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Traffic signals disrupted, creating chaos in Montgomery

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The glitch in the traffic lights system in Montgomery County that caused delays earlier this morning is now causing delays in the evening rush hour. Crews are working to repair the glitch and hope to complete the task soon.

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By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009

In the backdrop of so much of 21st-century life, computers are an unseen hand that guides the day in ways we rarely know about. Until they crash.

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Wednesday provided one such rude awakening for commuters in Montgomery County.

A computer meltdown disrupted the choreography of 750 traffic lights, turning the morning and evening commutes into endless seas of red brake lights, causing thousands of drivers to arrive at work grumpy and late, and getting them home more frustrated and even later.

Montgomery County officials said they will offer free bus rides all day Thursday, a decision made Wednesday night, even as county technicians worked feverishly to resurrect the faulty machine in time for the morning rush.

"In case these efforts are not successful, we want to help provide commuters another option" by providing free access to Ride On buses, County Executive Isiah Leggett said in a statement.

On Wednesday, commuters who thought they would slip around the chaos by detouring from their usual routes only found more problems. The tangles of traffic rippled from Veirs Mill Road to Rockville Pike to Old Georgetown Road to Interstate 270 and the spur.

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"At this time, the problem has not been fixed," Tim Firestine, a county administrator, said Wednesday as the last, late commuters inched toward home.

Some of the worst of it radiated from an epicenter at Four Corners, as the heavily trafficked intersection of University Boulevard and Colesville Road in Silver Spring is known.

And at dawn and dusk, cars backed up like a row of toppled dominoes once they reached the balky traffic signals on Connecticut Avenue.

That a single computer failure can plunge an entire sector of the region into near gridlock underscored how fragile and overloaded the second-most congested urban area in the country has become.

Before Wednesday, few Montgomery commuters knew, and even fewer probably cared, that a big computer in Rockville and a team of engineers working with it regulate the flow of traffic throughout the county.


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