Gainesville, Florida and its surrounding Alachua County are nearing completion of one of the country’s most sophisticated traffic management systems, recognized within Florida and nationally as state of the art.
Gainesville, Alachua County, the University of Florida, and the state of Florida agreed in 2004 to invest $18 million into a unique, four-phase Traffic Management System (TMS) designed to make driving easier and reduce delays by monitoring and coordinating traffic signals.
The system, which is more than 90 percent installed, has more than 200 electronically synchronized signal controls and traffic monitors online throughout Alachua County, thanks to a fiber optics network connection to the TMS control center at the Gainesville Public Works Department.
Gainesville’s system is the first in the U.S. that can give first responders and emergency vehicles a "green light" to respond to incidents along its corridors. Its 24/7 website allows commuters and visitors real-time views of traffic conditions to avoid delays.
And, amazingly, the project is $3 million under budget, allowing Gainesville to add even more features.
One of the most important benefits of an effective traffic management system is reducing congestion. Studies show that reducing traffic congestion can save motorists approximately 10 gallons of fuel per year. When you multiply that by all the cars in the Gainesville area, it is a savings of nearly $1.9 million, not to mention the benefits of reduced emissions and less time lost by motorists.
Another important benefit is enhanced emergency response for law enforcement, fire and rescue. With system-wide traffic signal priority control, rescue vehicles can be guided through traffic more quickly.
Additional advantages include real-time traveler information on incidents, congestion and alternate routes, enhanced mass transit times and constant traffic signal monitoring and adjustments. These items, along with system-wide re-timing of all traffic signals, helps reduce congestion and delays throughout Gainesville and Alachua County.
Gainesville Traffic Operations Manager Phil Mann, PE, said the system is a classic example of a sustainable alternative to adding highway capacity and what a city can accomplish when everyone cooperates. He made a presentation about the system at a recent American Public Works Association (APWA) sustainability conference at Pittsburgh.
“For me, the bottom line is when that guy calls me to complain about traffic while he is driving in the city of Gainesville, he wants his problem solved. He doesn’t care if it’s a city, a county or a federal highway. He doesn’t want to hear me say, ‘Well, that's a county road and you’ll have to call them.’ ”
Mann, who started with the city in 1987 when the traffic department had no PCs, said the TMS is quite a feat of engineering for everyone who worked on it.
“Bringing this in on time and budget is an accomplishment. You hear about so many projects that go way over budget. Our team took the time to be cost-effective and use extensive value engineering,” explained Mann. A good example is the TMS center’s video wall completed for about $100,00 versus an original $1 million estimate.
The entire system, in fact, was built by Mann and his staff working weekends and overtime. “We didn’t go out for bids. Because we ‘know where all the bodies are,’ that makes our system even more sustainable. It is a huge help to have done it ourselves,” he said.
Said Mann, “We are very proud of our public portals, social media (Twitter @GACSmarttraffic, Facebook, You Tube) and website. We are actually communicating with the public 24/7. We are doing everything we can to make commuting easier. I am proud that we are getting information out to the people. Government is not always the best at telling people about the neat things we do.”
Warren Nielsen, who served two terms on the Gainesville City Commission and chaired the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization (MTPO), said in a May 14 article in The Gainesville Sun, that the system has significantly reduced peak trip delays on four major corridors ... an average of 28 percent in the morning and 30 percent in the evening.
“And TMS reduction in trip delays during off-peak times is even more impressive as unnecessary red time may be reduced,” Nielsen stressed. “Reduction in trip delay directly correlates with increasing roadway efficiency and capacity, as well as lower fuel cost and less air pollution.”
Neilsen said system-wide signal timing and monitoring incorporates on-the-fly timing changes as conditions warrant. Some examples:
• Traffic stacked at an intersection can be cleared out in advance of emergency fire-rescue vehicles.
• Lane blockage from crashes can be mitigated by greater green time on the remaining open lanes, with closed lanes appropriately lit with red.
• Emergency dispatchers can estimate the severity of a crash before the arrival of fire-rescue to allow for appropriate response.
• Police may request assistance in tracking suspect vehicles.
New mechanisms to the local TMS can now be developed because of the project's budget savings, including:
- Track real time traffic movement on major corridors with route alternatives to be shared with residents online, on Facebook and Twitter, or on cell phone applications.
- Installation of flashing yellow left turn arrows for safety at appropriate intersections.
- Electronic posting of bus arrival times at strategic bus stations.
In a recent national survey, Gainesville had the shortest commuting time in Florida, and was ranked 19th nationally among all metropolitan areas, according to Neilsen.
Gainesville has a population of nearly 125,000 and an area of 62 square miles; Alachua County has a population of nearly 248,000 and an area of 930 square miles. The area is an employment center for north central Florida. The median age is 25, the median household income $31,400 and Gainesville is perhaps most famous as the home of the University of Florida Gators.
What road did Gainesville take to get to where it is today?
In the 1980s and 1990s the Gainesville urban area growth rate was outpacing the ability to add roadway capacity to accommodate new roadway trips. As the community grew and urban sprawl became more of an issue, the existing roadway network became more and more congested, said Mann. Many of the roads were predicted to be failing by 2025.
In 1984 the original Traffic Signal Master Plan was developed and Mann supervised the installation of a computerized signal system in 1987. “Its software, however, ran in DOS using 1200 baud dial-up and it was not Windows compatible.
“We had other problems. Corridors were linked based on 1980s trends. Corridor timings were as infrequent as every 10 years. We had to send crews out to reprogram signals, which usually took 1½ hours. We could only coordinate a few signals in a row. There were many complaints from the public,” Mann said.
In 1997, a feasibility study recommended developing a TMS in lieu of the traditional signal operating system. The system would include operating traffic signals, traffic monitoring, real time traffic operations, emergency vehicle control, enhanced mass transit, real time motorist information and effective incident management. The study also explored traffic management methods and different technologies.
“This was a philosophical change for us, from our old system that just ran signals to one where we were now managing traffic,” Mann said.
Early experience under this new system was not exactly ideal. Mann said implementation was project-based and early projects resulted in inferior equipment selection based on lowest bids. But lessons were being learned.
Then the MTPO came up with its Livable Community Reinvestment Plan with a focus on maximizing the efficiency of the existing transportation system and investing in transit, biking and walking opportunities. At the same time, ITE’s Traffic Signal Report Card said Gainesville was failing — roads were operating at an unacceptable level of service.
“We seized the moment. We developed strategy that included educating elected officials, including state legislators, on the need for and benefits of implementing the TMS and making it the top funding priority,” Mann said, adding that the city, the state, the county and the university established a formal partnership and sought funding partners for the $18.2 million needed.
The largest amount, $9.1 million, came from the state’s Department of Transportation under a new funding program, Transportation Regional Incentive Program (TRIP). The university put in $3.8 million; $5 million was raised through city bonds; and the county added $2.2 million. By determining exactly what the project would cost and fully funding it, the partners avoided having to ask for more money halfway through the work.
Instrumental to the success of TMS, said Mann, was the cooperation between the four partners and many other individuals and organizations, especially because traffic problems were not just a Gainesville issue. “Our mission was to make the system, cost-effective and get the most out of every dollar for our taxpayers and our partners.”
Incident management was key, said Mann, especially for the critical north-south I-75 that runs through Alachua County. I-75 is a major route for goods from the ports of Miami and Tampa, a major highway for military funerals, an important link for Homeland security and a potential site for serious accidents, including a recent multi-vehicle crash in heavy fog that killed 14.
The system is also important to the University of Florida, especially during home football games that attract some 90,000 fans. “The university also is one of the top 10 technology universities in the country and this system is one reason why,” noted Mann. Among the array of services for the school is the weekend “Later Gator” late-night bus service that helps prevent drunken driving incidents.
In his article, Nielsen noted that a PBS program, “America Revealed,” examined a TMS system in Las Vegas that is similar in design to Gainesville’s. “They gained 20 percent more roadway capacity with their TMS at 1/100th the cost of the roadway expansion needed to achieve comparable results.
“Imagine the unnecessary expanse of asphalt and concrete. And compare the returns of our system-wide investment of $18 million to the $101 million cost of building just one road, SW 62nd Boulevard, planned between the Oaks Mall and Butler Plaza.
“As our TMS has come on line, many of us have benefited. We now have new expectations of shorter travel times, so be cautioned that as ease of travel increases, new trips quickly increase to absorb the new road capacity.
“Our city, county and university have created a smart transportation system that helps meet the needs of our economic, environmental, and social health well into the future. Our multimodal transportation must be flexible and innovative by integrating the best of roadway design and traffic management technologies, modern transit, and well-designed bicycle and pedestrian facilities. Gainesville and Alachua County will thrive if we get this right; all of us,” Nielsen concluded.