Getting stuck in traffic has changed in St. Charles County in recent years. John Greifzu, an assistant director of administration for the county, remembers his father telling him years ago that the big problem was traffic jams caused by commuters trying to get across the Missouri River bridges.
But with the building of new bridges on Missouri routes 370 and 364, a new Interstate 64 span at Chesterfield and improvements to the Interstate 70 bridges in St. Charles, long lines of vehicles literally parked and waiting to cross the river are less common.
Instead, much of the recent traffic congestion has been on arterial, state, county and city roads governed by traffic signals that are controlled by cities and other jurisdictions, Greifzu said. How those signals operated could change once a driver crossed a boundary line.
In a 2016 survey of county residents, 71 percent of respondents said that traffic congestion was caused mostly by uncoordinated traffic signals. County officials saw this coming and began working toward a solution in 2012.
That year, the county, along with nine other local government partners, started the Gateway Green Light program to develop a system that coordinates traffic signals throughout the county. Cottleville, Dardenne Prairie, Lake Saint Louis, O’Fallon, St. Charles, St. Peters, Weldon Spring, Wentzville, the Missouri Department of Transportation and the county are participating in the program.
Greifzu and Jennifer George, also a county assistant director of administration, discussed some basic questions involving the Gateway Green Light program and provided a progress report to the County Council at its Feb. 27 meeting.
Greifzu and George said the program is not only about coordinating traffic signals but laying the groundwork for new ways that local governments will manage a variety of transportation issues using new technology.
“We have 340 traffic signals in the county managed by 10 different agencies,” Greifzu said. At its core, the Gateway Green Light program helps synchronize those traffic signals, especially across city boundaries to reduce unnecessary delays and improve traffic flow.
A central operations center, designed to keep signals in sync, has been made possible through advances in technology, the laying of 115 miles of fiber optic cable and new software that allows traffic signals to communicate with each other, Greifzu said.
The Gateway Green Light program also provides motorists with information on road conditions and travel using message boards and data from other agencies. To feed those message boards, sensitive sensors and 70 cameras have been installed along roadways with more to come.
Greifzu said the program so far has cost about $10 million with $8 million from federal grants and $2 million from local sources. Has it worked? Since 2012, Greifzu said there has been a 16-percent reduction in traffic travel times, which represents the few minutes or seconds it takes for residents to travel from place to another, and is considered a success.
The coordination of signals also has helped with reducing congestion at special events venues, such as the Family Arena in St. Charles, and in dealing with non-planned events, such as traffic accidents on nearby roads and interstates. The Gateway Green Light program also may help to coordinate signals when emergency response vehicles need to navigate traffic and improve response times.
But Greifzu, who helped develop the program as the county’s director of transportation, said while the use of new technology offers promise, it hasn’t and won’t end of traffic tie-ups.
“The simple answer is that we have a lot of cars,” Greifzu said. “St. Charles County continues to grow, it continues to attract new businesses and new residents. We’re always going to have congestion. This program is not set up to eliminate congestion, it’s here to make it better.”
Greifzu said the program also is laying the foundation for the county’s participation in what is being called an emerging “Smart City” movement where technology becomes more integrated into daily life. “We’re at the ground level,” he said.
“We’re at the ground level,” he said.
George said the Smart City movement seeks to integrate devices, such as personal cell phones and iPads, with other data to improve the quality of life in areas that will go beyond transportation. In cities such as Barcelona, Dubai and Kansas City, sensors and data are being used to drive buses, adjust street lighting and help with downtown traffic flow. In some cities, people can rent electric vehicles from what George calls a “car vending machine.”
How that technology will impact the county and its cities still remains unknown, but county officials say the Gateway Green Light program is providing the groundwork. One day, George said, it may be possible for a driver in St. Charles to be notified about the availability of parking spaces downtown.
There are issues to be worked out as far as the compatibility of computer devices with each other and security concerns, but Smart Cities is not a movement for the future. “It’s not just coming,” George said. “It’s already here.”