Emmet Street approaching the University of Virginia Credit: Credit: Andrew Shurtleff, Charlottesville Stock Photography
The Charlottesville City Council has decided to spend up to $450,000 on a joint project with Albemarle County to coordinate traffic signals on U.S. 29 using technology that adjusts signals depending on real-time conditions.
Councilors Dave Norris and Dede Smith both voted against the project late Monday night over concerns about the cost and timing of the request.
“It feels like it came out of nowhere,” Smith said. “Why hasn’t the county come forward before?”
Albemarle officials are in talks with the Virginia Department of Transportation to purchase InSync software and hardware from Rhythm Engineering to enhance the already coordinated traffic signals from Hydraulic Road to Airport Road on U.S. 29, as well as side streets. Charlottesville now will include Emmet Street signals in the project.
Rhythm officials estimate the cost to place the system at each intersection at about $30,000, plus an additional $5,000 for installation and communications equipment. An exact number of intersections has not yet been determined.  
The city’s cost estimate covers at least 13 intersections. 
Rhythm Engineering officials claim their system can decrease travel time by up to 50 percent and crashes by up to 30 percent, said Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of Neighborhood Development Services.
“This uses [cameras and software] … to try to make sure that signals are coordinated so people who are coming from side streets are entering and getting a green light at a natural gap rather than making everyone stop and let them out,” said Councilor Kristin Szakos.
Szakos said the matter has come up in the past year at meetings of the Planning and Coordination Council and the Metropolitan Planning Organization. The City Council also had a brief discussion about the technology at its June 3 meeting following a briefing given by Rhythm officials to city staff and Mayor Satyendra Huja.
“There was interest expressed in our coordination of Emmet Street from Ivy to Hydraulic, and if U.S. 29 north is going to be better coordinated, that we coordinate the entire stretch,” Tolbert said.
Tolbert called the $450,000 price tag a “very rough estimate” based on Rhythm’s baseline prices.
“We feel like, if anything, it is a little high and we may save some of that,” he said.  
The county’s portion of the project is being partly covered under VDOT’s revenue-sharing program. Albemarle secured $360,000 from the program and made an equivalent match to install the system from Hydraulic Road to Airport Road.
Tolbert said the city also could apply for VDOT revenue-sharing funds to pay for the project, but a decision on the next round of allocations likely will not be made for another 18 months. 
The city still would have pay for half of the project.
An average of 51,000 vehicles passed daily through the intersection of Emmet Street and the U.S. 250 Bypass in 2011, according to VDOT traffic counts.
“Everybody, city and county residents, uses that road,” said Councilor Kathy Galvin. “The jurisdictions are an arbitrary thing.”
The city money will come from the capital improvement program’s contingency fund. Norris expressed concerns that taking money from that source would prevent other projects from being funded 
if they come up in the next year.
“I believe the fund is sufficient to cover what would normally come up in a given year,” said Aubrey Watts, the city’s chief operating officer, who sat in for City Manager Maurice Jones at Monday’s meeting. 
Smith said the city always could add on to the county’s system later and there are other places,  such as McIntire Road or Preston Avenue, where the software could be used. 
Szakos said the city could use revenue-sharing funds to pay for those projects if the InSync system works as advertised.