The city of Elk Grove was established as a hotel stop for travelers on their way to Sacramento in 1850, but it has since blossomed into the region’s second largest city with a population close to 140,000.

The swift influx of residents since the city’s 2000 incorporation has brought with it traffic gridlock that has left commuters frustrated and provided city officials a headache.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed by President Barack Obama in February, is bringing them a little closer to a solution.

Last month, the city was granted federal stimulus funds from the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG). Four transit and road projects were approved for funding, including $1 million for an Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) – a system of fiber optic cable, traffic communications equipment and computer technologies that provides real-time traffic information. The project is expected to cost $1.4 million with the city picking up the remaining $400,000.

The system will allow the city to beef up their traffic monitoring, which will in turn provide city officials the appropriate data to set the timing of traffic lights to match the flow of traffic on the roads.

Elk Grove City Engineer David Yatabe said the system was part of the city’s General Plan, but funding constraints have prevented any progress.

“When the city incorporated, we inherited a signal system that was utilizing 1970s technology,” Yatabe said. “We developed a master plan to change out all of the signals to current technology.”

The stimulus money will allow the city to upgrade as it set out to do in 2000.

Getting information on real-time traffic conditions allows Elk Grove to control the traffic signals in response to any traffic emergency that requires major re-routing of traffic throughout the city. City officials also expect less vehicle idling, quicker travel times and less gasoline consumption to result in a reduction of carbon emissions in the Sacramento region.

Reduced Signal Stops

The average daily traffic on the major Elk Grove corridor of Laguna Boulevard and Bond Road between Bruceville Road and Elk Grove-Florin Road, ranges from 35,000 to 50,000 vehicles per day for both eastbound and westbound traffic. A major culprit of the high vehicle counts is the city’s geography. Elk Grove sits in between two major freeways – Highway 99 and Interstate 5 – thus creating a gateway between the two.

“It is both a blessing and a curse having two highways run North and South through Elk Grove,” Yatabe said.

A traffic study conducted by Naztec Inc. in December 2008 using ITS technology, showed the difference in traffic congestion when traffic light timing is manipulated. The study found that delays and the number of stops for Elk Grove commuters could see a reduction ranging anywhere from 43 percent to 68 percent.

“It is the total package,” Yatabe said. “The technical side is not what people always want to hear, but you know this type of infrastructure is needed in order for us to move forward and try to make the improvements necessary.”

Fiber Optics

The city is expecting to put the project out for bid this summer with construction on the six-mile fiber optic communication line between the city’s corporation yard and city hall to be completed by December 2009.

Elk Grove’s current traffic light technology consists of one monitoring camera and a leased communication line that streams information at about five megabits per second.

The fiber optic line will allow the installation of several monitoring systems and communication speeds will increase to about one gigabyte per second, Yatabe said.

“It’s roughly about 200 times the speed that we are going to be improving to,” he said.

Jason Shykowski, senior civil engineer with the city of Roseville, said the city had its ITS system installed three years ago. Since then, traffic congestion has seen an improvement.

“Our ability to smooth the public’s travel has increased tremendously,” Shykowski said.

Now that the city of Roseville has cameras at the vast majority of intersections, multiple traffic situations can be easily dealt with, he said.

“If there is a problem either that we noticed on the cameras or if someone calls something in, we can immediately go and look at what’s going on rather than having to dispatch a signal technician which would be 30 to 45 minutes or more before they get there,” Shykowski said.

On the morning of this interview, Shykowski said the system helped them modify traffic signal timing at intersections that were backed up in the area of a motorcycle accident.

The modifications allowed traffic to move easily through the city despite the accident.

The city of Roseville has 80 percent of their 165 traffic lights equipped with ITS technology and it has allowed city officials to collect pinpoint data.

“We can tell you how many cars are in which lanes at any time of the day,” Shykowski said. “It’s pretty far thinking for Elk Grove to think that it [ITS] is important enough for Elk Grove to use its stimulus money for it, I think it’s a good thing.”

Regional Traffic Web Site

Using ITS technology, a regional partnership between several Sacramento local government and agencies is currently developing a Web site by the name of Star Net. On it, local governments will have traffic management centers that will allow traffic data to be shared and viewed by the public and public administrators.

California Highway Patrol reports, Amtrak arrival times, traffic counts and live intersection camera feeds will be available, Shykowski said.

The Web site is still in development.

In Elk Grove, Yatabe said the ITS project will do what the federal stimulus package is intended to accomplish by putting people to work. It will also help develop a road system that was inherited and can no longer support the demands of a city that has gone from a hotel stop to a major residential hub.

Blake Ellington is a freelance writer covering local government projects being funded by federal stimulus money.