Synchronized signals keep Tyler’s traffic moving

photo by Victor Texcucano This long exposure photograph shows the light trails left by vehicles driving north and south on Broadway Ave. in downtown Tyler, Texas Monday night.

Tylerite Cindy Ruescher dislikes navigating Tyler's streets daily, frustrated with the timing of the traffic signals.

Traffic backs up on South Broadway Avenue, making it tough to turn in to the parking lot of her employer, The Dollar Tree, Ms. Ruescher said.

"I can't turn right on red to South Broadway (Avenue) (from West Grande Boulevard) when I am behind a car going straight," she said.

The problem worsens where Robert E. Lee Drive intersects with South Broadway Avenue and traffic on both streets tries to merge, Ms. Ruescher said.

East Loop 323 near Texas Highway 31 presents trouble as well, she said.

"If you go four to five miles over the speed limit, you can hit all the green lights," she said. The posted speed limit on the East Loop is 55 mph, but traveling at that speed means hitting a series of red lights, she said.

However, the city of Tyler has not turned a blind eye to motorists' patterns and already has begun steps to detangle the traffic.

Some 97 percent of Tyler residents surveyed in July 2012 as a part of the Tyler 1st Comprehensive plan indicated that traffic congestion is "somewhat important or very important" to them. The plan, launched in 2007 and reviewed every five years, addresses issues such as downtown revitalization, historic preservation, parks and recreation, transportation and housing.

City officials have responded by helping to keep traffic moving, particularly on Loop 323, with the use of "adaptive control" signals, which respond to traffic patterns by changing lights to keep traffic flowing, City Engineer Peter Eng said last week. Those lights were first synchronized in early 2012, he said.

"The system collects data and adjusts itself to maximize efficiency — major arterial preference is given to the loop," Eng said, adding that Tyler has 150 traffic signals, and one-third of those are on the adaptive control system.

"We try to address stoppage on the loop and minimize it — signals are timed so that people may travel at the prevailing speed on the loop at certain times of the day," he said. Three of those systems are on Loop 323, and a fourth is on South Broadway Avenue at the loop.

Eng said in April that the intersection of Loop 323 and South Broadway Avenue is Tyler's busiest, with traffic here increasing 73 percent since 1975. In 1975, slightly more than 38,000 vehicles passed through that intersection on a daily basis. By 2010, 67,500 vehicles came through daily, Eng said. The western portion of the loop carries about 40,000 vehicles daily, he said.

Assistant City Manager Susan Guthrie, who lives near South Broadway Avenue and Loop 323, said she has noticed a difference in how well the traffic flows there.

"My commute is quicker now than it was five years ago," she said, adding that it is highly unusual for her to sit through more than one traffic light.

Because the loop is a truck route, it is particularly important to minimize truck stoppage for safety reasons, Eng said.

"Trucks are hard to start and stop, which leads to more pollution and wear and tear on pavement because trucks use up much more energy," he said. They're even tougher to stop when fully loaded, he said.

The Loop's signals adjust for times when traffic is not as busy.

"Our signal timing at rush hour is very different when compared to Sunday morning," Eng said. A new adaptive system came online last week, which will keep travel flowing in front of the hospitals on Beckham Street. The signals are now synchronized on Beckham Street inside the Loop from Houston Street to Troup Highway inside of Loop 323, Eng said.

Sydney Sewell, 22, who lives in the Cascades and frequently drives on the west portion of the Loop, said she alternately hits red and green lights. And the blinking yellow left-turn arrows continue to blink even if no one is in the left turn lane at night, Ms. Sewell said.

"Traffic has not gotten any better — it's gotten worse," she said. One of the main reasons for that is due to city growth, Ms. Sewell said. "The population in Tyler is growing so fast, and it has outgrown the type of traffic system set-up we have here."

Although Tyler's population is about 100,000, it swells to almost twice that during a typical weekday, Ms. Guthrie said. "On any given day, our population goes up to 200,000 or 300,000 people," she said. Tyler, she said, is a regional hub, where people come to shop, work and get medical care.

"It's a positive thing to see vehicles on our street supporting our economy — as you can see, we are a go-to community," Ms. Guthrie said. She said Tyler was the state's first city to implement the yellow arrow system. Flashing yellow arrows have since popped up in San Antonio and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Ms. Guthrie said.

Eng said, "Because we have no freeways, our signals at our intersections are important to us," Eng said. There are no plans for the city to create an elevated road system or a freeway because "we would lose our small-town feel," he said. The city has added more east-west roads in the past 5 1/2 years, such as the Earl Campbell Parkway and Toll 49, which have eased congestion, he said.

Signals on side streets are not synchronized or connected to an adaptive control system like the others on the Loop and Beckham Street, Eng said. Video detectors sit atop side-street signals and feed information into a computer, which changes the light if a vehicle is there. If no vehicle is waiting, there is no reason to stop side street traffic, Eng said. That technology has been in place for more than 20 years, he said.

There are isolated signals in the city not connected to any system, Eng said. The signals on Old Jacksonville Highway near the FRESH by Brookshire's store and those on U.S. Highway 271 near UT Health Northeast are not connected to any system, he said.

The city also is considering more safety options for pedestrian crossings. Eng recently presented the city's Traffic Safety Board with information about systems that other cities employ.

In 2010, Eng said there were 32,885 traffic deaths in the United States, according to a new brief from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. About 13 percent of those, or 4,280, were pedestrians. That's down considerably from a decade ago, but it's also up slightly since 2009, the report stated.

On average, a pedestrian was killed every two hours and injured every eight minutes in traffic crashes nationwide, Eng quoted from the report.

The timed pedestrian crossing signals are mostly in the downtown area, Eng said, and 14 of those were replaced in 2011 at a cost of a $1 million from a U.S. Department of Energy grant. The traffic lights will not change unless the crosswalk button is pushed, Eng said.

"Some of our traffic signals were built in the 1950s, and we couldn't get parts for them anymore," Eng said of the decision to replace the poles.

He told Traffic Safety board members about several different pedestrian crossing systems, including the use of flashing beacons and in-pavement lighting.

Eng has a message for drivers who expect to never have to stop at a traffic light in the city: "It's not practical for us to say we'll never stop at traffic lights, partly because of the geographic layout of the city, which is like a wheel with spokes," Eng said. "We will never get to a point where we never have to stop."

"It's not practical for us to say we'll never stop at traffic lights, because of the geographic layout of the city," Eng said. "We will have to stop—we will never get to a point where we never have to stop," Eng said of the traffic signals.



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