“Smart” traffic signals paving the way to – and for – the future

Connected and driverless vehicles are here to stay, at least in some form.

Five people and one bucket truck working on updating a traffic signal.
Region 5 Traffic’s Tyson Tinnes (far right) works with the electrical contractor on a signal upgrade.

Connected and driverless vehicles are here to stay, at least in some form. Clearly, the concept is no longer just a dream. A major challenge many states face, however, is making sure those new vehicles can communicate with our transportation systems, such as with traffic signals. In Oregon, that means upgrading thousands of signals across the state with new smart systems (also known as ATCs, or advanced transportation controllers) that allow instantaneous data sharing. Implementing transformative technologies like this is one of the near-term outcomes in the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Strategic Action Plan, and progress so far is promising.  

Statewide, our goal is to have 75% of ODOT-owned and maintained signals upgraded by the end of 2023. In eastern Oregon, thanks to a hard-working team that includes Highway Region 5 Traffic Operations’ Don Fine and Tyson Tinnes and Traffic Systems Services’ Barby Golden, that box is checked.

“We are 100% complete with our signal controller upgrades in the region,” Tinnes said. 

The rural nature of eastern Oregon means there are fewer signals to upgrade. Region 5’s 90 total signals (75 ODOT-owned, 15 City/County/Tribe owned-ODOT maintained) equates to only 8 percent of the state-owned/maintained 937 traffic signals. Still, we’re making great progress toward that statewide SAP goal: we have already deployed ATCs on 540 of these signals.

In Highway Region 4 (central Oregon), the team has described the benefits as allowing the system to be “proactive instead of reactive.” That team, too, is making notable progress in installing the ATCs.

A signal at an intersection is in the process of becoming “smart” in Region 5.

Streamlined maintenance ahead

Upgrading the state’s signals is more than just preparing Oregon for the future. More equipment and software upgrades will be needed as technology progresses, but getting the controllers updated is the necessary first step, and it brings immediate benefits. One is that we can now set up direct connections with all the signals in the region. Fine and Tinnes expect to have remote access to all signals in the region by the early fall.

“That’s the big plus on the signal management side,” Fine said. “We can remotely track problems and monitor signal performance in real-time. For example, if a pedestrian-activated button is broken in Burns, we’ll know about it before someone calls with a complaint.” (Burns is a 3.5 hour commute from the Region 5 Headquarters in La Grande.)

That’s an incredibly valuable tool. By the time someone figures out who to call, the traffic team will likely have fixed the issue remotely. Prior to these upgrades, if there was an issue, someone would typically have to go to the on-site controller box and investigate.

“With everyone moving to the same type of controller, it standardizes and streamlines our signal management processes,” said Tinnes. It does this by gathering higher resolution data and automating processing of that data to produce signal performance measures.

“We can monitor performance of a single signal, or a corridor of signals along a main route through town.” These signal upgrade projects not only improve efficiencies in managing traffic control devices, but may also contribute to a reduction in crashes, as problems can be assessed quickly and resolved faster, often remotely. And it’s coming soon to a traffic signal near you.