ROANOKE, Va. – It's one of the busiest intersections in all of Roanoke and it's always a pinch point at rush hour. But Roanoke City engineers hope you've noticed a smoother ride through the Elm Avenue, Interstate 581 interchange.
That's because of new computers running the show, which are a welcome sight for many Roanokers who have dealt with the headache intersection nearly every single day. Roanoke wouldn't be Roanoke without the Mill Mountain Star, the Downtown Market, or that exact interchange. And love it, or like many, hate it, it's not going anywhere anytime soon.
"Economic development, all the level of activity, the social components, the arts and culture stuff, if it's downtown, Elm Avenue is key to all of that," Roanoke City Transportation Division Manager Mark Jamison said.
According to the Virginia Department of Transportation research, 70,000 cars a day go through the Elm part of the interchange, and we know the busiest stretch of road west of Richmond is the section of Interstate 581 below it. Together those factors spell daily traffic headaches, especially during the afternoon rush hour, but that all may soon change.
Roanoke City spent about $10,000 on a brand-new suite of traffic control signal modules tied together with fiber optic cable. They are improvements on old technology, working to sync everything together.
"This is the brains, this is taking in all the information, all the feedback, and then processing it and deciding what to do next," said Mike Dalmolin, Roanoke City traffic engineer. "The biggest thing was allowing for fiber communication, so basically it's like upgrading to a different cell tower and you're going to be able to communicate a lot better."
Taking data from motion cameras on top of the lights, the new control modules are making decisions at each light and then cross-checking them with the other lights to establish the most efficient decisions. Working together means less stop and go, more time moving, and hopefully a smoother ride through for drivers.
"If I tell you what to do you'll actually respond, before this controller would operate independently within certain constraints but it wouldn't actually (say) if you do this, I'll do that," Dalmolin said.
The changes took effect mid-December and in a few months trip data will show if it's actually working as well as the engineers hope it is. As the city continues to grow, and more and more people head downtown, this couldn't have come at a more perfect time.
Another added benefit to the intersection is better responsiveness to emergency vehicles. The interchange is a major thoroughfare for ambulances on their way to Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, and when patients are in the back, seconds count. The new signal controllers are able to more efficiently control the lights and clear space for ambulances to make their way through, changing reds to greens in faster time, and making room for cars in the way to proceed.