Kirkland leverages technology, federal grants to maximize road network’s capacity



Transportation engineers say commuters could start seeing results by the end of next year

The City of Kirkland completed a project this fall that will begin improving the commutes of thousands of Kirkland residents. That project: the renovation of a 235 square-foot conference room into Kirkland’s long-awaited Transportation Management Center, which features customized software and four 40-inch monitors that convey real-time images of Kirkland intersections.

Transportation engineers will use the center to untangle some of the traffic knots that snarl up the City’s most congested intersections.

“It gives us the ability to look at things we normally wouldn’t be able to,” says Chuck Morrison, the transportation engineer hired by the City of Kirkland to manage the City’s Transportation Management Center. “We can make instantaneous changes from City Hall. We can download the timing at different intersections if we want to make changes.”

By completing the renovation, Kirkland joins several Puget Sound cities that have already built Transportation Management Centers, including Seattle, Bellevue, Redmond, Issaquah and Renton. And commuters in those cities are already reaping the benefits.

Scores of federal studies from 1999 to 2013 document a range of benefits to Seattle-area commuters, including reduced travel times and air pollution and increased safety and traveler confidence.

Intelligent Transportation System

This most recent step is part of a $5 million, two-phase effort—paid mostly by federal grants—to upgrade Kirkland’s transportation network to an Intelligent Transportation System.

Kirkland engineers expect to complete the Intelligent Transportation System by the end of 2015. They expect the first phase of it—which includes the Transportation Management Center—to be in place by the end of 2014. Phase I of the project will upgrade traffic signal technology to a video-based system that employs two different types of cameras: one for vehicle detection, the other for video-feeds of intersections. With them, transportation engineers can observe traffic and even rotate the cameras to look at traffic from a variety of angles.

This will enable engineers to evaluate intersection timing along the north-south corridor of Lake Washington Boulevard, Market Street and 100th Avenue Northeast from Kirkland’s southern boundary up to Northeast 132nd Street. Phase I will also help with the east-west corridor of Central Way/Northeast 85th Street from downtown Kirkland to 132nd Avenue Northeast.

Several components of this Intelligent Transportation System are already in place. Twenty of Kirkland’s 60 intersections, for example, already use video to detect traffic. And 16 of those intersections already have the technology necessary to deliver real-time images of traffic to the Transportation Management Center. Engineers can rotate those cameras to adjust their perspectives of traffic.

“Being able to observe intersections over time is really helpful,” Morrison says. “It provides a much more complete view of changing traffic demands, which just isn’t available when you’re managing with the occasional field checks.”

A case in point

That point was illustrated this fall at two of Totem Lake’s intersections with 132nd Avenue Northeast.

A detour was diverting excessive traffic into 132nd Avenue Northeast’s intersections with Northeast 124th Street and Northeast 132nd Street.

“Since we had no video connection from Northeast 132nd Street and 132nd Avenue Northeast back to City Hall, we had to drive the five miles to the intersection many times to evaluate the problem and make field adjustments,” Morrison says. “And then, of course, we had to drive to the intersection to evaluate the effect of the changes.”

This wasn’t the case at the intersection near Rairdon’s Fiat of Kirkland dealership.

“We have a camera at the intersection of Slater Avenue Northeast and Northeast 124th Street so I was able to watch and understand what I needed to do,” he says. “I could watch over a number of mornings and see what was going on.”

Morrison expects commuters to notice traffic improvements over time, as Kirkland continues to implement portions of the Intelligent Transportation System.

Downtown commuters will notice improvements by the end of 2014, Morrison says. Those improvements will result from the activation of systems already installed near Parkplace at the intersection of Sixth Street and Central Way and near the Heathman Hotel at 3rd Street and Kirkland Avenue.

“This will help us keep the transition periods [late morning, mid-day and early afternoon] running more smoothly,” Morrison says.

Public view

One of the system’s more public tools will be a new City of Kirkland webpage that will allow commuters to view real-time snapshots of all the Kirkland intersections equipped with Intelligent Transportation Systems. That website should be live by the end of 2014. Until then, the public can view real-time snap shots of the 16 Kirkland intersections already equipped with Intelligent Transportation Systems through King County’s website.

For the most part, Kirkland won’t be recording traffic, because, says Kirkland Transportation Engineering Manager David Godfrey, recording consumes too much bandwidth.

“But when there are issues we need to analyze,” he says, “it’s helpful to be able to record. And this system will allow us to do that.”

The analysis then becomes a part of the public record, stored for the public according to state law by the City of Kirkland or the Washington State Archives and Records Center, says Leslie Koziara, records manager for Washington State Archives.

“But you only have to keep the raw data until you no longer need it,” she said. Kirkland does not intend to retain any of its recorded raw footage beyond the analysis phase.

Kirkland can, of course, share any relevant analysis with other agencies and departments, such as Kirkland Police and the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Maximizing existing capacity

Maximizing the capacity of Kirkland’s existing transportation infrastructure will be especially beneficial over the next 20 years as Kirkland makes room for another 13,000 residents and 20,000 jobs.

Until the 1970s, communities increased the capacities of their transportation networks by building more roads, more lanes or more connections to existing roads. That solution, of course, consumed enormous quantities of available land and required expensive investments into a plethora of other forms of infrastructure, such as sewer lines, water lines and other utilities.

Over the years, however, increasing vehicular capacity by building more arterials has become less feasible as land has become less available. This summer, in fact, the City of Kirkland will do something it hasn’t done in 20 years: build a new road. It will do this to connect Northeast 120th Street to 124th Avenue in Totem Lake. The City of Kirkland had to purchase four separate parcels for $2.6 million just to construct that 500-yard-long segment.