Anyone who's driven in Northwest Arkansas for any length of time has been there: You're driving along at the speed of normal traffic, brake lights ahead begin to flicker then stay on and the next thing you know -- if you were able to stop in time -- you're sitting in a three-lane parking lot with several hundred of your friends and neighbors hoping to crawl to the next exit so you can try to find an alternate route.
It might be caused by an accident, bad weather, a ball game or other event or just too many cars for the amount of road available that time of day.
Regional planners want to work with cities, counties and the state to make driving easier, safer and more efficient, even as the population continues to grow at one of the fastest rates in the nation. They're working right now on drafts of two plans compiled by Cambridge Systematics, aimed at making that happen over the next five, 10 and 20 years.
Transportation systems management and operations are strategies focused on operational improvements to maintain or restore the performance of the existing transportation system before extra capacity is needed. The strategies are often low-cost relative to adding capacity to existing roads. They frequently are high-impact actions that can be implemented more quickly than a traditional road building project.
Intelligent transportation systems are the application of electronic technologies and communications to increase the safety and efficiency of roads. The approach allows officials to plan for what they want their system to look like in the long-term and then break the system into smaller pieces that can be implemented over time as funding permits.
"Transportation systems management and operations is a focus on how you're managing your roadway system on a day-to-day basis," said Tim Conklin, executive director at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission. "The intelligent transportation system is more about the technology and the types of technology communities use. We use technology to manage the system, and there's some obvious overlap in there."
Together, the two initiatives touch on just about everything from traffic light technology to public transit and economics to demographics.
Regional planning last updated its intelligent transportation plan in 2007.
"A lot has changed. Obviously, the technology has changed, the region has changed," Conklin said. "When it takes an hour to go from Springdale to Centerton, we do have traffic congestion in Northwest Arkansas beyond what some people may think."
Compared to other areas, Northwest Arkansas is playing catch-up on using technology such as traffic cameras, traffic signal timing and coordination and traveler information systems.
"We did this capability study to see where we're at, and I'd say it's no surprise that we're in the beginning stages," Conklin said. "We're not very advanced in our region with regard to using a system management approach, but as we approach a million population, you're going to need to do more and more."
The Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers metro area population was 546,725 in the 2020 census.
Conklin said a regional approach is critical because Northwest Arkansas is composed of multiple smaller cities.
"Bigger cities and even smaller urban areas than us have real time traveler information on their interstate and freeway systems," Conklin said. "We don't have one big central city; it requires everybody to work together and try to identify some things we can work on."
Chris Brown, public works director for Fayetteville, said the plans will set the stage for a regional approach to traffic management.
"Especially as technology continues to advance and connected vehicles become more prevalent, it will be important to understand how the various cities' traffic signals can communicate with each other to create a seamless experience for drivers," Brown said. "As the cities continue to invest in the newest technology, standardizing as much as possible throughout the region will be beneficial for all."
The future planners envision is not that far away, Conklin said.
"With the advances in technology, I think it's sooner than later," he said.
On the horizon
Systems management planning will be focused on the roads connecting cities in the region rather than on the internal network in the cities themselves, according to the plans.
One option would be coordinating with cities in the region and the Arkansas Department of Transportation to establish a regional transportation management center that would manage traffic using real-time traffic data from cameras, speed sensors and other equipment to mitigate congestion from a central location.
The information is collected and then analyzed to make modifications using automated systems, such as connected traffic lights and message boards. Special software allows an operator in the transportation management center to communicate directly with field equipment and modify traffic signal programs in real time, for example.
Another could be having coordinated traffic management systems on all the major roads in the region. Coordinated signal timing, for example, synchronizes traffic movements and manages speed for uninterrupted traffic flow along a corridor. It can also be used to vary speed limits under certain conditions, allow emergency vehicles to preempt traffic signals at intersections or allow transit buses to extend a green light so they can get through an intersection.
Currently, each of the cities is responsible for maintaining and operating the traffic signals within its jurisdiction. The methods for signal operation and the level of technology used vary widely within the region.
Traffic signals in the region generally have equipment for vehicle detection, video capture, signal controllers and communications. All of the bigger cities have the capability to monitor video feeds and signal operations remotely from city offices, according to the draft plans. Several of the cities have centers for monitoring their signal system and taking corrective actions when necessary.
Springdale evaluated adaptive signal timing, using traffic sensors to modify signal timing in response to demand, at eight traffic signals along a 3-mile section of Thompson Street in 2010, and it's still using it. The city also looking into other artificial intelligence applications.
Most of the larger cities have the capability for signal preemption for emergency vehicles. Some have systems that could provide preemption for transit vehicles, but none is using that capability now.
Given the right technology, lanes could be reversed to switch the direction of traffic flow during certain times and conditions in order to use existing infrastructure more efficiently.
Ramp meters, controllable traffic lights that regulate the flow of traffic entering freeways based on current traffic conditions, could be used to slow the flow of vehicles from on-ramps onto a highway during peak periods of congestion.
A national focus
The federal government also is pushing investments in technology and data to improve transportation systems across the country.
The U.S. Department of Transportation on Tuesday announced the first round of grants totaling over $94 million for 59 projects across the country through the new Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation grants program.
"Every major advancement in the history of U.S. transportation has involved technological progress," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. "The investments we are making today are about fostering innovations that improve people's day-to-day lives, making transportation safer, more reliable, more efficient and more sustainable."
The competitive grant program provides state, local and tribal governments $500 million over five years to leverage technology to create safer and more equitable, efficient and innovative transportation systems. The first year of the program was oversubscribed, meaning that for every $1 available for grants, $6 worth of project funding was sought. The maximum award per project was $2 million for that round of funding.
Communities are urged to use the grants to target real-world challenges where the use of new technologies and approaches can create benefits.
No projects in Arkansas were awarded money this time around. The next funding opportunity of $100 million is expected to be released in the fall.
Regional planners said they did not apply for money in the first round because their new plans were not mature enough when the the call for projects went out. They're hoping to apply after the plans are approved by the regional planning commission board.
"We are looking into that," Conklin said. "Ideally, we'll find planning partners that are also interested."
Public input sought
The Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission is soliciting public comment on the draft Transportation Systems Management and Operations and Intelligent Transportation Systems documents. Drafts of the two traffic management plans are available at https://www.nwarpc.org/tsmo/ and https://www.nwarpc.org/its/.
The public comment period will run through Friday. Written comments can be sent to email@example.com.
Source: Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission