Many motorists have driven through downtown Minneapolis -- after stopping at every single traffic light. Now, new technology is helping the city improve traffic times and cut minutes off commutes.
Washington Avenue is always clogged at rush hour, and it can often seem like more time is spent at a complete stop than moving in any direction.
"One of the more irritating things for any driver is to have that traffic light stop and then go to the next block and stop again," Mayor R.T. Rybak admitted. "We've all had that experience."
That experience may become a distant memory going forward. Thanks to the work of city engineers, each one of the 204 traffic signals downtown have entered the 21st century by swapping old mechanical switches installed in the 1970s for state-of-the-art fiber optics managed from a traffic center.
So far, traffic engineers say they've already seen a measurable difference. Those heading east on Washington Avenue from 6th Avenue North to Interstate 35W during the afternoon commute can now expect to save 7 minutes and 32 seconds of drive time, marking a 53 percent improvement.
Those heading westbound during the same time period will reach their destination an estimated 3 minutes faster, and drivers are already noticing the difference.
The city didn't stop at retiming the signals downtown either. During non-peak hours, the left-hand turn lights will go dark to allow drivers to turn on a simple green instead of waiting on an arrow.
Traffic engineers tell FOX 9 News they hope to see increased flow on 7th and 9th streets in addition to Hennepin and 1st avenues as they continue to update the lights in north and south Minneapolis.
The switch is about more than saving time -- it's also a way to reduce vehicle emissions and gas consumption.
"When we can keep traffic moving more and not having so much idling time and traffic congestion, it really helps in fuel consumption -- but more importantly, the emissions and air pollution," Steve Kotke, director of Public Works, told FOX 9.
According to the city's traffic consultant, the change could result in a fuel saving of 10 percent for commuters, which add up to about 1 million gallons of gas a year.
The traffic signal retiming is also expected to give pedestrians more time to cross at intersections.
The last time a comprehensive signal retiming was conducted in the city was in 1991. The total project cost $11.2 million, which includes the cost of replacing the controllers, the central control system and retiming more than 800 signals. About 80 percent of the funding came from a federal Congestion Mitigation Air Quality grant. Hennepin County funded the remainder.