Control restored to traffic signals
2-day computer breakdown made a mess of rush hours

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2009

As Montgomery County commuters suffered through their fourth nightmarish rush hour Thursday evening, county officials said computer experts had finally fixed the central computer failure that caused the traffic signal system to melt down.

"Engineers have isolated the problem and have been successful in reestablishing the connection between the computer and the traffic signals, with the result that most of the intersection signals are now responding to our commands," said County Executive Isiah Leggett (D).

County traffic engineers and outside consultants had been vexed by the problem for 40 hours, unable to manage the county's more than 750 traffic signals, whose timing patterns normally are changed throughout the day to accommodate the ebb and flow of traffic. A few signals still were balking at commands from the revived central computer, but most were responding, Leggett said.

"We will continue to monitor it throughout the evening and overnight, but we anticipate that tomorrow morning's rush hour will be much smoother," he said.

He said the county's Ride On buses would continue to be free for riders Friday.

As county computer experts and outside consultants wrestled with the balky computer, Leggett said he planned to expedite a $35 million program to replace the computer system. Begun two years ago, the replacement was planned to take six years.

"We are going to replace it as quickly as possible," Legget said, acknowledging the county's budget crisis but asserting that "the question of budgeting concerns is not an issue."

The county's chief traffic engineer, Emil Wolanin, said replacing the 1970s-vintage system would not be easy.

"It's not just going to the store and buying a computer," Wolanin said. "We have to figure out how we can transition. It's a very complicated and complex situation."

The system was originally purchased from Eagle Traffic Control Systems, a company since bought by Siemens ITS. The system does have backup components, but the breakdown occurred at a vulnerable point that had none.

"I appreciate the patience of our residents and commuters," Leggett said. "I know it has been a rough couple of days in Montgomery County. I know because I've been stuck in traffic, too."

Leggett said he received a call from his wife on the morning the problem first arose. She was stuck in traffic and said, "I'm calling not as your wife but as a constituent" to complain about the problem. Leggett said he replied that he, too, was caught in a traffic backup at that moment.

Leggett said he decided against sending county police officers to take command of congested intersections because the lights were working properly. The problem, he said, was that their timing and synchronization were off, two issues police officers couldn't resolve.

"That would not have been an effective use of the police department," Leggett said.

Rush-hour gridlock was the talk of the county Thursday, as drivers compared their miserable experiences.

"Colesville Road at University Boulevard has been massively affected by the malfunction," commuter Valerie G. Frank said. "The two sets of lights that are always in tandem, are working completely illogically -- not even in non-rush-hour mode, just wrong -- so that everyone gets stuck in the box. It has been a total nightmare."

Silver Spring resident Gagan Nirula said most mornings it takes him 25 to 35 minutes to get from his home off Fairland Road to Four Corners.

"Today, it took nearly an hour to go the approximately five-mile stretch," Nirula said Thursday.

Stephen Kaludis sent an e-mail about his travel travails from Potomac to North Bethesda on three miles of Tuckerman Road.

"A 10 to 15 minute drive took almost an hour today and 45 minutes yesterday," Kaludis wrote.

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