like Melissa Hardesty of Rockville say they rarely take notice. When the lights don’t, commuters definitely take heed.
During the week after the June 29 storm that left thousands without power across Montgomery County, Hardesty said her commute from her Rockville home to her office in Greenbelt doubled because of how many traffic lights were out of order because of lingering outages.
“Traffic just piled up at [intersections] that went dark,” she said. “There were places where everything just stopped.”
For an area dubbed as having “the most congested roads in the nation,” by the Texas Transportation Institute, backups at lights are an unwelcomed sight.
Last June, when more than 200 traffic lights fell out of synchronization during morning rush hour because of a malfunction to the central computer that controls the county’s 800 signals, officials decided these lights should not be part of the problem.
So for the past year, Montgomery County’s Department of Transportation has been working to overhaul its aging traffic control signal system, originally built in 1980. The new system, traffic control experts at MDOT say, isn’t going to make a noticeable impact on the average daily commutes, but it should ensure some of those major delays don’t come up again.
“Traffic signals usually can’t solve congestion; a traffic signal can add to congestion,” said Emil Wolanin, chief of the county’s Division of Traffic Engineering & Operations.
The $25.1 million new system aims to decentralize traffic control, Wolanin said. This year, the county replaced the old central computer system, known as COMTRAC, with a new one, called i2. During the next three years, the county expects to spend an additional $10.8 million to finish the overhaul.
The new system will not allow county roads to handle more traffic, Wolanin said, but it will allow traffic engineers to handle the existing traffic more intelligently. The new system also will include battery backups for all 250 county-owned traffic signals to help stymie added congestion because of power failures.
Previously, engineers at the Traffic Management Center in Gaithersburg were managing traffic by adjusting the timing at intersections based on traffic reports and an analysis of area roadways, Wolanin said. The new system eventually will have the capability to utilize sensors placed at the intersections and along the roadways to automatically assist with those adjustments, allowing traffic signals to adjust themselves.
During the next six years the county expects to spend more than $1 billion on transportation projects. Still, the congestion in Montgomery is not expected to improve.
In a news release, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who pushed to have the project fast-tracked after last June’s signal disruption, said without these upgrades, congestion could get worse around the county.
“The new system is an essential part of the county’s transportation network ... ,” he said.