Never having to stop at a traffic light -- the fantasy of many a harried commuter -- is about to come true for some Anne Arundel County bus passengers.
Nine Mass Transit Administration buses have been outfitted with a device that acts like a TV remote control to turn traffic lights along Ritchie Highway to their favor, even letting buses scoot through red lights in some cases.
Beginning June 1, the MTA's No. 210 Express bus from Annapolis should never have to stop at a traffic signal until it reaches Baltimore.
By bypassing traffic signals, 10 minutes may be shaved off the 52-minute bus trip, MTA officials estimate.
A total of 13 traffic lights on Ritchie Highway from Annapolis to Route 100 and one on Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard will be involved in the experiment, run jointly by the MTA and the State Highway Administration.
"Time is important to all of us," said James F. Buckley, the MTA's assistant general manager for operations. "That 10 minutes could mean an extra slice of toast or getting to work early enough to screen your phone calls."
State officials are hoping the device will provide a boost to bus patronage at a time when ridership is down, but traffic congestion and automobile pollution have become much bigger problems for the Baltimore area.
The test system is called Opticom. Manufactured by the Minnesota-based 3M Co., it relies on a pulsing infrared light signal transmitted from the bus and picked up by a receiver mounted on a traffic light pole.
The signal is invisible to the human eye.
First made available in 1968, Opticom has been used in towns and cities across the country to give emergency vehicles like ambulances and fire engines priority at traffic intersections.
Only in recent years has its use been expanded to public transit. Opticom gives a bus the ability to make green signals stay green long enough for the bus to cross, said William J. Lochten, a 3M marketing representative.
But 3M officials say Maryland's application will be unique.
In addition to extending green lights up to one minute longer, buses along Ritchie Highway that confront a red light will be able to pass through the intersection exclusively with traffic stopped in all other directions.
That ability is called a "queue jump" and transit experts say the use of it in Maryland is a first nationwide.
The queue jump will be available at five of the 14 intersections involved in the test.
If an Opticom-assisted bus reaches a red light at any of those intersections, traffic will be stopped in all directions and the bus will be signaled to cross on the shoulder or right-turn lane.
Newly installed signals similar to those used by light rail trains on Howard Street will tell a bus driver when to go through the intersection.
"The red signal in all directions will be frozen up to 14 seconds to give the bus a head start," said Thomas Hicks, director of the SHA Office of Traffic and Safety.
The No. 210 currently handles about 150 round-trip passengers per day with five bus trips in the morning and five in the evening, an average of 30 people in each bus.
The experiment is bound to be controversial. By giving buses priority at intersections, traffic engineers are delaying travel for everyone else, particularly those who already face long waits from side streets onto Ritchie Highway.
Those delays could leave motorists waiting at traffic lights for an extra 30 seconds to a minute under the worst circumstances, Mr. Hicks said.
The wait will "probably be much less than that," for most travelers, he said.
There have also been questions raised about safety. How will people react to the new system?
For instance, will casual drivers stopped at red lights notice that the bus next to them is moving forward and take that as a cue to proceed?
"We're concerned about that. People don't always drive consciously," Mr. Hicks said. "Maybe we'll have to put up a sign, 'Move on green only,' or something like that."
Could the average driver trip the Opticom intersections with his or her own strobe light?
Officials with 3M say that's never happened and point to its successful application in 30,000 intersections in 850 towns and cities.
Mr. Hicks said the SHA engineers hope to answer these and other questions by watching the system work on the 10-mile strip of Ritchie Highway for the next two months.
If Opticom is successful, he said, it may be expanded to assist express buses along other major routes into the city like U.S. 1, U.S. 40, Reisterstown Road or Charles Street.
The experiment will cost $155,000 and has been financed wholly by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
That may seem like a lot of money, state officials concede, but they point out that it's far less than the many millions of dollars it would cost to add a bus lane to Ritchie Highway.
"This is a statement about the need to give priority to mass transportation," said Mr. Buckley of the MTA. "We're one of the worst regions in the country for air pollution. I think it's fair to give priority to a 47-seat bus over a car with one person inside."
The system has already been in use for emergency vehicles in Hagerstown, Cambridge and Salisbury and at scattered locations in Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties.
A similar system, which would either use light like Opticom or radio waves, is being contemplated to give light rail cars priority at Howard Street intersections.