Cedar Park, TX Reinvents Intersection Movement Methods During a Time of Rapid City Growth

The U.S. Census Bureau consistently ranks the City of Cedar Park, Texas as one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, twice being ranked the Fourth Fastest-Growing City in the Country.  In the face of such rapid growth, Cedar Park needed to commit to building and maintaining a vibrant community while responding to such growth and planning for sustainability in the future. Cedar Park has risen to these growth challenges year after year through responsible budgeting, sound debt management, and workforce and infrastructure investments that help improve traffic flow and safety, road infrastructure and intersection mobility.

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To learn more, we talked to the City of Cedar Park’s Senior Traffic Engineer, Stephen Hanuscin.  A licensed Professional Engineer in Texas, Stephen has worked for the City of Cedar Park for 3 years following 10 years of designing and timing traffic signals as a consultant.  He oversees the operation and maintenance of all of the city’s traffic signals, school zone beacons, and street lights, as well as the wireless traffic signal network.  With the support of city leadership, he actively seeks opportunities to leverage new ITS technology to provide the best possible driving experience for residents and visitors of Cedar Park in a period of rapid growth.

 

Q: Cedar Park is a vibrant community. Tell us a little bit about your city and why those positive elements are also contributing to traffic challenges? (growth, weather challenges, etc.)

A: The U.S. Census Bureau consistently ranks Cedar Park as one of the fastest-growing cities in the country.  In recent years we were twice ranked the Fourth Fastest-Growing City in the Country.  In the face of such rapid growth, the City of Cedar Park has remained committed to building and maintaining our vibrant community while responding to such growth and planning for sustainability in the future.  We’ve risen to these challenges year after year through responsible budgeting, sound debt management and workforce and infrastructure investments that help improve – among other things - traffic flow and safety, road infrastructure and intersection movement. We always strive to maintain the professional and high level of service our citizens expect while continuing to plan, manage and fund the necessary capital improvement projects – including transportation projects - that contribute to the great quality of life in Cedar Park. Our citizens are equally committed to this standard of excellence, as demonstrated by an overwhelming vote in 2015 for $63M in streets bonds for projects that include projects such as the extension of E. New Hope Drive (a new east-west route), arterial overlay, intersection turn lanes, and Phase One of the Bell Boulevard Redevelopment Project. 

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Q: Where in the City is traffic particularly bad and how was that affecting livability? How was it affecting your traffic engineering team’s ability to do its job?

A: One area that was experiencing significant congestion was the intersection of Whitestone Blvd (RM 1431) and Parmer Ln (FM 734)/Ronald Reagan Blvd, two high-volume, high-speed corridors.  The intersection’s former configuration was a standard 4-leg 8-phase intersection.  Due to the growth in Cedar Park and surrounding communities, the traffic volumes had grown to exceed the intersection’s capacity, and, therefore, the city’s traffic signal division’s ability to mitigate congestion with timing alone. 

Other areas experiencing heavy traffic congestion include the Bell Blvd (US 183) and Lakeline Blvd corridors, both of which serve both local traffic as well as commuters traveling into and out of Austin.

Q: What are some of the projects you targeted that would improve traffic flow?

A: The City has undertaken a number of projects to add additional turn lanes at congested intersections.  At the aforementioned intersection of Whitestone Blvd and Parmer Ln/Ronald Reagan Blvd, the solution was a joint project with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to widen Whitestone Blvd and convert the intersection to a Continuous Flow Intersection (CFI).  We are also improving other corridors to improve north-south connectivity (Anderson Mill Rd) and building new arterials to improve east-west connectivity (East New Hope Rd and Little Elm Trail).  The Traffic Signal and Street Light Division is also conducting programs to replace all NEMA TS2 signal cabinets with ATC cabinets and to convert protected-permitted turns to flashing yellow operation in order to improve platoon progression.

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Q: Do you have one showcase intersection/project we can focus on for a minute. Why is that intersection so important/connected? And what was happening there?

A: Yes – The aforementioned CFI.  It is located at the intersection of two important regional arterials, and there are several major retailers at the intersection.  So it not only serves local residents, but also those who might be coming in from neighboring communities to shop, dine, or work. 

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Q: How did you come to identify uninterruptible power supply (UPS) as a key component of your improvements and what were your goals with deploying UPS?

A:  Due to the complex nature of the CFI’s operation, the potential for unfamiliarity to drivers new to the area, and high traffic volumes, it was critical that the intersection never go dark, no matter the length of the power outage.  Therefore, the Traffic Signal and Street Light Division made the decision to install a UPS before turning on the new traffic signal.

Q: Did you already have lead-acid UPS at some intersections? How many and how was it performing? What were your concerns with the old system?

A: We did not.  But our concerns with lead-acid batteries included extensive maintenance, potential for failure, and hazards to personnel and the environment.

Q: How did you come to pick ZincFive’s UPStealth?  What unique features were most important to you and specifically which ZincFive UPS did you deploy and how many?

A:  When we were considering which UPS to deploy at the CFI, we wanted a system with the following features:

●     Low or no maintenance

●     Hot-swappable batteries for extended power outages

●     Minimal hazards

●     Remote monitoring

●     Long life

●     No external battery cabinet.

For our initial installation at the CFI, we deployed a heavy duty UPStealth 170 Controller/Inverter with two 500W Living-Hinge Battery Panels, five 500W NEMA Battery Panels, and a battery HUB to enable the use of the additional batteries.  We required that many batteries because the CFI is essentially three intersections operated by a single controller.  The NEMA Battery Panels worked very well in this application because they fit neatly into the unused rack space of the larger four-door cabinet.  Thanks to the flexibility of the Living-Hinge Battery Panel design, we were able to easily and safely install those two batteries vertically in the shallower 4-door cabinet without impacting battery performance.

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Q: We understand you had a major power outage at a signature intersection and that really put the UPStealth to the test.  Tell us about that.

A: In the last year the UPS has powered the CFI through a 38 minute power outage, a 17 minute outage, and more recently a 130 minute outage.  It also prevented the controller from power cycling and flashing several times during brown-outs and other irregularities in the power.

Q: What would have happened if you hadn’t had a reliable backup?

A: Gridlock, potential for illegal turns, violations of right of way assignment (disregarding dark signal).

Q: How about UPStealth performing at other locations?

A: We are currently preparing to install our second UPS at another critical intersection: Whitestone Blvd and Toll 183A.  This busy diamond interchange continues to see growth in traffic, due to the recent increases in population and commercial development in the area.  There was a massive power outage at this intersection during the afternoon peak hour in the heart of the Christmas shopping season in 2015.  Traffic came to a standstill in the few minutes it took police to arrive and start directing traffic.  We expect that with an UPS installed, any future power outages at this interchange would go unnoticed by drivers. 

Q: Was it important you picked a UPS that fit inside the existing cabinets. Tell us about that.

A: Yes.  We were seeking a solution that did not require an external cabinet to be mounted to the side of our new ATC cabinets, both to prevent potential water leaks and for aesthetic reasons.

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Q: How many batteries were you able to get inside that cabinet?

A: 7 with room for more if we need a longer run time at some point in the future.

Q: How did you test the UPStealth before installing? For instance, how rigorous is your testing procedure?

A: We tested the UPStealth by installing it in a signal cabinet and disconnecting power to the cabinet several times.  We do not have a lab setup for rigorous testing against environmental conditions, etc.

Q: What other cool intelligent transportation technology have you deployed in Cedar Park?

A: We have been deploying ATC cabinets since 2014 with the goal of replacing all of our NEMA TS2 cabinets. We are beginning to explore the technologies that those cabinets and controllers make available, including automated signal performance measure monitoring, vehicle to infrastructure communications, and peer-to-peer controller communication.  From our transportation management center, we are able to monitor live conditions at every signalized intersection in the city via detection cameras and high resolution PTZ cameras, and we are able to monitor speeds along arterials using Bluetooth data loggers at major intersections.

Q: What’s next on the horizon for your transportation goals?

A: We are currently preparing for a project known as “Destination Bell Blvd”, which will realign Bell Blvd (US 183) to the east of its current location and provide opportunities for redevelopment of the area.  A new section of New Hope Rd is under construction, with another eastward extension planned for the future.  The north end of Anderson Mill Road is currently being reconstructed to add capacity and straighten out some sharp corners.  TxDOT is working on adding lanes to Whitestone Blvd (RM 1431) between Arrow Point and Vista Ridge Blvd, and the City is anticipating widening Whitestone Blvd between Bagdad Rd and Anderson Mill Road to add additional lanes.  We also anticipate a number of intersection improvements throughout the city.

Q: How might UPS play an expanding role?

A: UPS will play a greater role as our transportation network continues to grow, and usage increases.  It will become more and more critical for traffic signals, particularly those at major, complex, and closely spaced intersections, to be able to operate without interruption during power outages and brown outs.  Our goal would be for drivers not to even notice that there is a power outage.

Q: What would you tell other DOTs about the importance of UPS?

A: UPS is important because it will keep traffic flowing on increasingly congested roadways.  Perhaps more important than traffic flow, however, is that many drivers do not correctly interpret a dark signal to mean that they must treat the intersection as an all-way stop.  In that regard, UPS can save lives because it can reduce incidences of drivers failing to stop and yield right of way at a dark signal in the critical minutes between the start of the power outage and when law enforcement officers arrive to direct traffic.  Instead, with reliable UPS, drivers will never know there is a power outage because the signal will continue to operate normally.

Q: Did you get govt. funding? How did you pay for the UPStealth and other ITS technology?

A:  Our first UPS was purchased out of the budget for the CFI project.  Subsequent signal construction projects include UPS in the budget.  Other ITS technology and additional UPS units for existing signals are funded out of our signal maintenance and operation budget, although we are always looking for grants to help fund large-scale deployments.

Q: Any advice for other DOTs on best steps in improving their systems?

A: Find where your weakest links are and start there.  If you have intersections that historically experience frequent power outages, make those a priority for UPS installation.  If your signal controllers will not support emerging ATSPM and V2I technologies, consider upgrading your controllers, starting along your most critical arterials where those technologies will be able to make the greatest impacts on both driver experience and your maintenance duties.  If you don’t have communication to your signals, installing a broadband radio network will go a long way toward improving your maintenance response times and toward giving you a better picture of how your system is performing.  And a radio system can be implemented much faster and cheaper than a fiber network, especially with the availability of low-cost high-performance radios currently on the market.