March 30, 2013

The right signals

Joint effort by city, state workers leads to much-improved traffic flow on Cleveland Highway and North Bypass. Where those two roads meet is the busiest intersection in Northwest Georgia.

By Mitch Talley Whitfield County Director of Communications

— If you commute into Dalton each morning using Cleveland Highway or the North Bypass, you might have been late to work a few times in late February and early March because of the backed-up traffic.

But thanks to the efforts of Andrew Parker, project manager,  and Alex Rice, traffic signal foreman, of the Dalton Public Works Department, and Chad Wilkie of the District 6 office of the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT), now you might even have time to stop and get your boss a cup of coffee and still punch the clock by 8 a.m.

The traffic backup, which was stretching northward in the morning past the Dalton Golf & Country Club entrance, nearly three-fourths of a mile from the Cleveland Highway/North Bypass intersection, resulted from ineffective traffic signal timing after construction of new turn lanes was recently completed at the intersection of those two major roads in Whitfield County.

“Our office got a lot of phone calls, the county commissioners got a lot of phone calls, and our elected (city) officials got a lot of phone calls (complaining about the traffic tie-up),” Parker said, “so we just said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something.’”

That’s when Parker and Wilkie virtually camped out at the intersection for the better part of a week, beginning Monday, March 11, to get a feel for the situation at different times of the day.

“It was just awful,” Parker said of what they witnessed that first morning.

The two men came up with a timing coordination plan to try and better synchronize the traffic signals, put it in place that Monday, and then came back the next morning to see what effect it had on traffic.

“What we realized is we gave a lot of time to help the southbound traffic clear in that first plan because that is where most of the problems and most of the complaints that we had in the morning were,” Parker said. “However, we observed on that Tuesday that by doing that, we created a little more backup than we thought on east-bound and west-bound traffic.”

So they made some more minor adjustments to their timing plan, giving additional time to east-bound and west-bound motorists, and came back again Wednesday morning to see the results.

While the plan had made “significant” improvement to the traffic flow, they still weren’t completely satisfied and decided to make some final adjustments.

“When we came back Thursday morning, we were very pleased with the results,” Parker said. “We were clearing the majority of the vehicles coming into town southbound very well, and the east-bound and west-bound traffic was moving well, too.”

In fact, they coordinated all seven signals starting at North Georgia EMC and Cleveland Highway and coming south to Glenwood Avenue and Legion Drive — with improved results all along the way.

“We saw all seven signals be green at the same time,” Parker said, “and we were very, very pleased with that. We’ve had a lot of good compliments since we came up with that final timing plan.”

Motorists likely have seen their time moving through that corridor reduced from 10 or 15 minutes to less than five minutes in many cases, he said.

“I went back out there last week,” Parker said, “and I got stopped at the Waring Road light. But from there I made it all the way through the Bypass, Smith Industrial, Lowe’s, Wendy’s at Legion, and all the way to my work on Elm Street without getting stopped again. That’s what we want to see. We want to have that coordination.”

The good news could get even better, though, as the state DOT has told Parker it will provide a traffic engineering firm to do a comprehensive study of the traffic along Cleveland Highway, collecting traffic counts and using sophisticated computerized models to come up with the best possible signal timing plan possible. The plan will also coordinate with signals on Fleming Street, Reed Road, Chattanooga Avenue and North Thornton Avenue to try and ensure good traffic flow through that entire area.

“The good thing is after they implement the plan, the company will be around to support it for the next two years,” Parker said. “That way, if we notice something not working quite right, we can get them to come back up here and try to figure out a solution to the problem.”

Currently, traffic signals here are kept in sync by clocks inside the metal controller cabinets at each intersection. “If the clocks get out of sync a little bit, it throws the coordination plan off  between the signals,” he said.

That’s one reason the city and county just decided to share the cost of installing more sophisticated GPS clocks inside each controller along this route, which sync every minute to a satellite to make sure each of the signals always remains synchronized.

Parker wants the public to know that his department is working hard to make traffic flow as smoothly as possible.

“What we’ve tried to get people to realize is, hey, we’re in this thing together,” he said. “We don’t want everybody’s morning commute to be miserable.”

In fact, he encourages local residents to call his office and voice their opinions about the changes as well as traffic concerns in general.

“Even though we’ve implemented our plan and think we’ve got it working pretty good,” Parker said, “we would still encourage people to call our office at (706) 278-7077 and tell us their observations. Maybe they noticed that they sat at a certain intersection a little longer today than usual — maybe something is off that we need to be aware of.

“We’re in this together,” he said. “We’re just trying to improve this for our citizens, especially their morning and afternoon commutes.”