Hey motorists: Morristown says your drive is about to get shorter

Morristown Planner Phil Abramson, left, gives overview of traffic study as Mayor Tim Dougherty and Assistant Town Attorney Elnardo Webster II listen, Feb. 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morristown Planner Phil Abramson, left, gives overview of traffic study as Mayor Tim Dougherty and Assistant Town Attorney Elnardo Webster II listen, Feb. 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Anyone who drives in Morristown knows that its 30 traffic signals have minds of their own…and they change their minds without consulting each other.

The result can be a seemingly interminable series of stops and starts, in which a run of green lights is about as likely as hitting the Powerball jackpot.

But that’s about to change, as soon as this month, town Planner Phil Abramson told the town council on Tuesday.

The state Department of Transportation has begun replacing timing mechanisms in each signal, for a more coordinated sequence of red- and green lights.

“This will reduce delays in town by 30 percent per day,” and shave one minute off every rush-hour trip around the historic Morristown Green, Abramson said.

It’s the first, and perhaps the most potent, step in a package of proposed traffic improvements stemming from a $400,000 study spearheaded by the global firm Arup in late 2016.

Recommendations include 41 improvements to intersections, 33 new crosswalks at intersections, and the creation of two bicycle corridors. These projects will be detailed in coming months, in consultation with affected neighborhoods, Abramson said.

All the improvements may take a couple of years to roll out, said Mayor Tim Dougherty, praising the planner’s presentation for showing “we are in the forefront of how municipalities deal with existing traffic and future growth.”

Key to the study is the collection of a year’s worth of traffic data: Tens of thousands of vehicles navigating each intersection, plus anonymized tracking of motorists’ phones from a company called StreetLight.

That tracking has allowed the town to deduce how much traffic originates in Morristown (28 percent) or ends there (29 percent), how many vehicles simply are passing through (36 percent!), and which cut-through routes they are using.

(Five corridors experience a majority of just-passing-through trips during rush hours. Mornings: Mills Street northbound, 74 percent; Washington Street eastbound, 70 percent; Ridgedale Avenue southbound, 67 percent; Martin Luther King Avenue southbound, 65 percent; Washington Street westbound, 62 percent. Afternoons: Washington WB, 62 percent; Ridgedale NB, 60 percent; Mills SB, 59 percent; MLK NB, 58 percent; Sussex Avenue WB, 54 percent).

Computerizing all this information should enable the town to predict the traffic impact of new development projects, and to model how traffic would be affected, say, by changing a two-way street to one direction, Abramson said.

Town officials also hope this data will help them secure grants, and bill traffic-generating businesses, to pay for some of the improvements.

Armed with real numbers, Abramson added, the town should have an easier time persuading the state to approve roadway projects.

“This way we’re not going to them with a problem, we’re going with a solution — and they can get out of the way,” the planner said.

He did not cite a price tag for the work. That’s a subject for upcoming presentations, said town Administrator Jillian Barrick.

The state, which controls 27 of the traffic signals, is footing the bill for all the signal upgrades, Barrick said.

(Factoid: Morristown oversees lights at three intersections: Elm/Morris streets, Spring Street /Martin Luther King Avenue, and Washington /Mills streets.)

Since the 1990s, traffic signals have been synchronized by fiber optic lines beneath sidewalks, Abramson said.

Over time, however, those lines have gotten broken during construction projects, throwing the signals out of whack.

“Now, we have a bunch of alarm clocks ticking at different speeds, going off at different times,” Abramson said.

The fix, costing a few hundred dollars per signal, does not link the signals, he said. Rather, each signal will be pre-programmed, and will re-set itself hourly via GPS.

Once all the upgrades are in place, sequencing should function once again as it did in the late 20th century. The town then hopes its data will sway the state to fine-tune the timing for 2018 traffic.

Abramson described traffic as a barometer of Morristown’s success. People want to come to town.

“We need to take advantage of this moment in history…to invest in traffic improvements,” he said.

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  1. Morristown needs more sensors mounted on traffic lights to detect approaching cars. The only one I can think of in the entire town is at the corner of MLK and Abbett Avenue, and this one works pretty well. Traffic flow during rush hour is most important, but traffic flow at night matters too. Sensors would allow cars to get through intersections that otherwise might take 45-60 seconds for a signal change if it was just on a standard timer.

  2. I hope they have a solution to all the cars on Washington Street that run the light onto Park Place and block traffic coming out of Market Street.

  3. “…anonymized tracking of motorists’ phones.” I’d like to learn more about this. Were these volunteer participants in the study?

  4. What about “don’t block the box” intersections? This would improve traffic on Washington Street by applying a little paint while we wait for the costly improvements.

  5. This is also a good time to add bicycle and pedestrian needs to the re-timing efforts. Motor vehicle traffic flow improvements may improve pass-through times. They may not improve bike/ped safety without planning for it.