When one of Clark County’s major traffic signals malfunctioned in December, it didn’t take long for Rob Klug and his team to find out about it.
It took about three seconds, actually.
From an office at the Clark County Public Service Center, Klug immediately keyed in on the intersection of Northeast 134th Street and Northeast 20th Avenue, which had reverted to flashing red lights. Using an extensive monitoring system and real-time data, he figured out what was wrong and passed it on.
“Within five minutes, our crews knew what the problem was, and they were dispatched,” said Klug, traffic signals engineer with the county’s Public Works department.
Within 15 minutes, the light was working properly again.
“We had it fixed before people started calling,” Klug said.
The county has transformed its traffic signal technology during the past several years, turning a comparatively rudimentary system into a sophisticated, integrated network. That evolution continues: This month, Clark County councilors voted to accept a $920,000 federal grant that will further develop the county’s signal system and its efforts to coordinate its busiest corridors.
The $1.15 million Signal Timing, Evaluation, Verification and Enhancement project, known as STEVE, will install new detectors and other equipment to give the county better intelligence on its traffic system. The project will include dozens of signals on major roadways including Highway 99, Padden Parkway and Northeast 78th, 99th and 134th streets.
The detectors will keep track of how many vehicles arrive at an intersection with a green light, and how many must stop at a red. Bluetooth technology will also allow the county track individual vehicles and determine travel times along a given corridor.
“The goal of all these programs is to make the signals work better, and also make sure that we have the ability to know the signals are working better,” Klug said.
The county is constantly evaluating how its transportation system performs, he added, and how it can improve.
“Better data yields better decisions,” Klug said.
The county’s efforts have drawn positive reviews from elected leaders. When county councilors approved the federal grant for the STEVE project this month, Councilor David Madore praised the way the county’s staff uses information “dynamically” to make traffic flow better.
“Smart traffic signals go so much further than just simply concrete,” Madore said.
Councilor Jeanne Stewart said she’s “very encouraged” that the effort involves other partners. The county has coordinated with the city of Vancouver and other jurisdictions as it refines its transportation system. The city also uses a variety of technology to optimize its traffic signals, said spokeswoman Loretta Callahan.
STEVE is far from the only project the county is pursuing to that end. Another program aims to integrate data from local roadways and freeways to help the two systems adapt to each other and respond to traffic conditions. The county also hopes to offer a place for the public to access online traffic cameras, congestion maps and even pavement temperatures. Such information is commonly available for state highways, but not local streets. Clark County’s version may launch later this year, Klug said.
The county’s traffic signals are mostly automated within a set of “rules” that engineers set for them, Klug said. In a fourth-floor office in the public service center, multiple monitors constantly display data, maps and cameras to allow the county to see what’s going on at all times.
Traffic signals can be controlled manually from that office — something the county rarely does, Klug said. But it can be necessary in the event of a major crash or backup, he added.
“We’re trying to organize chaos with what we’re doing,” Klug said. While there are patterns, he added, “traffic is very unpredictable.”