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Driver misery reduced?

Patrick Parkinson, Of the Record staff

It could take a year to work the bugs out a system meant to make life easier for motorists on State Road 224 by coordinating traffic signals on the busy road.

"What the system basically does is minimize the misery. It’s really a balancing act of, when do you want to coordinate all of the traffic lights, and when is it best that they run on their own based on vehicle demand," said Mark Taylor, signal systems engineer for the Utah Department of Transportation. "We are slammed out there. The system will not do any magic or make all of their transportation issues go away."

Three ski resorts and the Sundance Film Festival can mean nasty traffic conditions on S.R. 224.

So the highway corridor was chosen as the state’s "guinea pig" to debut the Sydney Coordinated Adaptive Traffic System or SCATS.

"We are doing everything we can to try to squeeze as much capacity out of the existing roadway," Taylor said, adding that installing SCATS helped delay the need to widen the road, a more expensive alternative. "The goal is to move as many vehicles down S.R. 224 as we can but keeping side streets flowing as well."

Before engineers installed the new system last summer, between 6:30 and 9 a.m., traffic signals on S.R. 224 were programmed to favor traffic flowing into Park City.

Those attempting to turn onto the highway were provided longer green lights between 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., Taylor said, adding that signals on S.R. 224 favored northbound traffic during the afternoon rush hour.

But the system broke down during special events or when a snowstorm compelled commuters to leave town early.

"The SCATS system is an adaptive system. That’s what makes it good for the area," Taylor said. "A fix may only be needed for 45 minutes rather than the entire 3-hour block."

By counting cars, SCATS adjusts the timing of signals when traffic surges, he said, adding that tweaks to the system must still be made to smooth congestion near Cutter Lane, Old Ranch Road and the new intersection at Canyons Resort Drive.

"I’ve heard from a number of people who feel that the green time that you get on the side intersections is not adequate, and that’s a trade off with this," said Kevin Callahan, Summit County Public Works administrator, who says that the system has also malfunctioned near Interstate 80. "It’s a work in progress."

Since the system was first tested last July, it has malfunctioned near Interstate 80, Landmark Drive and Olympic Parkway.

"When you have a surge in traffic [SCATS] can keep the green time open longer," Callahan said, conceding, "we’ve had a number of occasions in the past couple of months that the system hasn’t worked very well."

Parkites on Payday Drive complained that green lights did not allow enough time to turn onto the highway.

"We have received quite a bit of feedback," Taylor said, adding that all of it has not been negative. "[Some] say as they travel from Park City to Kimball Junction they hit the green lights the whole way."

Developed by the Transit Authority of New South Wales, Australia, SCATS is in operation in nearly a dozen U.S. cities, but Park City is the first in the Intermountain West.

"It’s been on and off," Summit County Commissioner Bob Richer said about the success of the system so far. "What, if anything, can we do to make [UDOT] better understand our sense of urgency here?"

When the Sundance Film Festival begins Jan. 18, UDOT "will have staff there during the peak hours that will actually manually override the system if need be [and] keep it green," Callahan said.

"The predominant direction of traffic, which is north-south, in and out of Park City, is given preference," he said, adding, "Landmark’s our chokepoint and if Landmark fails, everything fails."


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