City stoplight system to get $21 million upgrade

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore's 23-year-old stoplight system is getting a $21 million upgrade that will gradually improve traffic flow, city Transportation Department officials announced this week.

More than 900 of the city's 1,210 stoplights are operated by a computer system that was installed in 1976 and has lasted 10 years longer than it was supposed to, according to city traffic engineers.

Another 288 stoplights are essentially lone soldiers, run by control boxes that can't communicate with the computer system, said Richard Baker, a Transportation Department engineering supervisor. If engineers want to change those lights' timing to help cope with traffic tie-ups, work crews must adjust the signals one by one.

Three to five years

In the first phase of the three- to five-year project, the lights that operate independently will get new control boxes, Baker said.

In the next phase, a software company will write programs that allow traffic managers in a downtown control center to change the stoplights' timing, add new turn signals or fix broken lights.

Finally, the 900 stoplights that are hooked up to the old system will get new control boxes, Baker said.

Transportation Department officials promise that the project will cut travel times in the city by 20 percent or more. Drivers should notice the difference most in the downtown area, Baker said.

The improvements probably won't eliminate the need for police officers -- or "point controllers," in traffic engineers' lingo -- to wave cars through downtown intersections during snow storms and Orioles games, Baker said. But it will reduce the city's dependence on traffic officers in non-emergencies.

Police will be in charge whenever a stoplight is being upgraded, Baker said, but the process takes only a few hours and shouldn't cause slowdowns.

Cost to be split

The city will pay 20 percent of the cost of the upgrade, or $4.2 million, Baker said.

The federal government will pay the rest.

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