AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a dark room right lined with monitors showing intersections across the city, the Austin Transportation Department is avidly watching traffic to help ease congestion.
Earlier this month the department rolled out an Advanced Traffic Management System which will allow employees to keep an eye on traffic flow and change signal timing remotely and immediately.
“What that means is that we have someone sitting in here at the peak periods watching traffic,” said Jim Dale, Interim Assistant Director for the Austin Transportation Department. “We can adjust the signal timing so if we do see those traffic congestion back up maybe into another signal, we can adjust the signal time to get more traffic through.”
Through a fiber optic cable system, the department can manage 70 percent of the 1,000 traffic signals across town. That also includes more than a hundred surveillance cameras at intersections that give a view of what’s going on.
“Traffic always seems to vary quite a bit here in Austin, so we set up timing plans that can address the reoccurring travel patterns and congestion,” said Dale.
For example, the department is using the new technology, which cost more than $1.5 million, to help control the intersection of Barton Springs and Lamar Blvd during the Austin City Limits music festival.
“We can move that camera around and look at the signals around Zilker Park especially around Lamar and Barton Springs,” said Dale. “With that signal we’ll adjust the signal timing to better accommodate the pedestrians walking across, cyclists, and pedicabs.”
The system also comes in handy for the Texas Department of Transportation, police and fire officials. Even though the camera’s cannot record yet and everything is in real time, they share video for better response times.
Dale said the city receives about 1,000 complaints a month form all over town but relies heavily on those concerns and ask people to call 311.
“The first thing I do is call 311 and I try to explain to them which intersection and what’s going on,” said Larry Chapman who owns a car dealership. He said he’ll call about lights that sit too long on red, are broken and more. “If there’s cross traffic then that’s fine, people have to go but if you have a group of cars and we’re all sitting at a light for no reason, then the timing needs to be changed.”
The city said drivers are their “extended employees” and need to hear about issues.
“Anytime a citizen sees a concern, we want to know about it. If they’re unhappy with the signal timing let us know, there maybe something we can do in a particular location,” said Dale. “It may be like South First St. or Cesar Chavez in the morning where there’s not a whole lot we can do because we’re trying to balance the demand and congestion in directions.”
The city said other problems include the frontage road of Cesar Chavez and I-35 which can spill into the highway causing a domino effect in the city.
“We’re trying to balance that congestion at the intersection, again we only have so much time that we can give to each different movements,” said Dale.
One spot that has multiple cameras is McNeil Dr. which is right in front of McNeil High School. The department has worked with the school while Austin Water continues to construct a water line.
“We’ve had positive feedback from the school so we see it working well, and we continue to monitor it today until the construction project is over. That’s a promise that we made to the school that we’ll monitor the traffic from the transportation management center in the mornings and the evenings until the construction project is done,”said Dale.
In 2001 they built the department built the first transportation management center and they were at a point in 2012 where they needed to upgrade technology. They began designing the system with an outside consultant and also worked with Capital Metro.
There are still some lights that will need manual work depending on the issue, but the department said the new system will really help out not only during big events, but severe weather.
““When winter comes and we have these ice storms, one of the things that helps here is that we have the cameras, we can share the camera feeds with TXDOT who is also looking at the freeways,” said Dale.
He said the new system also alerts them when lights are flashing before someone even has to call in.