Utah Department of Transportation’s Gold Medal Traffic Signals Program: A National Model Built on the Olympics, Great Leadership and ZincFive’s UPStealth Battery Backup System
If the race toward a world class traffic signals program were an Olympic sport, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) would surely take gold. Consider its challenges: Eighty percent of the state’s three million people live in an area just 100 miles long and five miles wide, surrounded by mountains and the Great Salt Lake. Thousands of new residents are flocking there every year, drawn to the state’s stunning natural beauty, recreational options and friendly business climate. By 2050 the population is expected to double. UDOT knows it can’t build its way out of those growth challenges. Instead, the agency is racing toward a national model for smart transportation.
Right after winning honors to host the 2002 Olympics, Utah approved fiber optic installations, eventually connecting more than 90 percent (1,200) of the state operated traffic signals. This gave UDOT the ability to remotely monitor and adjust almost every signal. After the Olympics, and anticipating a population surge, UDOT leaders challenged their team to keep pushing for nothing less than a“world-class traffic system” program.
To learn more, we talked with UDOT Traffic Signal Operations and Maintenance Engineer, Mark Taylor. A Professional Engineer and Professional Traffic Operations Engineer, Mark has worked for UDOT for 17 years and oversees operations and maintenance for most of the state’s traffic signals. He’s a member of IMSA and is IMSA level II certified. He’s also an enthusiastic, early adopter of intelligent transportation technology.
Q: Mark, you say “innovation, creativity, risk and increased transparency” are the foundations to your traffic signals program? How so?
A: There is no innovation without creativity, so both have become critical skills for achieving success in dealing with transportation issues. The need for creative problem solving has arisen as more and more transportation problems require creative insights to find suitable solutions. Calculated risk-taking allows you to become more creative, find innovative solutions to problems and often results in positive outcomes. Increased transparency is absolutely necessary in today’s government. UDOT has a goal to be one of the most transparent government agencies in the country.
Q: Did planning for the Olympics kick off this dream of a world class traffic signals program?
A: The transportation experience of the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics helped foster a positive environment of team building with interagency partners and over-the-top preparation to ensure that transportation is excellent during the games. Good planning and the abundant resources we had preparing for the Olympic games, helped us realize untypical innovative solutions in dealing with transportation issues. Some of those ideas continue to help us move closer to our quest for world class traffic signals.
Q: That doesn’t happen without excellent leadership. How have you worked with management to create the vision and, the big challenge, obtain funding?
A: UDOT senior leaders knew we could not build our way out of transportation problems. They also realized the huge benefits that excellent traffic signal operations would provide, as a result of the 2002 Winter Olympics. So, in 2011 they challenged us to be world class in traffic signal operations and maintenance. This challenge led to the development of a Quality Improvement Team (QIT), which evaluated existing operations, national best practices and recommendations. The QIT recommended many changes to the program to move us from a reactive to a proactive stance. Some of those recommendations included additional funding, additional employees and reorganizing our management structure. UDOT’s senior leaders accepted the recommendations in the QIT and provided us the resources needed to endeavor toward world class traffic signals.
Q: Let’s talk about some of the programs UDOT created. First, the Automated Traffic Signal Performance Measures (ATSPMs), which give you a real-time look at how your traffic signals are operating and the ability to make changes, remotely.
A: UDOT was introduced to ATSPMs in 2012 by Purdue University and the Indiana Department of Transportation. Soon after, we developed software to calculate and display the metrics. Currently, 1,100 UDOT signals have data in the system. We use existing field equipment to collect data from traffic signals in real-time, providing instantaneous feedback to help improve the quality of traffic signal operations – everything from identifying malfunctioning equipment to modifying signal timing. This program (http://udottraffic.utah.gov/atspm) has helped us improve mobility, increase safety and use resources more effectively.
Q: How are those goals being met and helping people get to where they’re going?
A: UDOT’s vision is “Keeping Utah Moving,” and our mission is “Innovating transportation solutions that strengthen Utah’s economy and enhance quality of life.” ATSPMs are an integral part of signal operations and system management and provide insight into signal performance, trends, daily troubleshooting and optimizing. ATSPMs have enabled us to do more with less, focus our resources on the areas of most need and to more effectively prioritize resources and workload.
Q: That gets us to your second program, the Emergency Response Plan, which deals with traffic problems that cannot be solved remotely.
A: Yes, UDOT has a detailed Emergency Response Plan for traffic signals that helps to define when an immediate response is required, guidelines where battery backup systems should be deployed and a plan when action should be taken for generator power.
Q: Can you give some examples of how it’s working?
A: It’s working very well, though we’re still in the process of fully executing the plan. Our response time to emergencies has improved, we have started to deploy more battery backup systems and our signal technicians are working overtime to equip all of our signal cabinets with generator plugs and transfer switches. This will make it easier and faster for our non-technical personnel to install generators when needed. We can then better leverage other resources at UDOT, such as available personnel, particularly the maintenance sheds, which are located closer to the traffic signals than our signal maintenance personnel.
You’re a big believer in adopting smart transportation technology, such as generator power and uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems such as battery backups.
A: A comprehensive traffic signal management plan should include a plan on how and when to deal with power outages. Once all traffic signal cabinets are equipped with a generator plug and transfer switch and generators (approximately three) provided to each maintenance shed, our plan calls for us to respond to restore power that is expected to be down for more than one hour. However, with our vision of “Keeping Utah Moving,” waiting one hour to restore power is not acceptable at some of the busier and sophisticated intersections where power is needed for both optimizing mobility and improving safety. Those intersections must be powered all the time.
We believe battery backup systems should be part of every agency’s traffic signal management plan. I’m not saying to install them everywhere, but at carefully chosen locations to keep traffic moving and provide safety to the traveling public. UPS systems are installed on a case-by-case basis. For rural areas, the ADT can be reduced by 25 percent. Here are our priorities for where and when to deploy.
● Intersections with railroad preemption or coordinated with flashing-light signal systems (Utah MUTCD 4D.27).
● Freeway interchanges.
● Complex intersections including but not limited to SPUIs, CFIs, DDIs, THrU Turns, Flex Lanes, and Light-Rail.
● Intersections closer than 1000 feet from another intersection with UPS.
● Intersections where the ADT is greater than 40,000 (30,000 rural) for a single corridor.
● Arterials crossing arterials where the ADT is greater than 30,000 (22,000 rural) for a single corridor.
● Intersections with approaches 50 mph or higher with an ADT greater than 20,000 (15,000 rural) for a single corridor.
Other factors we consider include:
● Intersections with a history of signal malfunctions due to power quality or reliability issues.
● Intersections near fire stations (within 1200 feet).
● Intersections over capacity during peak hours with a heavy directional traffic flow.
● Intersections with split phasing or where the right-of-way assignment is difficult for a four-way stop operation.
● Intersections where CCTV coverage during power outages is important. However, all of the network switches at the intersections along either the primary or secondary channel will also need to have power.
● Intersections with high pedestrian and/or bicycle traffic.
● Intersections where the signal repair response time is excessive.
● Intersections along critical routes to hospitals.
Q: What did you look for in a UPS and how is what you’ve adopted helping with traffic challenges?
A: We wanted to find a system that can be quickly deployed by our signal technicians, is low maintenance, where the batteries can handle climate extremes and where its system can fit inside most of our existing traffic signal cabinets, similar to what ZincFive, Inc. now provides us. We installed their UPStealth® UPS at sites where we have frequent power bumps. Most of the time, when this happens, the intersection comes out of flash just fine. However occasionally, the MMU (conflict monitor) will latch, requiring a reset in the field. The UPStealth is definitely doing its job. As funding and resources allow, we plan on expanding our battery backup systems deployment each year so we can meet the prioritized locations we have identified in our plan.
Q: You’ve also tried new ideas such as Continuous Flow Intersections (CFI’s). How’s that working?
A. We have deployed several CFI’s, diverging diamond interchanges (DDI’s), Through-Turns and reversible lane systems. We have had some tremendous results optimizing mobility, preserving infrastructure and improving safety by using some of these innovative designs.
Q: What other new technologies are you deploying and which ones are you excited about for the near future?
A: There are lots of neat, innovative things happening in the traffic signal industry. For example, we have started to test vehicle to infrastructure technology using dedicated short range communications (DSRC) radios to give intelligent transit signal priority. Other applications of this technology will grow to include motorists with vehicle safety applications for crash avoidance and eco driving where vehicles are more carefully using the brakes and gas pedal, by knowing the state of the traffic signal timing. As these technologies develop, it will be more urgent to ensure that communications and reliable power are functioning properly at intersections.
Q: Do you think DOTs are feeling more comfortable with deploying intelligent transportation technologies?
A: As agencies continue to work toward a world class traffic management program, they will be in a much better position to adapt these technologies as they become available. I once heard a car company executive say that the next big thing is a thousand small things and that intelligent transportation technologies may be so gradual, that by the time they’re here, it will seem natural and no big deal.
Q: What will it take for you to feel UDOT has reached its goal for a “world class traffic signals” program?
A: This is a quest that will last a lifetime--and beyond. Once we think we are there, we need to raise the bar higher.
Q: What would you tell other DOTs facing these same growth challenges and how can they learn more?
A: Hang in there and never give up with your quest toward a world class traffic signals program. Educate your management on the high benefit/cost ratio that excellent traffic signals provide and that we cannot always build our way out of congestion. Innovation, creativity and calculated risk taking must be part of the process to meet the demands of a society continually growing in size and need.
Learn how the UPStealth is keeping the power on for UDOT's world class traffic signals program.