Emmet Street approaching the University of Virginia Credit: Credit: Andrew Shurtleff, Charlottesville Stock Photography

Charlottesville’s City Council has agreed to double the amount the city will spend on a collaboration with Albemarle County to synchronize almost three dozen traffic lights on U.S. 29 using “intelligent” technology.

Councilors voted unanimously Monday to reallocate $450,000 from the so-called Best Buy ramp project to connect 11 city signals with 21 county intersections using Rhythm Engineering’s InSync adaptive traffic management system.

“The benefits of applying InSync technology can save motorists and localities dollars by cutting down on fuel and time wasted at poorly timed traffic signals and most important, improving the overall safety and efficiency for motorists and pedestrians,” said Jim Tolbert, the city’s director of Neighborhood Development Services.

In June, the council allocated $450,000 to the project, but Tolbert said additional funding is required. The total city contribution is now $900,000.

“Subsequent to that we found out that the estimate we’d been given was too low because they forgot to include labor,” Tolbert said.

The preliminary cost estimate for Albemarle’s section was $1.24 million as of late January, but that cost may increase depending on whether the Internet connection is hard-wired or transmitted over radio waves.

The company’s technology adjusts the duration of traffic signals in real-time by scanning the entire network.

However, one city resident expressed concern after the meeting that the cameras used by the system could be used to track citizens against their will.

“At no point in the conversation [Monday] did any council members ask even one question or express any concern about a private company installing all-new live monitoring cameras at a number of intersections in our community,” said Coy Barefoot, a local television and radio host.

Barefoot asked councilors in an email several questions about the technology, such as who would have access to data collected by the system. The topic did not come up during their discussion.

“The video feeds will be viewed at the Transportation Operations Center in Staunton and by the signal timing engineers for the purpose of monitoring the intersections,” Lou Hatter, area spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said in an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow.

Hatter said Rhythm Engineering can access camera feeds to tweak the system, and added that the feeds are not recorded or archived.

VDOT currently operates cameras at key locations throughout the state that are publicly accessible through the Internet on sites such as trafficland.com.

The installation comes three years after VDOT installed the same software and cameras on U.S. 250 on Pantops Mountain.

“Pantops is remarkably better than it used to be with this,” Tolbert said.

VDOT has claimed that travel times have been reduced along the Pantops corridor by as much as four and a half minutes after the system was deployed.

Councilor Dede Smith asked whether the InSync system could be extended to cover the intersection of Rugby and Barracks roads.

“That’s an enormously congested intersection,” Smith said.

Tolbert said that light is too far from U.S. 29 to be connected to the system.

“What this does is make Emmet Street flow more smoothly,” Tolbert said. “You can only go so far off of the primary road and still have an impact.”

The system is currently scheduled to be deployed over the summer and functional when the University of Virginia begins its fall semester.

The additional funds for the project will be transferred from money that had been set aside for the Best Buy project, which will add a second lane on southbound Emmet Street onto the westbound U.S. 250 Bypass. That project includes a new lane leading from the on-ramp to the Barracks Road exit.

In 2007, the city was awarded $1 million in VDOT revenue-sharing funds for the Best Buy project, which has a total cost estimate of $11.2 million.

Smith said she was concerned that the Best Buy ramp might not be built if previously allocated money is used elsewhere.

Tolbert said VDOT would cover the difference because the agency assumed control of the project from the city in 2011. The project is scheduled to be advertised for construction bids this November and VDOT records indicate it is fully funded.

Hatter said right-of-way for the project will be purchased after noise studies are completed.