Mpls: Hiawatha stop light upgrades will be worth the wait

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Relief is on the way for commuters who wait and wait and wait to cross Hiawatha Avenue – especially after a light rail train has passed by. Starting tomorrow morning, the city will start the process of upgrading the traffic signal systems at seven intersections along the busy corridor. The $1.1 million project is expected to be done by the end of the year.

Details of the plan were presented this morning by Minneapolis city engineer Allan Klugman. Klugman told members of the city council’s Transportation and Public Works committee that the problem with the current system is that it can’t tell how long a driver has been waiting at the light after a train comes through.

“Right now when a train goes by and the signal is disrupted and then the train passes and we resume our operation, the current controllers can only restart at the beginning point of their cycle,” said Klugman. “With this [new] controller what’s going to happen is, after the train goes by, the controller will know how long each side has waited … and will assign the green time to the one that’s waited the longest.”

In order to do that, the city will install more sensors, called loop detectors, under parts of Hiawatha and the intersecting streets. The sensors detect the presence of cars and feed the information to computerized controllers housed in cabinets near the intersection.

The computerized controllers will also have to be upgraded to be able to keep track of the movements of each direction of traffic and how long each one has waited at a red light. Klugman said the cabinets that house the controllers will also be improved. The new cabinets, he said will have battery back-ups so traffic signals won’t go dark immediately after a power outage. They will also be better protected against lightning strikes.

Council member Sandy Colvin Roy has heard a lot of complaints about slow traffic signals. Hiawatha Ave. runs through part of her ward. Plus, she chairs the transportation committee. Colvin Roy said she knows a lot of people have wondered why it’s taken so long to properly address the problem. But she said the technology wasn’t available back when the light rail line started running. And Colvin Roy said project advisors told the city that Hiawatha was the “most complicated corridor they’d worked on in the country.”

Colvin Roy sounded almost giddy as she talked about some of the other benefits of the new system.

“What he [Klugman] didn’t mention is that for all the people who live in the neighborhoods on either side of the highway,” said Colvin Roy. “If they’re there at 10 o’clock at night and we don’t have rush hour traffic going down the highway, the controller will also know how many cars are sitting at any particular direction.”

She said that means the lights will not cycle through the normal rush hour long duration, resulting in shorter wait times.

The project spans seven intersections along Hiawatha Ave. between 26th and 50th streets. Klugman said the city will have to close some streets. However, he said the city will take advantage of a previously scheduled closing of part of Hiawatha by Xcel Energy later this month and work on Hiawatha at the same time.

“I’m very confident that by the end of the season, by the end of this year, you’ll see much better operations along Hiawatha.”

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