A trip down Washington Avenue in downtown Minneapolis is now 7 minutes faster for the average driver than it was a year ago. That's because traffic lights on the busy thoroughfare have been re-timed in the first comprehensive re-jiggering since 1991.
The city this summer installed new technology to operate the lights on Washington Avenue and at 200 intersections in the downtown area. Lights are timed so that more successive traffic lights remain green, allowing for morning and evening 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 past year we have done lots 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 $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 currently use technology that dates to the 1940s. Some of those were on Washington Avenue and coordinating them was extremely difficult.
Before the new system was installed this summer, city planners drove the stretch between 6th Avenue N. and I-35W. Comparing travel times after the new system was installed, they found times dropped by up to 25 percent, or up to 7 minutes during morning and rush hours, said project manager Nick VanGunst.
Traffic flow varies from corridor to corridor, but officials said early evidence shows that traffic flow 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, and are not activated during other parts of the day.
As part of the improvements, the city's Traffic Management Center has been upgraded with equipment that allows engineers to make changes to traffic signal patterns to adjust to congestion or when there are large events 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."