Saturday, June 19, 2004

Interstate meters on ramps studied to ease bottlenecks

By Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

GREEN TOWNSHIP - The Ohio Department of Transportation wants to loosen traffic bottlenecks during the morning commute by installing ramp meters at all eastbound exits between Interstates 74 and 75 in Hamilton County.

Q: How do ramp meters work?
A: Cars pull up to the "stop bar" or white line to trigger the ramp meter. When the traffic light turns green one to two cars will be allowed to proceed onto the freeway before the light turns red. The light will create a 4-20 second delay between cars entering the highway.

Q: Will all ramps be metered?
A: No. Some ramps have too many vehicles on them to reasonably meter traffic. ODOT analyzes each ramp's volumes, crashes, physical layout and mainline traffic volume in deciding where best to place them.

Q: Won't traffic waiting at meters back up traffic on city streets?
A: Meters respond to actual traffic conditions. Computer sensors embedded in the ramps and on the freeway near the ramps count passing cars. This information is fed to a central computer, which in turn adjusts the rate at which meters operate. If cars start to back up onto the ramp, the meter automatically speeds up to help clear traffic.

Q: During what hours will the meters be in operation?
A: Typically ramps are metered from 6-9 a.m. and from 3-7 p.m. This varies depending on the location and level of traffic congestion.

Q: Who controls the ramp meters?
A: Ramp meters will be part of a large computer-operated network that is centralized in ODOT's ARTIMIS center. Detection loops embedded in the pavement throughout Greater Cincinnati provide ARTIMIS with information about traffic volume and speed on freeways and ramps. This data is continually fed into the meters. At any time ARTIMIS staff may override the computers and manual operate the ramp meters if they need to.

Source: The Ohio Department of Transportation

Easing congestion (PDF file)
Ramp meters are traffic lights at the on-ramp to a freeway. The traffic light switches between red and green, releasing one or two cars at a time onto the highway.

Though new to Greater Cincinnati, ramp meters are an old concept in some parts of the country. Metering lights were first installed more than four decades ago in Chicago, Detroit and in California.

More than 33 metropolitan areas have the devices. Columbus, Ohio, has used ramp metering at some downtown exits for several years.

Transportation officials said the idea is to break up long platoons of merging vehicles during peak morning hours. The benefits: improved travel time for commuters, less stop-and-go traffic and fewer rear-end and sideswipe collisions.

The state, which is conducting a ramp meter study, has not made a decision on whether to install the devices. But transportation officials said the meters - to cost up to $350,000 - could be operating in 12-18 months.

The first meter would be on the Harrison Avenue/Rybolt Road exit ramp at Interstate 74. Others are being considered for eastbound exits such as North Bend Road, Montana Avenue, Spring Grove Avenue and Colerain Avenue/Beekman Street. State officials said the ramp meters are a stopgap measure until the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments finishes a study of the traffic corridor.

"We see this as a way to produce a more reliable trip for commuters and reduce the number of crashes significantly without causing trouble for interior roads," said Diana Martin, planning administrator for the state transportation department's district office. "We are not going to cure the local network problems, but we won't make them any worse."

But some municipal and township leaders remain unconvinced of its merits.

Green Township Trustee Steve Grote said there are less costly intermediate steps. He predicted ramp meters would only succeed in backing traffic up to already congested roads such as Harrison Avenue.

"I am thoroughly unconvinced that ramp metering will have any positive impact on the traffic problems on Interstates 74 and 75," Grote said.

Trustee Tony Upton said he'd like to give ramp meters a try. "I'd do anything to ease the traffic flow," Upton said. "If it doesn't work, then we'll take them out."

Martin said the meters would significantly reduce the number of crashes along eastbound Interstate 74, which was identified by the state as the No. 1 hot spot in Southwest Ohio. Hot spots are roads that have more than 150 accidents over a three-year period.

There were 850 crashes on 1-74 between 2000 and 2002 - about 416 of them involving eastbound cars. One-hundred eighty-one crashes occurred between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. and 189 were rear-end crashes.

"Ramp meters create space for other cars to merge with freeway traffic," Martin said. "You don't have drivers going from 50 miles per hour to a complete stop.

State officials point to case studies such as Madison, Wis., where crashes, especially rear-enders, were reduced by 50 percent. However, studies in places such as Minneapolis show that while metering does have some benefits, it creates waits on ramps.

Daryl Dorsey, 45, of Western Hills, said he avoids Harrison Avenue during rush hour because it's nearly impossible to get on the expressway. He said it can take anywhere from 10-15 minutes to get onto I-74 from the exit.

"I think that (ramp meters) would be the worst thing they could do," Dorsey said. "I don't think that is the way to go. Traffic is already a pain."

Martin said the state would continue to have educational meetings with area community leaders, governments and police agencies to discuss the ramp metering proposal. A public meeting has been scheduled on July 21 from 4-7 the Green Township Senior Citizens Center on Epley Road.


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