Much like weekday rush hour traffic, the Alabama Department of Transportation’s (ALDOT) $3.2 million adaptive signal system on U.S. Route 98 between Daphne and Fairhope is moving in fits and starts. But officials hope once broken components are replaced and solid data can be gathered, it will soon serve its intended purpose.
According to a report given to the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization last week, certain electronics that detect traffic patterns along 98 have not worked as intended, and the software that adjusts the system to those traffic patterns has not gathered the necessary data to maximize its efficiency. Still, ALDOT engineer Brian Aaron said some improvements have been measured and the agency hopes the system will be fully operational by Memorial Day.
“[The problems] aren’t unique to this project,” he said. “With any lighting or signaling project, you have a burn-in or a test period to make sure they are up and working, but we found a couple of components that were not functioning, so we’re working with our contractor to replace those with new components.”
The system is similar to one already in place along State Route 59 in Gulf Shores, where it has adapted to extend green-light periods for those traveling to and from the beach during peak traveling hours. It also synchronizes the signals with traffic speed to allow vehicles on busy corridors to pass through several intersections nonstop.
Aaron said during a recent rainy day, when thousands of visitors left the beach to shop or visit attractions north around Foley, the system automatically triggered a hurricane evacuation mode, leaving northbound and southbound lights green at some intersections for as long as 10 minutes before they allowed east-west traffic through.
Both systems can be manually adjusted to terminate or change automatic settings.
“The way it is designed, it’s supposed to run itself,” Aaron said. “There are sensors in the road picking up traffic volumes and as volumes increase, it tells the signal to allow more green time. It’s constantly updating based on what it’s seeing in the field. Ideally there is no manual input, but we do have the capability to have remote access if we are visually seeing a problem or maybe a component isn’t working … we have the ability to make adjustments.”
Fairhope City Councilman Jack Burrell said he’s noticed some improvements, but told the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) the intersection near his house at Parker Road could use some adjustments, as it typically allows only two or three vehicles through from Parker Road before the signal turns yellow again.
“There are other places it was not working at all — not detecting cars,” he said. “It’s like a chain. If one piece is broken, nothing works.”
If members of the public have comments or recommendations for the adaptive signaling project, a complaint form is available at easternshorempo.com.
Aaron said the ongoing “tweeks” to the Highway 98 system are built into the project’s price tag, and once the contractor completes a punch-list, ALDOT will accept it for maintenance.
Covering 27 intersections from Wayside Drive in Spanish Fort to County Road 44 in Fairhope, the project was funded in 2015 with state and local money. The Eastern Shore MPO chipped in $2.58 million, ALDOT contributed $586,344 and the cities of Fairhope, Daphne and Spanish Fort split around $80,000 in costs, according to the amount of infrastructure in their jurisdictions.
Once complete, the Eastern Shore municipalities will also have recurring yearly fiber optics leases of $10,000 in Fairhope, $9,035 in Daphne and $1,155 in Spanish Fort. Plus, drivers should notice a difference. Aaron told the Eastern Shore MPO it has measured 2-to-3-minute improvements along the route in some instances.
“When you get those peak hour times, there are going to be some gains, but I don’t think they’re going to be as noticeable,” he said on Monday. “There’s only so much you can do when everybody is going everywhere, but at different times of the day you will see better efficiency and every couple of minutes help. When you [multiply] two minutes times 50,000 cars times seven days per week, that’s a lot of money saved.”
At its monthly meeting April 24, the Eastern Shore MPO’s Policy Board will consider adding projects to its visionary list, approving state-requested amendments to the Transportation Improvement Plan, approving the use of $28,000 for the city of Fairhope to develop a Complete Streets Policy Guide and authorizing staff to solicit proposals for the development of a 2045 Long Range Transportation Plan.
The MPO also hosts monthly meetings for its bicycle and pedestrian advisory committee, its citizens advisory committee and its technical advisory committee. More details are on its website.
As Lagniappe previously reported, the Eastern Shore has half a billion dollars worth of unfunded transportation improvement projects on its visionary list.
Aaron said the state’s recently passed 10-cent gas tax will be a “shot in the arm” toward needed infrastructure statewide, but ALDOT will set priorities on where those funds should be spent.
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