Houston streets are crowded, bumpy, and go on for miles and miles to the far corners of the metropolitan area. However, in just a short few months they could be thought of as the smartest streets in America.
Wednesday the Houston City Council will be considering a $33.6 million contract that will be partly backed by a $10 million federal grant. The measure will provide hundreds of traffic-tracking devices throughout the city which will allow city traffic supervisors to be more informed with up to date intel that will allow them to provide commuters with more exact traffic conditions and adjust traffic signals accordingly.
Most major cities have traffic detection technology installed like video and digital messaging warning drivers of upcoming traffic delay in a given area. Houston is looking to make this happen across the whole city, officials feel this integrated system will improve traffic conditions drastically while providing commuters the best choice of direction through traffic maps and signs.
Tony Voigt, a Texas A&M Transportation Institute researcher based in Houston says "The ability to better detect vehicles at signals and use that data for signal timing updates at more frequent intervals - and in real-time, if necessary - will be a benefit." Voigt also said, "The ability to visually verify incidents and alert drivers to travel times on parallel alternate arterial and freeway routes will be a benefit."
However, to get proof of any positive benefit of the system it will need to be in place first and then assessed accordingly.
"We have 'before' data and we will get 'after' data," said Deputy Director of Houston Public Works Jeff Weatherford who is in charge of traffic operations and maintenance. "No one has really done this on this large of a scale.That is part of why the federal government gave us this money." Voigt who assisted with some of the research for the grant proposal agreed.
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Voigt questioned "Will the benefit be as large as compared to freeway (traffic systems)? I would say maybe not, but the benefits should still be considerable." Referring to federal data Voigt remarked about half the miles traveled in urban areas happen on local roads, not major highways and freeways, so anything looking to provide more accurate data for those roads naturally will benefit drivers.
The new technology is set to be integrated with the existing operations of traffic being controlled by Houston TranStar that meshed research from the city, the Texas Department of Transportation, Harris County, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority.
More data translates into less surprise for Houston commuters. Most already regularly check online traffic updates on TranStar, or Apple and Google Maps prior to starting their daily trek, and with the new technology system, drivers will be better informed with more information to start. "The more, the better," says Doug Walton, a 44-year-old computer technician who commutes to Greenway Plaza from near Missouri City every day. "If there's a quicker way, I'd like to know."
City planning will be changed with the new information received by helping city officials re-work the timing of traffic lights and with the scheduling of certain construction zones when traffic is known to be on the lighter side. Weatherford sees construction projects being planned when traffic is lower in the summer when schools are closed.
The entire region has seen a traffic increase, but the options to remedy this are limited. The best way forward is to utilize the existing streets more effectively, in which Houston has been developing plans for since 2012. The city applied and won a difficult federal grant in 2014 worth $10 million from the Federal Highway Administration. This was part of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program that has funded many projects deemed innovative or critical to improving national transportation.
Houston city officials are expecting a 30-month process to install the new system in its entirety. The $23.6 million which Houston will burden is set to come from the city's share of the 1 percent sales tax levied by Metro, which gives a quarter of the tax back to municipalities for transportation projects.
The lowest qualified bidder for the project was Transcore and they will maintain the system for at least two years, similar to a warranty period for electronics. Transcore has several local contracts managing and developing toll systems used in Harris County, their toll systems are also used by Metro's HOT lanes and the Texas Department of Transportation.
There are two categories of equipment: Devices such as cameras and traffic sensors which relay real-time information to traffic supervisors; and electronics which transmit the information to drivers, such as the cameras and databases relayed to Houston Transtar's website and even Google and Waze. Waze is a popular and widely used traffic app.
Drivers will notice the visible changes from the 91 illuminated messaging signs all along major city streets. There will be six signs along streets crossing U.S. 290 between Loop 610 and the Sam Houston Tollway.Others will be sprinkled among remaining Houston freeways, as well as pop up at major intersections, there are two planned for Bissonnet and Dairy Ashford.
Houston officials divided the city into 16 different zones and will focus on one at a time. Weatherford said they have not yet decided on a starting point, but said as items are installed something that should only take a few weeks they will be integrated into the system. "The intent is not to get it all done and turn it on."