The city wants traffic lights to be synched before a new rule that tickets drivers who "block the box" by blocking intersections is enforced. (Lloyd Fox & Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
An "antiquated" network of traffic signals is contributing to congestion downtown and in other busy Baltimore neighborhoods, and tens of millions of dollars in technology and structural upgrades are needed to ensure smoother, faster rides, city transportation officials say.
Some of the most pressing repair and replacement work is already planned. More than $20 million has been set aside in next year's capital budget for system upgrades, officials say. But those investments are not assured, they say, and would resolve only a portion of the system's deficiencies.
Fewer than a third of the city's 1,300 electronic traffic signals are connected to its downtown transportation command center in a way that allows for immediate, remote adjustments after accidents, utility ruptures and other traffic problems, officials say. Of the 400 or so signals that are connected, many run on outdated technology that is prone to failures.
Officials say at least $30 million is needed to overhaul signal connections and other technological aspects of the system covering the downtown core. But a substantially larger amount — one they would not specify — would be required for a broader overhaul involving new hardware, light poles and other physical structures citywide.
The result, they say, is a traffic system less attuned to regular traffic volumes and patterns and less responsive to unexpected issues than the more modern systems found in many other American cities.
"What we are experiencing," said city transportation director Michelle Pourciau, "is decay on the system, decay in technology, decay in the overall infrastructure."
Pourciau's comments, in an interview with The Baltimore Sun, came in response to a proposed City Council resolution calling on Mayor Catherine E. Pugh's administration to ensure that all of the city's traffic lights are properly synchronized before it starts issuing $90 fines to drivers who block intersections.
Pugh and Pourciau announced the "don't block the box" fines, set to begin in June, during the launch of a broader traffic safety campaign earlier this month. City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and most of the council jointly sponsored their light synchronization resolution a few days later.
"Until the City has taken steps to ensure that traffic lights are properly synchronized and are not contributing to gridlock, it would be premature to begin aggressive enforcement actions against drivers," they say in the resolution.
"I've been telling transportation for years that they need to look at the synchronization of their lights," Young told The Sun.
He said he does not oppose fines for inconsiderate drivers, but the lights in the city are so poorly timed that blocking the box is sometimes the only means of advancing during rush hour — especially for travelers in certain left-turn lanes.
Before fines begin, Young said, he wants to ensure that "the synchronization of the lights is accurate, and the timing to give people a chance to get through [intersections] is OK."
This is not the first time the issue has been raised — or the first time city officials have promised fixes.
In 2005, for example, then-Mayor Martin O'Malley promised to complete a $23 million upgrade to the city's traffic signals within three months, and then to conduct a two-year study of traffic patterns to determine optimal light timing and synchronization.
City officials said they expected 20 percent reductions in travel times and 15 percent reductions in fuel emissions.
"When I have meetings with businesses ... you would think they would talk about high taxes and a whole host of issues," Dixon said at the time. "But you know what the No. 1 issue they talk about is? It's synchronizing the lights."
Pourciau said synchronizing lights to optimize traffic flow — particularly downtown — has been a long-standing priority, and something her department works to achieve on a daily basis.
Despite investments years ago, she said, the system has grown obsolete, which is why upgrades have again been written into the budget.
Next year's capital budget sets aside $11.32 million for the reconstruction of traffic signals and "associated infrastructure that may include signal reconstruction, fiber optic signs, [and] vehicular and pedestrian detection;" $4.8 million for upgrades to the transportation management center, including ensuring it's integrated with the rest of the system; and $6.46 million for improvements to the so-called intelligent transportation system, which would include signal timing.
"We really want to be a smart city," Pourciau said.
In the meantime, she said, drivers who block the box are contributing to traffic and causing safety risks, and halting their behavior needs to be a priority because it will help everyone on the roads.
As an example, Pourciau mentioned a recent Saturday night when the weather was warm, downtown Baltimore was aglow with Light City art sculptures, and the city's traffic system was overwhelmed.
"Even though we had traffic control officers and police deployed everywhere," she said, "people had to wait."
Some did, patiently, even if it meant watching multiple green lights cycle past without moving. Others jammed forward into intersections only to be halted in the middle — making the "major gridlock" worse.
Pourciau said the new fines will be issued mainly in the downtown area, but declined to identify specific intersections to be targeted.
The resolution to ensure light synchronization before the fines begin is still pending before the council, and would not be binding on the administration even if it passed. But a spokesman for Young said the council hopes the administration will take the request — and the council's concerns — seriously.
Any area targeted for fines should at the very least be "bumped to the top of the list in terms of synchronization prioritization," spokesman Lester Davis said.
Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, said his organization supports the fines, but also believes the city must invest in its signaling system.
There are "plenty of people who just completely ignore the law and are just being rude drivers," Fowler said, and they should be fined. But "having the lights synchronized might help more with the drivers who are trying to obey the law but just get frustrated sitting through several cycles without getting through the light."
Fowler said his organization has proposed fines be issued at five intersections: Charles and Baltimore streets, Charles and Saratoga streets, Lexington and St. Paul streets, Lombard and Calvert streets, and Cathedral and Mulberry streets.
Transportation officials said they had not determined where enforcement would begin. They said traffic enforcement officers will work on foot in teams, citing violators in their cars on the spot.
Klaus Philipsen, a local architect and urban designer, said he has complained repeatedly to the city about poor traffic management downtown. Each time, he said, he has been told of the infrastructure woes at the heart of the problem.
He said he realizes it isn't an easy fix, even with modern signals. Downtown streets aren't meant to resemble parking lots, he said, but they also aren't meant to resemble raceways that other users of the downtown area can't navigate.
"Free flow for cars is not the only goal," he said. "It is often in the interest of pedestrians, bicyclists and others participating in the streets that the cars are stop-and-go."
Councilman Ryan Dorsey, the only member of the council who did not sign on to Young's resolution, said any conversation about improving traffic downtown should take other users of the area into consideration.
Dorsey has sponsored a "complete streets" bill that would prioritize pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly road designs. He said lights should be synchronized, but drivers who block the box — and often crosswalks in the process — need to be discouraged from doing so.
"It's not the traffic lights that drive cars into the middle of intersections, it's the drivers," he said. "While the city is making an effort to do things better [with its infrastructure], we also need drivers to behave better."
A report on complete streets recently issued by Young's office called for lights to be better timed to give pedestrians and bicyclists more time to cross streets, and to recognize transit vehicles and prioritize their travel over other vehicles. Davis, Young's spokesman, said those measures can occur in conjunction with better light synchronization for other vehicles on the road.
Fowler said the city must be able to make regular adjustments to traffic patterns on a daily basis, but also in response to more gradual changes to the downtown ecosystem — such as new buildings, more people driving and lanes being closed for utility work.
Even then, he said, drivers should realize that no solution will be perfect.
"Every driver wants the lights synchronized for their specific way home," Fowler said. "That cannot always happen, of course."