Drivers using three busy intersections around Morrill’s Corner should start noticing improvements in the coming weeks, after the high-tech signals are activated.

Portland is testing new, high-tech traffic signals designed to constantly measure and respond to traffic flows so motorists spend less time stuck in congestion and waiting at red lights.

The so-called smart signals have been collecting data for weeks at three busy intersections around Morrill’s Corner, and city officials say motorists should start noticing improvements in the coming weeks when the signals adjust the timing of green and red lights. Motorists can expect to see a reduction in travel time through Morrill’s Corner by up to 20 percent or 30 percent, the city said.

Traffic signals typically have to be manually programmed by the city, based on general traffic data for certain times of day, said Jessica Grondin, Portland’s director of communications. Now, “they will be able to sense when people are coming and change the lights appropriately,” she said. “This will be real-time detection.”

Portland is the first community in Maine and one of the first in the country to test the technology, although the experiment could lead to expanded use of the system in Portland and other Maine communities.

Morrill’s Corner is a notoriously busy section of Forest Avenue where an estimated 33,700 vehicles pass through daily, according to a 2016 report from the Maine Department of Transportation. It includes three busy intersections where Forest Avenue connects with Stevens Avenue, Allen Avenue and Warren Avenue.

Equipment recently installed at all three intersections has been collecting data for several weeks, working to find the most efficient timing sequence for each traffic light. The technology also gives the traffic signals the ability to communicate with each other to create the best pattern for the lights. The city began phasing in the technology this week and hopes to have it fully operational July 16, Grondin said.

EMPLOYING RADAR TECHNOLOGIES

It’s part of a larger “smart city” project in Portland that ultimately will include energy-efficient street lights with wifi hot spots and air quality sensors. The project at Morrill’s Corner cost $128,000 for the equipment and installation.

Funding for the traffic signals has come from the money the city has saved by acquiring all of Portland’s streetlights from CMP and switching them to cost-effective LED bulbs, Grondin said. The city purchased the streetlights for $497,000, but the switch will help save over $1 million annually, she said.

The new traffic signals feature Surtrac technology, which uses radar capabilities to detect vehicles from 500 to 600 feet away, said Jim Schriver, director of Smart-City Technology for TEN Collected Solutions, the lead contractor for the city’s project.

Surtrac was developed by Rapid Flow Technologies, a Pittsburgh-based company that emerged from Carnegie Mellon University, where Professor Stephen Smith and his students first tested the technology back in 2012. Rapid Flow Technologies opened in 2015 to market Surtrac technology to U.S. cities. Smith remains a professor at Carnegie Mellon and also is a chief scientist for Rapid Flow.

In an interview, Smith said the technology was tested successfully at nine intersections in Pittsburgh and now is used at 41 more intersections, with more likely to be added. Atlanta also has adopted the smart traffic signals and now has 24 intersections using the technology. Smith said travel time is reduced by an average of 25 percent and the amount of time spent idling in traffic or at a red light decreased by 40 percent.

“Our technology focuses more on the complex problem of urban areas,” he said, “where the dominant flow of traffic is likely to change throughout the day.”

The smart traffic signals also will benefit the environment by reducing pollution from cars waiting in traffic, Schriver said. “It will help residents and visitors of the city by reducing transit times,” he said, “which will result in reducing pollution and smog.”

BOTH SKEPTICISM AND OPTIMISM

The notion that smart traffic signals could reduce waiting time and congestion at Morrill’s Corner got mixed reactions from some local observers.

Frank Pierobello, who has owned Morrill’s Corner Pub for 34 years, is skeptical about the technology, and his advice to motorists was to take a different route to get through that area. He also said the city should focus instead on public transportation to combat the traffic problems.

“I think they should take all the money they are spending on the lights and get a better bus service, so people would be more encouraged to leave their cars at home,” Pierobello said.

The owner and general manager of Bruno’s Restaurant and Tavern, Danny Napolitano, is hopeful that the upgrades will help improve traffic. However, he also believes the city should have started with a less chaotic intersection for the pilot of the new technology, not one that has “two or three intersections crammed into one,” he said.

Depending on the performance of the new traffic signals at Morrill’s Corner, the city will implement the upgraded technology at other intersections, from Woodford’s Corner and up Forest Avenue to Deering Oaks park, and possibly on Commercial and Franklin streets, which have a bad reputation for traffic congestion. The upgrades in Woodford’s Corner are likely to get delayed until next year, Grondin said, because of the ongoing construction there.

Julie Pike can be contacted at 400-6986 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: juliepike999

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