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Santa Monica’s High-Tech Traffic System Beats Incline Crush

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Hector Gonzalez
Staff Writer

May 4, 2015 -- From four large screens in front of a desk in a corner office at City Hall, Traffic Engineer Andrew Maximus commands a sweeping view of road conditions across busy Santa Monica.

A few mouse clicks instantly brings up whatever image Maximus selects from among the 40 or so cameras installed at every major street and intersection in the beachside city. He can pan around to view streets from different angles, or zoom in for close-ups.

“I’ve got it set up right now focusing on Ocean Avenue and the Incline closure,” said Maximus, zooming in for a view of construction crews working on the yearlong project to demolish and replace the iconic California Incline.

When City Public Works officials closed the bridge connecting Santa Monica to Pacific Coast Highway for the start of the $20 million renovation project April 20, many locals and regular drivers of the area pictured a resulting traffic nightmare as motorists fought their way around the closure.

That hasn’t been the case so far, Interim Public Works Director Susan Cline said last week, crediting the City’s high-tech traffic monitoring center for greatly lessening the closure’s impacts.

“With the cameras, our traffic engineers have been able to adjust the timing on traffic signals to make traffic run smoothly, using real-time information,” Cline told the Lookout last week (Santa Monica Officials Report No Big Jams After Incline’s Closure, April 22, 2015).

Motorists have found ways around the Incline project, either by going south on Lincoln Boulevard to the 10 Freeway and then merging onto the northbound PCH at the McClure Tunnel, or by going past the Incline to Moomat Ahiko Way to reach Downtown Santa Monica, Cline said.

Drivers also can exit the 10 Freeway at Lincoln Boulevard for locations further to the east to avoid the Incline.

During the renovation, the Incline’s 750-foot-long bridge portion will be replaced with a pile-supported reinforced concrete slab structure that is 52 feet wide -- an increase of 5 feet, 8 inches over the existing structure, City officials have said.

A separate bicycle lane also will be added to the Incline as part of the project, City officials said.

At around 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, traffic on Ocean Avenue at the Incline was “pretty much normal,” Maximus said.

“When the Incline was open it was like this,” he said, calling up the camera overlooking Incline. “With the Incline closed, the light on PCH is staying greener longer, so that helps. What you see there is mostly volume, which is typical for this time in the afternoon.”

Most of the impacts from the closure have been felt along Ocean at Broadway, he said.

When traffic begins to build at that or any other intersection, or in a specific section of town, Maximus can use the computer’s Traffic Management System, which connects all of the City’s traffic signals into the central system.

“Each of these boxes represents a traffic signal location,” he said, pointing to another screen showing a map dotted with triangular icons. “I could select a group of them and change the timing pattern. Or if I need to make individual tweaks, I can change the actual timing parameter for each one, instead of going out there and changing timing parameters for each one.”

The system can reset the timing of virtually all of the City’s traffic signals in one click.

“I can put all the Downtown signals on the weekend plan. We can set it and tell it what time to stop, hit add, and they’ll all change,” he said. “So usually, if it’s really congested on the week days, we can put in the weekend timing, which is a little bit more generous.”

Engineers can then use the cameras to “check and follow up and make sure those things are making the effect they’re supposed to,” Maximus said.

One feature tells signal lights when to change without having to use the magnetic loops other cities install in the pavement to trigger traffic lights to change when a car stops over them.

Santa Monica’s system detects cars stopped at red lights and uses the information to automatically adjust the signal’s timing. A recent upgrade allows the system to differentiate between cars and bicycles, so that a bike doesn’t trigger the signal to change, Maximus said.

“This is our standard now, so once the street is resurfaced, we don’t have to pay again to have loops cut,” said Maximus. “If there’s construction, we don’t have to physically go out there and disable a certain lane. We can just deactivate it from here and that doesn’t cause extra traffic problems.” 

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