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A green light at end of the tunnel

Transit engineer says S.L. traffic woes will improve

It's a traffic-control center without much control. Television screens are trained on busy intersections around Salt Lake City, but the engineers here can't do a whole lot when they see problems arise.

Yet Tom Stetich, director of the TCC, is anything but defeated. He grew up here and has worked in metropolitan transportation engineering since 1977. He can draw complex diagrams to explain why it seems to take forever to drive across town. But when Stetich talks about the future of transportation in the Salt Lake Valley, he brims with optimism.

Hope, like traffic, springs eternal.

For the next 12 months Salt Lake City just might be the worst spot in the country in terms of traffic flow, Stetich acknowledges.

"We've been in flux for the last few years. It's been impossible to keep up. It won't settle down till after the Olympics and (after) the freeways are all open again. And there will always be construction projects."

Stetich and other Salt Lake transportation engineers were warned by counterparts in Atlanta. "They said, 'Be afraid. Your backs are against the wall.' It would have been daunting with a fully operational system in place. But because we're in the process of putting a system in place, it's all the thornier."

Believe it or not, Stetich said, Salt Lake City's 75 to 80 sets of traffic signals are better coordinated than they were two years ago. New signal controllers were installed during the late 1990s to regulate stoplights at 600 intersections across the Salt Lake Valley.

"That was about the time when people started noticing that the signals were really bad. There wasn't a lot of cohesiveness." The trouble was that the controllers were too 'smart' for the TCC's 'dumb' old twisted-copper wire network. If a signal controller malfunctioned, an ever growing line of cars would have to wait till a repair person could arrive at the intersection and fix it.

In 1998, a "smart" fiber-optic network was built to replace the copper wire. Toward the end of 1999, "we were coming out of chaos and into some kind of coordination," Stetich said. Then TRAX came into the mix. So at intersections along the light-rail route, drivers face an array of others moving at cross purposes. Trains. Motorists making left turns. Pedestrians needing time to traverse Salt Lake's wide streets. In order to give all of those parties a long-enough green light, a red light makes a number of other motorists unhappy.

"Everybody has their own private agenda. So those seconds start seeming longer" for the red-light crowd, Stetich said.

Those big city blocks — 800 feet square — plus increased vehicular refugees from freeway construction plus TRAX make synchronizing the signals a distant prospect, Stetich said. Sure, there are people who say they could do a better job using a stopwatch and a stepladder. If that were possible, Stetich would have been out there clicking and stepping.

Instead he's inside the TCC, wrestling with computers and monitoring video screens. The big central screen has been dark for about eight weeks now. Parts needed to repair it are coming. Meantime, the other half-dozen TV monitors show the signals the TCC "talks to" and those it can't yet.

Right now the TCC communicates with less than half of the 600 traffic signals in the Salt Lake Valley. A day will come, Stetich promises, when the TCC is "fully operational." He'll be able to take calls about signal-timing problems and fix them using the TCC's network. The fiber-optic system is a management tool that can help the signals stay on their schedules. But in recent months during the University TRAX line construction, "they've dug us up a number of times," Stetich said, so the TCC has lost touch with a string of signals along 400 South.

The road to TRAX, then, is paved with suffering. But once it's running, light rail could be the least frustrating form of travel in the Salt Lake Valley. After a year of trying, traffic engineers have mastered the computerized synchronization software that gives the trains nothing but green lights.

"We've been working on a priority system for the whole TRAX line," Salt Lake City Transportation Director Tim Harpst said. "We had a very difficult time, frankly. But about three weeks ago, we finally worked the bugs out of the software."

The system tracks trains that have pulled into stations, and while they're stopped, vehicular cross traffic passes through green lights. Then, just as the TRAX driver pulls the train out, those lights turn yellow and red. TRAX has the green lights through to the next station. The software "plans ahead, like in a chess game," Harpst said.

So if you want green lights, take TRAX. If that's not possible, think ahead as Stetich does. After the Olympic commotion is over, TCC engineers will have navigated some historic traffic situations. The network will, Stetich hopes, be better able to regulate signals across the valley. At least until construction crews start digging the next light-rail line.