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July 05, 2012

VDOT pilots new traffic signal technology on Pantops

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DailyProgressBy Courtney Beale
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Thursday, July 5, 2012

A new type of adaptive traffic signal technology is being used in the Pantops area of U.S. 250 to relieve traffic congestion. While other parts of the community have intelligent traffic signals, the Pantops system goes beyond timing plans and adds scanning of side-street traffic needs.

The Virginia Department of Transportation installed InSync signal controllers last fall to improve the flow of traffic following the move of Martha Jefferson Hospital to its new home on Pantops.

20070702-Pantops250b“It’s a relatively inexpensive way to increase the capacity of the corridor there,” said VDOT engineer Joel DeNunzio.

Pantops was the first place in the greater Albemarle area to receive the technology, which uses sensors and cameras to monitor traffic flow. It analyzes the data it collects and programs the stoplights to allow traffic from the side streets to merge into gaps in oncoming traffic on 250.

“It knows when a platoon of traffic is moving along the main line and senses the demand along the side streets and is able to change its timing based on that,” DeNunzio said.

InSync was developed by Rhythm Engineering, a Kansas-based engineering firm that has installed the technology at more than 700 intersections in 19 states. It costs about $30,000 per intersection.

Jenny Kutz, the firm’s marketing manager, said InSync has other benefits beyond improving traffic flow.

“With less stopping there is less chance for accidents,” Kutz said. “InSync is proven to reduce crashes by up to a third and we are seeing that in three different cities with police data.”

Kutz also said InSync can reduce travel time up to 50 percent and fuel consumption and emissions by up to 30 percent.

Not everyone who drives the corridor has noticed improved traffic flow, though.

Danielle Trent, who works at the Hilton Garden Inn, said she still experiences delays at the Peter Jefferson Parkway intersection.

“You can sit there for four to six minutes,” Trent said. “I usually go down and make a U-turn and then go back up [250].”

Greg Rosario, a frequent customer at the Starbucks near the Giant on Pantops, has noticed that the lights are no longer synchronized like they were in the past.

“I’m usually running on the last minute, and before I could time the lights,” Rosario said. “Now I have to stop a lot more.”

However, DeNunzio said members of the county’s Pantops Advisory Council have provided positive feedback.

“I’ve noticed there has been reduction recently,” said Kirk Bowers, a council member and professional engineer. “If they could do more of this, it would help the flow of traffic and save a lot of money in the long run.”

DeNunzio said he recognizes it is not a complete solution to the traffic problems facing Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

“It’s such a high-demand area. We are still seeing backups there but I think the new technology helps,” DeNunzio said. “I don’t think it’s a solution to all the problems at Pantops, but at the cost associated with putting that system in, I think it’s a real value versus putting in a lane.”

InSync technology may be coming to other intersections in the area. The technology is compatible with existing traffic signal systems on U.S. 29, and DeNunzio recently suggested it might help improve side-street conditions there.

“When I spoke with our traffic engineer [about InSync], they said they were currently looking at doing the same thing on Route 29,” DeNunzio said.

The signal technology was brought up during a review last month of a proposal to add a four-field soccer complex on Polo Grounds Road. Calvin Morris, a member of Albemarle’s Planning Commission, said traffic was among his primary concerns with the project.

“The majority of time the maximum number of cars I see that can make the turn onto Route 29 is between five and six,” Morris said. “I can just see Polo Grounds Road turning into a parking lot.”

Present that evening, DeNunzio also heard firsthand from neighbors concerned about traffic on Polo Grounds from the proposed Monticello United Soccer Club fields and from the existing South Fork Soccer Complex managed by the Soccer Organization of Charlottesville-Albemarle.

Albemarle deferred a decision on the MONU request until more traffic data could be made available.

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