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Kirkland leverages technology, federal grants to maximize capacity of road network

Using just three lanes, the traffic signal at 100th Ave. NE and NE 124th Street offers north-bound drivers two protected left-turn lanes from 7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. - Christian Knight/City of Kirkland
Using just three lanes, the traffic signal at 100th Ave. NE and NE 124th Street offers north-bound drivers two protected left-turn lanes from 7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.
— image credit: Christian Knight/City of Kirkland

The city of Kirkland completed a project this fall that will begin improving the commutes of thousands of Kirkland residents. That project is the renovation of a 235 square-foot conference room into Kirkland’s long-awaited Transportation Management Center (TMC). The TMC now features customized software and four 40-inch monitors that convey real-time images of Kirkland intersections to transportation engineers.

Transportation engineers will use the center to untangle some of the traffic knots that snarl up the city’s most congested intersections.

“It gives us the ability to look at things we normally wouldn’t be able to,” said Chuck Morrison, the transportation engineer hired by the city to manage the TMC. “We can make instantaneous changes from City Hall. We can download the timing at different intersections if we want to make changes.”

By completing the renovation, Kirkland joins several Puget Sound cities that have already built TMCs, including Seattle, Bellevue, Redmond, Issaquah and Renton.

Scores of federal studies from 1999 to 2013 document a range of benefits to Seattle-area commuters, including reduced travel times and air pollution and increased safety and traveler confidence.

Intelligent Transportation System

This most recent step is part of a $5 million, two-phase effort — paid mostly by federal grants — to upgrade Kirkland’s transportation network to an Intelligent Transportation System (ITS).

Kirkland engineers expect to complete the ITS by the end of 2015. They expect the first phase of it, which includes the TMC, to be in place by the end of 2014. Phase I of the project will upgrade traffic signal technology to a video-based system that employs two different types of cameras: one for vehicle detection, the other for video-feeds of intersections. With them, transportation engineers can observe traffic and even rotate the cameras to look at traffic from a variety of angles.

This will enable engineers to evaluate intersection timing along the busiest corridors.

Several components of ITS are already in place. Twenty of Kirkland’s 60 intersections already use video to detect traffic. And 16 of those intersections already have the technology necessary to deliver real-time images. Engineers can rotate those cameras to adjust their perspectives of traffic.

“Being able to observe intersections over time is really helpful,” Morrison said. “It provides a much more complete view of changing traffic demands, which just isn’t available when you’re managing with the occasional field checks.”

A case in point

That point was illustrated this fall at two of Totem Lake’s intersections with 132nd Ave. NE.

A detour was diverting excessive traffic into 132nd Ave. NE’s intersections with Northeast 124th Street and NE 132nd Street.

“Since we had no video connection from NE 132nd Street and 132nd Ave. NE back to City Hall, we had to drive the five miles to the intersection many times to evaluate the problem and make field adjustments,” Morrison said. “And then, of course, we had to drive to the intersection to evaluate the effect of the changes.”

This wasn’t the case at the intersection near Rairdon’s Fiat of Kirkland dealership.

“We have a camera at the intersection of Slater Ave. NE and NE 124th Street so I was able to watch and understand what I needed to do,” he said. “I could watch over a number of mornings and see what was going on.”

Morrison expects commuters to notice traffic improvements over time, as Kirkland continues to implement portions of the ITS.

Downtown commuters will notice improvements by the end of 2014, Morrison says. Those improvements will result from the activation of systems already installed near Parkplace at the intersection of Sixth Street and Central Way and near the Heathman Hotel at 3rd Street and Kirkland Ave.

“This will help us keep the transition periods [late morning, mid-day and early afternoon] running more smoothly,” Morrison says.

Public view

One of the system’s more public tools will be a new city of Kirkland webpage that will allow commuters to view real-time snapshots of all the Kirkland intersections equipped with ITS. That website should be live by the end of 2014. Until then, the public can view real-time snap shots of the 16 Kirkland intersections already equipped with ITS through King County’s website.

For the most part, Kirkland won’t be recording traffic, because, said Kirkland Transportation Engineering Manager David Godfrey, recording consumes too much bandwidth.

“But when there are issues we need to analyze,” he said. “It’s helpful to be able to record. And this system will allow us to do that.”

The analysis then becomes a part of the public record, stored by the city of Kirkland for six years, then transferred to the Washington State Archives and Records Center, said Leslie Koziara, records manager for Washington State Archives.

“But you only have to keep the raw data until you no longer need it,” she said.

Kirkland does not intend to retain any of its recorded raw footage beyond the analysis phase.

Kirkland can, of course, share any relevant analysis with other agencies and departments, such as Kirkland Police and the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Maximizing existing capacity

Maximizing the capacity of Kirkland’s existing transportation infrastructure will be especially beneficial during the next 20 years as Kirkland makes room for another 13,000 residents and 20,000 jobs.

Until the 1970s, communities increased the capacities of their transportation networks by building more roads, more lanes or more connections to existing roads. That solution, of course, consumed enormous quantities of available land and required expensive investments into a plethora of other forms of infrastructure, such as sewer lines, water lines and other utilities.

Over the years, however, increasing vehicular capacity by building more arterials has become less feasible as land has become less available. This summer, in fact, the city of Kirkland will do something it hasn’t done in 20 years: build a new road. It will do this to connect NE 120th Street to 124th Ave. in Totem Lake. The city of Kirkland had to purchase four separate parcels for $2.6 million just to construct that 500-yard-long segment.

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