Omaha continues to adjust traffic lights; project already has saved time for drivers

Omaha continues to adjust traffic lights

A traffic study has found that drivers who are eastbound on Dodge Street during the afternoon have saved an average of more than 90 seconds since city workers retimed traffic lights at intersections along Dodge in midtown Omaha.

The study, conducted by the City of Omaha and the engineering firm HDR, shows it now takes eastbound drivers 6 minutes and 4 seconds to drive that stretch of Dodge during that time period.

That 20% decrease is the most notable time difference for a project that also saw traffic lights retimed on Harney and Farnam Streets as well as on portions of Saddle Creek Road and 42nd Street.

Not all traffic light adjustments have resulted in time savings for motorists along the city’s main east-west road. For example, it now takes 36 more seconds for a westbound Dodge Street commuter to travel the midtown portion during the afternoon peak, with an average time of 5 minutes and 36 seconds.

Before retiming the lights, westbound drivers could drive that stretch in an average of 5 minutes during the afternoon peak while it took eastbound drivers an average of 7 minutes and 36 seconds — a difference of 2 minutes and 36 seconds. Now, the difference is 28 seconds.

Bryan Guy, assistant city traffic engineer, said the trade-off to slightly increase the time it takes westbound traffic to travel is worth it to create a more level playing field for traffic going the two directions.

“Given the traffic volumes that exist out there today, in the entire network, we actually made an overall improvement,” he said.

Mike Forsberg, a traffic engineering supervisor with HDR, said the traffic lights also were retimed to give pedestrians a head start. City officials have noted that walk signals have been reprogrammed to show a walk signal before a green light.

“That corridor has quite a bit of pedestrian foot traffic along it and crossing it,” Forsberg said.

The retiming of the midtown streets is the continuation of a larger project to retime most of the approximately 1,000 traffic lights across the city while also upgrading the signals’ equipment and technology. Prior to the project’s launch, city traffic signals had all been running on software that was developed in the 1970s and 1980s.

In addition to accounting for peak driving times, Guy said the city is retiming traffic lights to ensure better traffic flow in nonpeak hours.

“We can operate the signals differently (and) more efficiently when there’s less traffic out there,” he said.

The overall project, according to a 2019 city document, is projected to save drivers 6.4 million hours from reduced traffic delays and another 603,000 hours from faster travel times. The retimed traffic lights also are projected to save drivers 8.1 million gallons of fuel.

“Small changes can have big impacts,” Guy said.

Guy said the city is about 40% done with the overall project. Retiming projects in recent years include one centered on Center Street/West Center Road from 60th to 192nd Streets in 2020. Gains from that 11-mile project, which consisted of retiming 66 intersections, including 24 along some north-south streets, saw average travel times decease during peak times anywhere from 15% to 39%.

The city also retimed traffic lights along 6½ miles of 72nd Street from Harrison to Maple Streets, decreasing average travel times by as much as a little over 3 minutes, or 45%, for northbound traffic during the middle of the day. Traffic lights along substantial portions of L and Q Streets and Millard Avenue between 90th and 180th Streets also were retimed.

From the city’s perspective, the costs are relatively minimal compared to the financial benefits that result in fewer delays, less fuel consumption and a reduction in crashes.

In the 2019 document, the Public Works Department’s traffic engineering division estimated that it would cost slightly over $67 million to retime the traffic lights and upgrade the infrastructure.

In return, the division projected slightly over $546 million in benefits would be realized by those who use the city’s roads through measures such as fuel savings and a decrease in the number of crashes. Guy said users would also see indirect benefits including time saved on their commutes and better quality of life with less pollution.

“Retiming projects are very cost effective,” Guy said.

One of the biggest obstacles in the city’s quest to upgrade and retime its traffic lights? Timely funding.

The city has sought and continues to seek money from the federal government to pay for 80% of the project. While the city has received federal money through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, the funding has been dribbling in.

Guy said the city has looked at more avenues for federal funding, including from the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure and Jobs Act, but officials are not sure yet if the traffic light projects will be eligible.

“We’re going to pursue whatever funding we can to help move this thing along,” he said.

While there’s no definitive end date to what originally was anticipated to be a 10-year project, the city has lined up more retiming projects along other major roads this year. Traffic lights are scheduled to be retimed along 90th Street from Blondo Street to Blair High Road and Blondo Street from 72nd to 144th Streets.

Guy also said the city plans to retime traffic lights along 144th Street from West Center Road to West Maple Road and Q Street from 144th to 90th Streets this year.

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