May 23, 2007 at 10:54 pm

Changing of the lights
There is no hum of advanced computer gear in the small, cooled office that houses — in an armoire no bigger than what you might find in your grandparents’ living room — the racks of equipment responsible for the timing, operation and remote maintenance of every traffic light in the urban services district, or the “Old City.”
There are no clicks, like what you might’ve heard while waiting for a 1990-era light to crank through its cycle and allow you to cross on red. There is no wall décor, aside from the blue-and-gold fleur-de-lis wallpaper, which is not the city’s official insignia but resembles it.

What I figured would be an intricate and complex system doesn’t look any more complicated than the customer service kiosk at Circuit City.
It is, of course.

I am here talking with the three-person staff that maintains close to 300 of the 640 traffic signals in Metro Louisville, the ones that are not owned and operated by the state Department of Transportation. Hal Heiner, Republican Metro Councilman from the 19th District and chair of the Transportation Committee, is a major reason we’ve gathered: For a while now, Heiner has pushed for the expansion of the traffic light control system that now works for downtown and its immediate environs into the “Old County.”

The Council supports it in theory, and a couple weeks back authorized $100,000 for a pilot project that would initiate a high-tech, wireless system on Dixie Highway, a model for the rest of the ’burbs.

Every six months to a year, these three people study and retime lights, trying to keep up with ever-changing traffic patterns. More people are coming from the East toward downtown now, for instance, and accommodations have been made on Bardstown Road. Each major intersection has four to five working daily plans — rush hour, late night, and so on. Each is capable of holding up to 16. And while there aren’t specific plans in place for major emergencies, the whole system could be changed within minutes if such a thing was necessary. As well, there are 69 traffic cameras mounted throughout the Metro — the city owns and monitors six, and TRIMARC (a local, state and federal traffic collective) has the other 63 — allowing a closer watch. Monday, for instance, we watched as a car wandered the wrong way down a one-way street. Damn.

A large-scale expansion would require a number of things that cost money that the city doesn’t presently have. Alternately, it would please a lot of people who currently aren’t that pleased with crazy congestion on Hurstbourne Parkway, for instance, or Dixie Highway.

The benefits of a well-synched traffic light system are multitudinous and, for the most part, obvious. Pat Johnson, senior traffic engineer for Metro government, said they estimated drivers saved something like $10 million in the year following the last major shakeup of the light system. It sucks to wait in traffic, to be sure, but the benefits of keeping cars moving along extend naturally into the environmental arena — less idling, less exhaust — and the general mental health field as well.

As with most things, the cost of such an expansion is getting in the way. It would run somewhere between $8 million and $10 million, the aforementioned study says, to extend the traffic light operation into the Old County. This would be done wirelessly, as the hard-wired system in place is just about maxed out as it is. Johnson assured the Council committee that security was not an issue with a wireless system, offering a 99.999 percent reliability rating.

Money is available at the federal level, pass-through Congestion Mitigation Air Quality (CMAQ) funding, which both Louisville and Lexington have gotten before for road projects. Heiner told me Kentucky has only spent about half its CMAQ money this year, and he hopes some of the leftover can be used for this project. Ultimately, though, the first step is negotiating a city takeover of the state-owned system in the Old County, which Heiner and other city officials have been angling toward since merger.
Cross your fingers.

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