A trip down Washington Avenue in downtown Minneapolis is now seven minutes faster for the average driver than it was a year ago. That’s because traffic lights have been re-timed in the first comprehensive rejiggering since 1991.
The city this summer installed new technology to operate the lights on Washington Avenue and at 200 downtown intersections. Lights are timed so that successive traffic lights remain green, allowing for rush-hour traffic to get in and out of the city more efficiently, said Steve Kotke, director of the Minneapolis Public Works Department.
“What’s irritating for any driver is to have that traffic light turn red and stop, then go to the next block and stop again,” said Mayor R.T. Rybak. “Over the past year we have done lots of work to make sure drivers can get through the city of Minneapolis easier.”
The city used a federal grant along with city, county and state money to pay for the $11.2 million signal project, which will be expanded to the rest of the city by the end of summer 2014.
In addition to making traffic flow smoother, the new signal system is expected to lower exhaust emissions, since vehicles will be idling less, and allow more time for pedestrians to cross the street.
Some of the city’s traffic control boxes use technology that dates to the 1940s.
City planners drove the stretch between 6th Avenue N. and I-35W before and after the system was installed this summer. They said travel times have dropped by up to seven minutes during morning and afternoon rush hours, said project manager Nick VanGunst.
Traffic flow varies from street to street, but officials said early evidence shows that it has improved throughout downtown. Overall, the new signals could improve traffic flow by 10 percent downtown, said Steve Mosing, traffic operations engineer.
Officials say drivers have already noticed a difference.
Some intersections are now equipped with left-turn arrows that work during peak periods of the day.
The city’s Traffic Management Center also has been upgraded to allow engineers to change traffic signal patterns to ease congestion downtown without having to send a technician out to the box.
“Our goal is to make our streets a destination and be part of the city,” Rybak said. “It was never to have people stuck in traffic and have random light changes that make the commute unpredictable.”