City tries to address Kellogg, Armour jam

An entire song can play on Marcus Salazar's car stereo while he waits at the stoplight at Kellogg and Armour near Towne East Square.

"I don't get why they did it the way they did," Salazar said this week after battling the light to meet friends at Old Chicago restaurant nearby. "We spent so much time in the construction that you'd think someone would've thought maybe a little bit more."

Many others wonder the same thing, and haven't been shy about letting the city know what they think about the traffic bottleneck on the frontage road between Kellogg and the mall.

"We're getting complaints. We're getting yelled at," said Chris Carrier, the city's public works director.

"It is a real complicated situation there," he said. "We're not happy with it, either."

The city acknowledges that the design of the $48 million Kellogg reconstruction project in that area helps contribute to long lines at stoplights on the frontage roads.

The intersection was designed years ago in anticipation that more traffic would use Rock Road to get to Towne East, Carrier said. But more cars are using Armour/Towne East Mall Drive.

The city had to deal with existing side roads and couldn't put on- and off-ramps at every one. It had to have ramps that served several side streets, he said.

"I think there's probably ways we could've made it better," Carrier said. "But when you're designing projects like that, you don't know how traffic patterns are going to settle once you open them. You make an educated guess based on what you think is going to happen."

The problem

Since the new Kellogg freeway opened at Rock Road in November, traffic on Rock no longer can turn west on Kellogg. It must turn onto the frontage road and pass through the stoplight at Armour/Towne East Mall Drive before entering the freeway, creating a heavy load of traffic.

Meanwhile, westbound traffic exiting the freeway to get to Towne East Mall Drive, or to Woodlawn or Edgemoor beyond, merges into the stopped traffic. Merging cars that want to go north on Towne East Mall Drive must cross two lanes to make the turn.

Finally, on the other side of Kellogg, eastbound traffic that exits the freeway stacks up at the signal on the south frontage road as it waits to turn north onto Towne East Mall Drive.

All that traffic creates long waits at the signals on both frontage roads, particularly during peak hours.

Adjustments to lights

The city has tweaked the operation of the stoplights at the intersection, Carrier said.

"We are almost daily making adjustments in that, trying some different things to make it work better than it obviously is," he said.

The westbound frontage road now gets a green light that lasts up to 75 seconds in heavy traffic, while the eastbound frontage road has a 50-second maximum. Both were timed at 60 seconds initially; the city changed them based on traffic volume.

During peak hours, most cars will get through the westbound light in one cycle, but not everybody, said Mike Jacobs, special projects engineer. That's still better than the former Kellogg and Rock intersection, where cars sometimes waited through three cycles, he said.

A perception problem

Perception is part of the issue, Jacobs said. At normal intersections, drivers see cars in other lanes moving through traffic lights and can anticipate how long they will wait.

At the Armour intersection, a broad underpass, the frontage roads are separated by freeway walls. Only the first few cars at the stoplights can see traffic on the other side. To those behind, it can appear that nothing is happening at the intersection, giving them a sense that they shouldn't wait so long.

For example, eastbound frontage road traffic waiting to turn left onto Towne East Mall Drive sees northbound cars move past it through the intersection; then nothing seems to happen because westbound traffic gets the next green light. Eastbound drivers think they are waiting for no reason.

The city plans to change the rotation soon so the eastbound traffic will get the light after the northbound traffic passes.

Westbound frontage road traffic will see the southbound traffic from Towne East Mall Drive move through the intersection, then it will get the green light next.

The idea is to have stopped traffic see other traffic moving through the intersection just before their light turns green.

"It's more of a perception thing than making it better or adding any time, but I think the perception is going to be better," Jacobs said.

Eventually, the lights at Kellogg and Armour and across the city will operate in a coordinated, automated, wireless system. That will allow traffic engineers at City Hall to monitor intersections and control them, Carrier said.

The city is using federal grants, state funds and some stimulus money to make it happen. The system, costing about $4 million, is being phased in. The wireless network will be installed by the end of the year. Signals should be synchronized by March 2011.