Technology forges the road for Scottsdale traffic as population growth appears imminent

The city of Scottsdale has over 300 traffic signals, monitored by a small group of staff. (photo by Melislsa Fittro)

Behind the hustle and bustle of Scottsdale’s 311 traffic signals are fewer than 20 people making sure drivers see those green, yellow and red lights.

The Traffic Management Center, 9191 E. San Salvador Drive, can shift its focus on any area of Scottsdale at a moment’s notice and the control room’s floor-to-ceiling-wall of screens serves as the epicenter of traffic flow within city limits.

Said to be the “brain” behind the intelligent transportation system — or the cameras perched upon traffic lights — the high-tech organization’s goals include reducing traffic congestion, improving driver information and managing incidents that impact a motorist as they traverse along local thoroughfares.

The department operates on a $2 million budget for the traffic management center and traffic signal maintenance, with an additional $200,000 for streetlight maintenance, city officials say.

The city of Scottsdale serves as home to more than 200,000 residents, and sees guests from around the world attending hundreds of annual events. In the next 25 years the desert city is projected to grow by more than 50,000, putting more vehicles on local streets, avenues and roads.

Through a proactive and data-driven approach, the traffic engineers are utilizing new technology and updating traffic light timing to offer the best experience for motorists. In addition, the Scottsdale Police Department is working on a pilot program for supervisors to utilize the TMC cameras in their vehicles.

The city’s first traffic camera, a pan-tilt zoom camera, was installed at the intersection of Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard and Scottsdale Road in 1993, to help alleviate traffic congestion created by the Phoenix Open. The annual Waste Management Phoenix Open has called TPC Scottsdale, 17020 N. Hayden Road, home for 30 years. It draws nearly 500,000 spectators each year, and has been dubbed the PGA TOUR’s best-attended event.

More than 20 years later, the same intersection will be the first in Scottsdale to have the newest traffic control system that automatically responds to changing traffic conditions.

Set to be implemented next month along Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard from Scottsdale Road to Thompson Peak Parkway, the Adaptive Signal Control Technology is a part of a regional initiative coined the Bell Road Adaptive Project.

At 16 miles long, the Bell Road project will be one of the longest to receive the technology in the country, a Maricopa County press release states.

“If there is an incident on the roadway, the adaptive signal would pick that up and adjusts the signal timing sometimes quicker than an operator can identify that there is an issue and make the corrections,” Maricopa County Department of Transportation Traffic Engineer April Wire said in the July 11 press release.

The hundreds of traffic signals found throughout the city totals 175 miles of fiber optic cable, 170 specialty cameras, 90 Ethernet radios and 80 video recognition devices.

In addition to monitoring and observing traffic, the transportation staff is in the midst of updating 175 lights to improve timing, Traffic Engineer Leslie Bubke says.

“We want to be ready for when things change so we can be fluid with them and respond to demand,” Ms. Bubke said in a July 18 interview at traffic center. “We’re building flexibility to be ready — that’s one of the ways we’re looking toward the growth.”

The Transportation Management Center’s wall of screens allows traffic engineers to observe local traffic. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

Scottsdale’s lights

In 2014 the TMC left One Civic Center in downtown Scottsdale to expand and upgrade from just one small room. Prior, the city’s camera operations — known as the intelligence transportation system — was started with the 1993 camera installation.

Installed to help alleviate congestion during the annual golf tournament, the camera reduced manpower and time required to control traffic at special events and set the foundation for today’s system.

Today, the ITS includes several types of technology, including 170 pan-tilt zoom cameras and 80 intersections with video detection, and Bluetooth tools.

“A typical chain of events would be we hear something come over the police radio that they’re dispatching officers to a site, and then we bring up the cameras,” Ms. Bubke explained of daily operations.

“We take a look at the situation, take a look at how they’re starting to block off certain traffic directions. So we can actively control that one there, and all these others that are impacted at a given time.”

Through a library of preprogrammed traffic signal sequences, the TMC can alter the light timing because of an accident, or for special-event traffic.

“We have a library of plans that we can call on and that we will use,” she said. “We do watch Pima Road during the baseball season, and keep an eye on downtown during Spring Training season, and call upon those libraries to help us out.”

The pan-tilt zoom cameras have a 360-degree view, and can easily zoom in to about as far as half-a-mile away, Ms. Bubke says. These are utilized to keep an eye on areas that might have construction going on, or need extra monitoring.

Other cameras use a new video technology showing a static image of an intersection that becomes disrupted when a vehicle or bicycle enters the designated zone. The controller for the intersection is then alerted that someone is waiting.

“We can tell if someone’s arriving or if someone’s already there and either bring up the green for that movement, or hold the green for that movement,” Ms. Bubke says. “That’s something that’s new, we have about 80 intersections that have that technology.”

Ultimately, the detection and controller technology work together and if working correctly, should be doing the same thing.

By using the cameras to monitor traffic flow, the officials have begun their update of traffic light timing.

“We’ll attack about 175 of the city’s traffic signals and just update the timings based on what the most recent traffic volumes have been,” she explained.

“These guys have been going out and driving the corridor with a GPS device that records how long it takes to travel a corridor, and we’re seeking at least 10 percent improvements with our work.”

Ms. Bubke says they have been getting good results, with many in the neighborhood of 15 percent improvement.

In real-time city traffic engineers ensure traffic signals operate correctly. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

Future growth

The Maricopa Association of Government, the designated planning organization for the greater Phoenix metropolitan area, plans and finances the regional transportation system.

In a June 28 report — the 2040 Regional Transportation Plan — MAG outlines estimated growth for the Valley of the Sun.

From 2010 to 2015, Scottsdale saw an annual increase of 1.27 percent, the report states. From the base 2015 population, the MAG metropolitan planning organization is projected to increase its population by more than 51 percent, with an anticipated total of 6.5 million people.

The growth is estimated to total nearly 88,000 people annually through 2040. Over the 25-year period, Scottsdale is one of seven areas projected to experience a population growth greater than 50,000 people.

Scottsdale’s population estimates by MAG’s 2040 plan are:

  • 2015: 231,300
  • 2020: 255,000
  • 2030: 290,800
  • 2040: 308,700

Doug Nintzel, an ADOT spokesman, outlined the need for communication between a municipality’s traffic system and the state entity.

“One major example occurred in the past couple of years. ADOT’s $73 million project to add new lanes and other improvements along Loop 101 between Shea Boulevard and Loop 202 (Red Mountain Freeway) involved a great deal of coordination with the city,” he explained in a July 19 statement.

“We made sure the contractors on the project limited freeway restrictions that might otherwise have created delays for fans heading to Spring Training games at Salt River Fields or Scottsdale Stadium. City transportation staff attended regularly scheduled project meetings to discuss any potential issues. When it comes to special events, ADOT focuses on getting drivers to their freeway exits and the city takes it from there along local streets. That advanced planning pays off for drivers.”

Soon, the same freeway-widening process will be happening on Loop 101 from north Shea Boulevard to Interstate 17.

“We do keep drivers in mind by limiting many closures to nighttime hours. Such big projects also require weekend closures at times, but we again will work closely with Scottsdale to provide drivers with information ahead of time, including suggested alternate routes when the freeway is closed,” Mr. Nintzel says.

Additionally, ADOT and the city have coordinated in the past to use the overhead freeway message boards to provide motorists with tips, information on parking lots or passes and travel times related to some of Scottsdale’s premiere events including Barrett-Jackson Auto Auction and Waste Management Phoenix Open.

“We’ve been very pleased with those cooperative efforts with staff from the city. Together, we work with law enforcement to focus on traffic control measures that allow fans to access events as easily as possible,” he said.

The partnership between the Scottsdale Police Department and the TMC dates back about 15 years, Officer Kevin Watts says, noting the traffic control division is the only area within the department to use the cameras and signal control program.

“Dispatch has the ability to monitor (and control) the TMC traffic cameras (not the signals),” Officer Watts said in a July 19 emailed response to questions.

“We are working on a pilot program to give this access to patrol supervisors in their vehicles. There is no ability either through TMC or PD to record any data from these cameras.”

Traffic management is becoming more responsive to the needs of the public, Officer Watts explained, pointing to an accident from hours prior.

“One example is the change made today at Scottsdale and Pinnacle Peak to alleviate backup and reduce delays at the increasingly busy intersection,” he said.

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at mrosequist@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/mrosequist_.

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