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Rhode Island DOT Officials Pitch Smart Signal System

The new signalling system, near Newport, would be smart traffic lights that combine traditional traffic lights with an array of sensors and artificial intelligence to intelligently route vehicle, bike and pedestrian traffic.

(TNS) — William Corcoran studied the graphic showing two new signal lights on the proposed Pell Bridge ramp and two new signal lights on a recreated section of JT Connell Highway, and said that was too much stop-and-go for him.

Corcoran, president of Newport Tent Co. until it merged with PEAK Event Services earlier this year and now the division manager, handled more than 1,000 events in the past year, so he gets around. He thought the design could be more efficient at managing heavy traffic in and out of Newport.

Corcoran was one of about 25 business people who attended a public information meeting on the proposed Pell Bridge ramp redesign that was hosted by the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce at its Innovate Newport headquarters Thursday afternoon.

Making the presentation and taking questions was Rhode Island Department of Transportation Project Director Jody Richards, who has held multiple such meetings in recent weeks. He has been working in Newport on the project for the past three years, he said.

Now it's crunch time though for the public to express their opinions. RIDOT completed an environmental assessment of its selected bridge ramp plan for the Federal Highway Administration, which is providing most of the funding. FHWA released the plan Nov. 21 and set a 30-day public comment period that ends on Dec. 23. The federal agency then will review the public comments and release a "finding of no significant impact," often referred to as a "FONSI," or require a full environmental impact statement, which is much more involved than an assessment.

Richards told Corcoran that the new signal lights and upgrades to six existing traffic signal lights further away from the ramp, as well as a new signal light at Admiral Kalbfus Road and Malbone Road/Girard Avenue would not be your standard traffic lights.

They would be smart traffic lights that combine traditional traffic lights with an array of sensors and artificial intelligence to intelligently route vehicle, bike and pedestrian traffic. The signals communicate with each other and adapt to changing traffic conditions to reduce the amount of time that cars spend idling. Using fiber optic video receivers, the new technology monitors vehicle numbers and makes changes in real time to avoid congestion wherever possible.

The RIDOT Traffic Management Center in Providence oversees the system.

Like everywhere, Newport has a traffic surge in the morning when people are going to work and at night when they are coming home, Richards said.

But Newport has a series of other surges connected to the influx of tourists who come to the city when there are special events, or on a particularly sunny pleasant day, he said. On rainy, cold or cloudy days, there will be less traffic.

"The signals will automatically readjust to handle whatever the traffic flow is," Richards said.

"This will be the smartest grid in the whole state," said David Walsh, RIDOT's assistant director of administrative services for business outreach, who was assisting Richards with the presentation and meeting separately with attendees.

At RIDOT's major Routes 6/10 project in the Olneyville section of Providence, three additional smart traffic lights were added for detours, and traffic is moving better now than it was before, in spite of more lights, Walsh said.

Corcoran, who was a member of the city's former Redevelopment Authority, asked about keeping the downtown ramp to Farewell Street or have it instead connect to a new road spur parallel to the Newport Secondary Rail Line into Newport.

From a traffic design perspective, that would work, Richards said. The new road would be the way into the downtown for traffic coming off the bridge and Farewell Street would be for the traffic heading out of the downtown.

However, a new road spur like that would have an impact in the historic Point neighborhood and could impact the Colonial homes of the Point, Richards said.

"If we wanted to do that, we'd probably have a fight with the SHIPO," Richards said. That's the acronym for the State Historic Preservation Officer.

More than a decade ago, RIDOT engineers discussed a similar plan and it met with strong opposition from Point residents.

Road construction can have significant impact on businesses near the bridge, which it did when the Rhode Island Bridge & Turnpike Authority began replacing sections of the concrete deck of the Pell Bridge, Richards said.

"Business people came to me and said, 'When you come to construct the bridge ramp, what's going to happen to us?' " Richards said.

RIDOT has been making plans to mitigate those impacts on businesses, Walsh said.

He has held a number of meetings with businesses, such at those at the Newport Tradesman Center on Halsey Street. The center will remain in place as the ramp redesign takes place around it. Walsh said he has talked to the business tenants down there about all kinds of questions, including how much room they need for trucks to turn.

At a public meeting last week in City Hall, people liked the simplicity of having one ramp to get off and on the bridge, as proposed in the plan. There would be a movable barrier down the middle of the ramp separating eastbound and westbound traffic, like on the bridge.

That would be a contrast to the sprawling ramp system that exists now.

Richards had an overview of the area from the 1950s, more than a decade before the Newport Bridge was constructed. The photo shows JT Connell Highway as a straight traditional road running from the rotary at Admiral Kalbfus Road rotary (which existed then) to Farewell Street.

JT Connell Highway now has a dead end at the northern side Pell Bridge ramp system but then begins again on the south side of the extensive ramp system. Under the more compact ramp redesign, JT Connell Highway again would be a straight shot to the downtown.

"We want to reconnect the traffic flow that existed in the 1950s," Richard said.

RIDOT hopes to advertise for a firm to design the $56.4 million project in 2020. Construction then could begin on the reconfigured Pell Bridge ramp system in the spring of 2021, with a completion date eyed for sometime in 2024.

The environmental assessment, appendices, presentations and other documents can be viewed at

Public comment can be made at the website, or it can be mailed to RIDOT, c/o VHB, 1 Cedar St., Suite 400, Providence, RI, 02903

©2019 Newport Daily News, R.I. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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