It turns out traffic engineers hate red lights just as much as regular drivers do.
In Aurora, those engineers now have a chance to do something about it.
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A new system that began going online in September allows crews to monitor congestion at certain intersections and change traffic signals to help keep cars moving.
The state-of-the-art system lets staff members watch a digital version of cars stopping and going at 23 intersections, including 11 along a 2.5-mile stretch of Galena Boulevard, starting just west of the Fox River at Locust Street, and continuing west to Constitution Drive. More intersections on other roads soon will be connected.
"There's nothing worse than a red light and sitting at a red light for no reason," said Steve Zaburunov of the city's division of public works and engineering. "The cost of sitting at a red light is pretty high."
While an individual car doesn't waste a large amount of fuel at a single red light, the amount of wasted gas can add up to about 100 gallons a day at a busy intersection that handles 14,000 vehicles, Zaburunov said.
"And that's what this will be saving," Zaburunov said. "This is one of the systems that will pay for itself, too, as time goes on, just in energy savings, fuel savings, and in man hours."
By the beginning of December, 47 traffic signals will be connected to the system, city traffic engineer Eric Gallt said, and by the end of next year, 65 will be connected. City staff eventually will be able to monitor traffic flow and change traffic signals at 115 intersections citywide.
The system also allows staff to preset traffic signals for special events such as Downtown Alive, when certain streets will be closed, Gallt said.
"We don't have to go out and manually change the signals, which takes a lot of man hours," Gallt said. "It's going to save hundreds of man hours a year."
The system has public safety implications as well, Gallt said. Cameras that monitor traffic flow at many of the intersections will not be used for traffic law enforcement, but footage can be viewed later during investigations of accidents, he said.
The process of installing the traffic monitoring system began in 2005, when officials decided traffic lights needed a function that would increase safety for emergency vehicles on their way to calls, Fire Chief Hal Carlson said.
"Basically, it gives all police and fire vehicles their light to help speed up our response time to incidents," Carlson said. "Every intersection is a hazard as it is, but if you've got the green light, you have a little more confidence that it's safe to go through."
City officials then realized many traffic signals were outdated and would need upgrades for the emergency vehicle pre-emption system to be installed, Gallt said.
The city applied for and received a total of roughly $10 million through a federal grant administered by the state called the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program in 2005, 2006 and 2007, Gallt said. The city has contributed about $2 million to projects related to emergency vehicle pre-emption and the traffic control system.
As signals have been upgraded, they have received new controllers, vehicle detection devices, and wiring that connects them to other nearby signals on the same roads, Gallt said. The city's fiber optic network connects the information gathered from cameras and vehicle detection devices at intersections back to the control center in city hall.
The traffic control operation has the potential to expand even after all 165 Aurora intersections are connected, Gallt said. If other governmental units such as Naperville or DuPage County install similar systems, the ability to ease traffic jams, program signals for special events, and review film after accidents could become regional.
"(This system) improves the quality of life for drivers quite a bit," Zaburunov said.