Bathed in soft fluorescent light, two Anaheim traffic engineers will hunker behind a console, eyes quickly scanning the giant, 6-foot television screen and four video monitors before them. They will look for trouble as the hordes of motorists crowd city streets.
It may sound like the year 2000, but by the end of this month, Anaheim will open a traffic control center that eventually will be one of the most sophisticated in the United States.
“There’s nothing in the country running that has this kind of capability,” said Craig Gardner of JHK & Associates, the San Francisco-based, traffic-management company that is installing the center.
More than 100 sensors embedded in city streets will feed constant car counts to the central computer in the Willdan Building next to City Hall. Other sensors will flash up-to-the-minute traffic counts from each lane at the city’s 230 intersections. Remote video cameras will scan the eight busiest intersections and watch approaching traffic up to half a mile away.
With the touch of a button, engineers can zoom in and out to spot tie-ups from their third-floor command center in the gold-mirrored building. They also can coordinate traffic signals. A dozen signs over major streets in the congested downtown area will flash fresh messages from the center to drivers and suggest alternate routes. Drivers can also tune in on their radio dial for traffic reports.
Anaheim’s $6-million system is modeled on a similar operation established by Los Angeles to handle anticipated traffic snarls around the Coliseum during the 1984 Olympics. But this one does more, although on a smaller geographical scale. Traffic experts from around the state and even overseas are watching to see what happens.
“It’s a forerunner of what’s coming in California,” said Court Burrell, deputy district director for Caltrans in Orange County. “Anaheim is probably being a pilot for a lot of cities in Orange County. Once they see what it does, quite a few will want to get into it.”
This “Star Wars” approach to the challenge of traffic congestion is one of the few choices left to beleaguered city and state governments. Money and land for new road construction has nearly disappeared as more and more motorists try to squeeze onto existing streets.
“This is an attempt to manage the system we have better,” Burrell said. “As traffic demand continues to increase and we run out of space and money, we just have to manage the system as efficiently as possible.”
An estimated 50 million vehicles drive through Anaheim every year, city traffic engineers say. On an average day, 78,000 cars alone try to get through the intersection at Harbor Boulevard and Katella Avenue near Disneyland.
Paul Singer, Anaheim’s traffic engineer, estimates that with the new traffic center in place, drivers will pass through that bottleneck intersection 21% faster than at present. Citywide, the system is expected to reduce average travel times by 10% to 15%, he said.
And smoother-flowing traffic will save gas and time and reduce air pollution, Singer added.
Using a federal formula to calculate the center’s benefits, Singer said those savings translate into 1.4 million fewer gallons of gasoline consumed each year.
The project’s first phase will cost about $3 million. The city will pay for half of that, and other government agencies the rest. Singer said the remaining $3 million will come both from the city’s general revenue fund and from other government sources that the city is pursuing.
Anaheim’s traffic center will not use any revolutionary technologies. Each has been tried and tested elsewhere, Singer said.
Overhead message signs sprouted on Southland freeways 20 years ago. Airports around the country have used radio advisories for a long time. And the first computer-controlled intersections appeared in Toronto almost 30 years ago.
What is unique about the Anaheim system is the combination of so many technologies in one place.
“A lot of the things Anaheim is doing are similar to the smart-streets program in Los Angeles,” now the most advanced in the country, said Stan Oftelie, executive director of the Orange County Transportation Commission. “The difference is that Anaheim will be a page further along in the book.”
A handful of other U.S. cities, including Eugene and Portland in Oregon, are beginning to set up their own high-tech centers, according to JHK’s Gardner. Others, such as Charlotte, N. C., and Arlington, Va., are adding new capabilities to their centers where some of the new technology is already in place, Oftelie added..
Anaheim’s system will be installed in two phases. Half of the city’s intersections will have coordinated traffic signals by November, Singer said, and the rest by 1991. Magnetized loops in the asphalt will relay traffic-flow figures to a control box at each intersection that feeds into the command center. The coordination is automatic, but for serious traffic jams or emergencies, the engineers can override the computer system and set traffic signals manually.
At the command center, a computer monitor will display traffic information from across the city or from a specific intersection or even a single lane.
Initially, only the traffic sensors and computers will be in operation, Singer said.
By July, 1989, however, nine video cameras will be scanning eight intersections. The cameras can tilt, swivel, pan and zoom to look for trouble.
For drivers, electronic signs will display three-line messages about traffic conditions. The first six signs are expected to be in place by next fall, with another six going up by 1991. The signs and cameras will be controlled remotely from the center.
The command center will tie in with the dispatch system for the Police and Fire departments so that officers and firefighters can avoid congested areas in emergencies.
The computer also will tie in with the Caltrans freeway nerve center in downtown Los Angeles. The two computers will share information. Caltrans hopes to have its own command center in Orange County within the next three years, and it would also connect with Anaheim’s system, Burrell said.
“What they are doing is very forward-looking,” Burrell noted. “Because they have major attractions like the stadium, the convention center and Disneyland, they experience event-related congestion on a regular basis.”
Indeed, as anyone driving the Santa Ana Freeway knows, traffic for an Angels or Rams game can back cars up for miles.
This concentration of major crowd-pullers and a recent hotel boom in the area was a key issue politically in selling the traffic center, transportation officials said. A city report had described the situation as a “classic case of success choking itself.”
A negative aspect of the city’s traffic center is that its street sensors cannot communicate directly with the systems used by all other Orange County cities. Neighboring cities, therefore, could not easily tie into the system if they chose.