Drivers in 14 state highway corridors in Maryland will see their travel times cut over the next year as a result of a $50 million upgrade to traffic signals, Gov. Larry Hogan said Wednesday.
The new system, billed as the second phase of Hogan's program to relieve highway traffic congestion, will use artificial intelligence to better synchronize signals and improve traffic flow, officials said. The governor said the adaptive signal control system replaces technology that is more than 20 years old.
"Nearly 700,000 Marylanders will benefit every day from these transformational improvements," Hogan said during a news conference at the State Highway Administration's operations center in Hanover.
The "Smart Signals" program follows Hogan's announcement last month of a $9 billion initiative to add lanes to the Capital Beltway, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Interstate 270. That announcement was fiercely criticized by environmental advocates, but his new initiative is receiving a warmer reception.
"This is a welcome approach that makes the existing infrastructure perform better," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the conservation group 1,000 Friends of Maryland.
The signals program is designed to adjust to changing traffic conditions in real time 24 hours a day, without the need for human intervention. Current traffic signals are pre-programmed according to highway engineers' expectations, but can't react to crashes, construction or unusual events.
While much smaller in scale than the road-widening plan, the second phase is expected to deliver more immediate congestion relief.
All of the 14 corridors are in metropolitan Baltimore or Washington. None are in Baltimore, because the city operates its own road system and receives annual payments to maintain state highways within its borders.
Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said the 14 will be upgraded with the new technology by the end of 2018. He said the first corridor to receive the improvements, Route 2 (Ritchie Highway) in Anne Arundel County, will have them installed in about a month.
Other Baltimore-area highways that will be upgraded include Route 3 in Anne Arundel, U.S. 40 in Catonsville, Charles Street in Baltimore County and U.S. 1 in the Jessup-Elkridge areas of Howard County.
In Harford County, the program will bring improvements to U.S. 1 Business in Bel Air and Route 22 in Aberdeen. The other corridors are in Montgomery, Prince George's and Charles counties. Hogan said he was not involved in choosing the locations.
State Highway Administrator Gregory I. Slater said the technology, contained in a shoebox-size unit displayed at the operations center, will receive data from sensors deployed around traffic signals — both on poles and embedded in the pavement.
"It'll adapt on the fly," he said.
Slater said the Smart Signal system is able to interact with the existing sensors in those 14 corridors. He estimated that the system could reduce travel times by 10 percent to 15 percent.
Maryland's interstate highways will not be directly affected but could benefit as the flow of traffic from arterial highways improves, officials said. Officials said the money for the system is already in the state transportation budget.
Rahn said the administration's plan is to eventually introduce the technology to additional corridors with traffic congestion problems. He said the first 14 were chosen largely because they are already equipped with technology that is compatible with the new system.
The transportation chief said the technology has been used in other states but added that he believes Maryland will be the first to deploy it widely throughout its road network.
Hogan praised transportation officials, saying he had challenged them to "think outside the box."
"This is exactly what this great team has done again," he said.
Ragina Averella, public affairs manager for AAA Maryland, said the administration's plan addresses one of the most common complaints the group hears from drivers.
"Sometimes it doesn't seem like the signals are really keeping up with the flow of traffic," she said.
Averella said AAA welcomes the initiative.
"Utilizing new technology and replacing antiquated traffic signals will benefit Maryland motorists in many of the state's most congested corridors," she said.
Schmidt-Perkins said the approach makes more sense than "adding more lanes of asphalt."
She and other critics contend that Hogan has generally put too much emphasis on adding highway capacity and too little on mass transit. While Hogan has supported the Washington region's Purple Line light rail project, he canceled the Red Line project in Baltimore and has sidelined a large rapid bus project in Montgomery County.
Schmidt-Perkins said a better synchronized signal system could have some positive effects on air quality because drivers would not be sitting in traffic as long. But she stressed that better traffic flow is not the solution to air pollution.
"The most positive effect we can have on emissions is to get people out of their cars," she said.
14 Smart Signal Corridor Routes
MD 2, Annapolis. Annapolis Harbor Center to Tarragon Lane
MD 2, Brooklyn Park. Hammonds Lane to 11th Ave.
MD 3, Crofton. MD 450 to St. Stephens Church Road
MD 139, Towson. Kenilworth Ave. to I-695 Outer Loop Ramp
U.S. 40, Catonsville. Coleridge Road to Nuwood Drive
MD 5 Business, Waldorf. Post Office Drive to US 301
MD 228, Waldorf. Western Parkway to US 301
U.S. 301, Waldorf. Chadds Ford Dr. to MD 227
U.S. 1 Business, Bel Air. Tollgate Road to Atwood Road
MD 22, Aberdeen. Technology Way to N. Rogers St./U.S. 40 Ramp
U.S. 1, Jessup/Elkridge. Montgomery Road to MD 175
U.S. 301, Bowie. Excalibur Road to Governors Bridge Road
MD 202, Landover. McCormick Drive to Arena Drive
MD 108, Olney. MD 182 to Volunteer Drive