As motorists sit at lights and fume, Baton Rouge continues to rack up rankings on “worst traffic” lists and daily traffic jams and gridlock become the norm. The constant complaint of residents: synchronize lights to get traffic flowing more smoothly.

But after decades of efforts and millions of dollars spent, only about half of the city’s 500 or so traffic lights are able to communicate with one another and the engineers that operate them.

While noting that some progress has been made, traffic engineers and other officials concede it’s been an expensive and vexing problem to try to solve as changes in technology sometimes outstrip the city-parish’s ability to keep up.

Meanwhile, engineers warn that not all of Baton Rouge’s traffic problems can be solved with synchronized traffic lights. They say the bigger problem is simply that too many cars pour onto busy roads every day.

“It’s pretty incredible the difference that it makes having (the traffic lights) communicating, but it doesn’t solve the capacity problem,” said traffic engineer Sarah Edel.

She also noted that it’s costly to do projects to help move traffic, such as improving intersections and putting up new traffic lights with technology that links them through fiber-optic signals to each other and to engineers that can control their timing.

It cost $10 million in Green Light tax money to rebuild 30 intersections and synchronize just the downtown grid in 2008, according to former Green Light Program Manager Brad Ponder.

City-parish officials had said back in the 1990s that all of the city’s traffic lights would be synchronized by 2010. More promises were made and hopes for relief grew in 2002 with the opening of a new traffic management and emergency operations center on Harding Boulevard.

There, traffic engineers would be using cameras to monitor traffic flow along the interstates and at busy intersections in the parish. But the complete network of synchronized lights envisioned has yet to come together because of costs and other factors.

A team of traffic engineers — including Edel — works at the Advanced Traffic Management Center on Harding Boulevard, where they watch the city’s daily traffic patterns and adjust the sensors in traffic lights to better accommodate traffic flow as problems arise.

They constantly monitor which lights need to be fixed, which signals are not properly communicating and where traffic sits too long at a red light and too short at a green. But, as Edel said, their jobs seem never-ending. There is always another traffic light to fix.

Synchronicity

The older traffic lights in Baton Rouge cannot be synchronized. Lights need new technology in them to communicate with one another, and they need fiber-optic signals that connect to the Traffic Management Center so engineers can control them remotely.

Although about half of the 500 traffic lights the city maintains have the technology to synchronize with one another and communicate with engineers, Edel said, fewer than half of those work ideally. Some have the correct technology, she said, but still are not communicating for various other reasons. Edel said they have had particular trouble with the lights on Perkins Road, Acadian Throughway, Burbank Drive and Lee Drive.

And when one batch of traffic lights isn’t in sync, it can throw off others as well.

“The more you can bring the old tech to new, the better the system works as a whole,” Ponder said. He compared it to the human body, saying that a heart that pumps well does not make a difference if all of the arteries are clogged.

In a perfect world, all of the lights with newer technology would always communicate with each other and be in sync. The roads where lights have the technology to communicate include Siegen Lane, Essen Lane, Bluebonnet Boulevard, Government Street, Jefferson Highway, most of Airline Highway, Acadian Throughway, O’Neal Lane, Millerville Road, Harrells Ferry Road and all of downtown, according to Edel.

College Drive, Perkins Road, Nicholson Drive and Highland Road have all been upgraded to have the synchronization technology, but the lights do not always correctly communicate and will need future fixes, she said. Nicholson and Highland, for example, were two of the first roads that were synchronized and their technology may now be outdated, according to Edel.

The next phase of improvements will target lights on Choctaw Drive and Foster Drive, and it’s pegged at costing about $5 million, Edel said. The money should mostly come from federal dollars and construction may start next year, but it could also be slowed down, she said.

The final phase of synchronization would likely address the lights on Plank Road. Edel said it’s too early to know for sure how much it would cost or estimate a timeline.

Halfway done

The city started studying traffic light synchronization in 1987.

Former Baton Rouge Mayor Tom Ed McHugh called for better synchronization in 1996, and work started to link traffic lights to real-time flow on Airline Highway, Sherwood Forest Boulevard, College Drive, Nicholson Drive and Highland Road.

The city-parish hoped back then to have its then-400 traffic signals all synchronized by 2010. In 2004, the city estimated that 75 percent of the city’s traffic lights would be synchronized by 2006. But two years later, traffic engineers reported that only about 250, or half, of the city-parish’s traffic lights had been synchronized.

That number has remained relatively stagnant since then.

Despite plans to finish the work over the next several years, Edel sees no finish line in the future. She said she anticipates engineers will then have to go back to the first lights that got new technology, and replace what technology has by then become outdated.

“I don’t ever really see technology stopping,” she said. “As technology changes, we’ll do our best to stay on top of it and stay on the cutting edge.”

Edel and her team at the traffic management center have already tried new tactics to become more proactive about fixing traffic problems.

The engineers spend much of their days outside of the office, driving around the city and checking out possible malfunctioning traffic lights that residents have reported.

When they are in the office during rush hour, the engineers keep an eye on TV monitors that show traffic ebbing and flowing in densely-traveled areas, like Interstate 10 at Essen Lane and Airline Highway at Coursey Boulevard.

The engineers can quickly react to traffic pileups that cause more people than usual to pass through certain lights. For example, they can reprogram signals to stay green for longer if they notice that more people than usual are exiting on a certain interstate exit.

Google help?

Synchronizing traffic lights are one aspect of solving Baton Rouge traffic problems so frustrating that it has elected officials and candidates running for office at all levels searching for solutions.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves said he’s trying to develop a pilot program with Google that would help traffic lights better anticipate what kind of volume is headed their way.

Graves has a Baton Rouge driving experience that’s familiar to many.

Along with fighting gridlock and traffic jams, Graves is used to idling at traffic lights that should seemingly be green but end up staying red, at least for a few minutes longer than he would like.

He recalls leaving work downtown at 2 a.m. on many extra-long nights, driving on Interstate 110, exiting at Government Street and then waiting and waiting — with no cars coming in the distance — for a red light to change.

The traffic lights themselves are of special interest to Graves. He said he’s been in discussions with Google, trying to convince them to commit to a pilot program in Baton Rouge that might synchronize traffic lights with Google Maps.

Graves’ goal would be for Google Maps to alert traffic lights about what volume is headed their way and to signal the traffic lights for how long to cycle. In those wee morning hours when Graves would sit at a red light on his way home, the Google Maps technology might be able to signal to the traffic light that it should change.

“You can start communicating with the traffic signals, with the traffic management; you can tell the traffic lights how long you have until you’re coming and how long until you’ll be there,” Graves said.

He said the U.S. House of Representatives should have a comprehensive transportation bill introduced in the next few weeks, and he is working to add language to the bill that could set the framework for the pilot program.

Though light synchronization has hit its snags along the way, engineers say that even perfectly synchronized lights would not fix Baton Rouge’s traffic problems. They might barely scratch the surface.

Graves agrees, saying the city needs to look at other mid-term and long-term solutions for the problems, like building new bridges and infrastructure. Many candidates running for state Legislature have also pledged to improve traffic conditions if elected.

“We have an extraordinary distance to go,” Graves said.