VDOT’s Dean Gustafson

On December 5, 2007, the

Albemarle County Board of Supervisors

received a presentation detailing how traffic signals operated by the Virginia Department of Transportation are planned, maintained, and synchronized. They heard from

Dean Gustafson

, the director of regional operations for VDOT’s Northwest Region, which covers 15 counties including Albemarle.

Gustafson began his talk by explaining how VDOT has been making management changes to help improve the way it delivers services. In 2006, VDOT separated its operations management from construction projects, and created five new regions charged with improving traffic flow.


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“We used to really focus on construction of projects and the maintenance of our transportation system, but now our focus is on the operation of that system,” Gustafson said. There are about nine VDOT employees in the northwest region who devote most of their time fixing traffic signals.

In the first six months of this year, VDOT crews made 93 response calls to reported problems with the 64 traffic signals in the County. These can include when a traffic light flashes yellow, is green at the wrong time, or when the signals are out without a known power outage.

Maintenance is increasing as well, with each signal in the region scheduled for a check-up at least once every three years. VDOT is also in the process of switching to a more advanced device to control signals. The new Peak system will allow more cycles to be programmed, allowing for VDOT traffic engineers to program lights for different response times throughout the day.

Gustafson also discussed how VDOT is planning on optimizing the County’s signals. The highest priority is to resynchronize the 17 traffic lights between Hydraulic Road and Polo Grounds Road, and Gustafson said that process is scheduled to be complete by March 2008. The Hydraulic Road signal is part of the City of Charlottesville’s independent signal timing system.

Supervisors also asked Gustafson how signals can be improved to accommodate an expanded transit system, as well as a renewed focus on pedestrian safety.

“All of our new signals do incorporate a lot of pedestrian phasing, they incorporate the crosswalks,” Gustafson said. “Historically we haven’t been very pedestrian and bicycle friendly.”

Gustafson also explain VDOT’s process for determining whether a new signal is required. The agency has a set of criteria that an intersection must meet before they can proceed with planning and design. It usually takes about 12 months to go from a request to a signal being operational.

And when they’re built, they’re usually much more expensive than they used to be. It costs about $250,000 to do an engineering study, to perform the scoping, and to do the construction for the new signal. And then, once it’s built, each light costs over $12,000 to maintain.

“We have poles, we have mast arms, that steel is not getting cheaper, it’s getting more expensive. We have cabinets, we have a lot of electronics in the cabinet,” he said. Gustafson said ten years ago, the cost was about $50,000. The cost is also higher now because most new traffic signals have steel mast arms, rather than a cable. Cables were more prone to damage during wind storms.

Two new lights are coming to Albemarle County. Scoping has begun for a signal at the intersection of Route 250 and State Farm Boulevard, which should be operational by September 2008. Another signal at Route 29 and Burnley Station Road is scheduled to be completed by December 2008.

Sean Tubbs

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