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Montgomery commuters should expect delays


Montgomery County's system that regulates traffic lights during rush hour is still out of order, and drivers should expect a repeat of the traffic delays that turned both morning and evening rush hour into a traffic nightmare on Wednesday.

County technicians worked through the night without finding a solution to the problem with a computerized system that normally changes timing on 750 county traffic lights to accommodate rush hour traffic.

Montgomery County officials said they will offer free rides all day Thursday on Ride On buses, to ease the inconvenience for commuters.

The system, which county spokeswoman Esther Bowring described yesterday as "unique" in the Washington region, is based on a decades-old computer that sends signals to traffic lights all over the county, telling lights how long to stay green.

It also synchronizes them to promote the flow of traffic. That happens automatically, and then traffic engineers use data from traffic cameras and a county airplane to tweak the system. When there is an accident, breakdown or water main break, they use the computer to adjust signal times further and ease the congestion around the problem.

The computer crashed completely about 3 a.m. Wednesday. Bowring said workers have isolated the location of the problem but have not been able to pinpoint the cause.

6:45AM UPDATE: The major commuting roads will also likely be the areas with the worst backups -- Georgia Avenue, Connecticut Avenue, Wisconsin Avenue, according to Bowring.

She recommends that commuters try to avoid driving during what will surely be a congestion-filled morning. Ride-On bus rides are free, so the hope is that people could get out of their cars and into public transportation. Commuters should also try to drive at non-peak hours, when traffic will be much lighter, or find other alternatives (carpooling, telecommuting).

9:10 AM UPDATE: Mixed reports are coming in from across Montgomery County. Some commuters aren't experiencing any problems, but others are running into heavy traffic. Some potential trouble spots continue to be: Connecticut Avenue, Georgia Avenue and Rockville Pike. Drivers need to be alert for the changes in signal patterns, Bowring said, which are causing confusion.

"We are just seeing so many collisions this morning," she said.

Other problems stem from cars in intersections when lights change, which just "causes complete gridlock," she said.

"As horrible as this is, if people would just practice common courtesy, it would help tremendously," Bowring said.

She urged travelers to be patient. "We are all in the same boat," she said.

1:10 PM UPDATE: Montgomery County technicians continue to search for a way to restore synchronization to 750 traffic signals throughout the county.

With the end of rush hour, traffic conditions in most areas of the county improved. However, county officials were bracing for a repeat of yesterday's challenging evening commute.

2 PM UPDATE: Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett and Department of Transportation officials are providing an update on the County's traffic signal computer. The press conference is going on now. Check back here for the latest details.

If you're experiencing problems with your commute, share your story with us. E-mail Ashley Halsey III at

By Ashley Halsey  |  November 5, 2009; 5:08 AM ET
Categories:  Commuting , Congestion  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Headaches on the horizon
Next: Metrobus upgrading Route 7 service


I guess parts for a Commodore 64 are hard to come by these days.

Posted by: nubeldorf1 | November 5, 2009 9:21 AM | Report abuse

This shows how ready this county is for a real disaster. Where is the system failover procedure? Where are the traffic police to redirect the traffic during rush-hour in order to ease some of this mess? This county is technologically archaic, and strategically bankrupt. Computers break all the time, but where are the "big thinkers" and "process analysts" who can implement the stragegies when these things happen?

I am so very disappointed.

Posted by: joanna_k_paris | November 5, 2009 9:34 AM | Report abuse

If you ask anyone, what is the biggest problem in Montgomery County; nine-out-of-ten residents would say the traffic. The fact that they have a computer almost 30 years old controlling the traffic lights is unfathomable - a hundred dollar iPod has more computing power. This also must mean they are using 30 year old algorithms to direct traffic as well. And lastly, for a critical infrastructure system not to have a back-up system is simply negligence on management. Somebody should be going through that office handing out pink slips and should be starting with the highest salaried first to go!

Posted by: goshkruse | November 5, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse

Lack of synchronized traffic lights? OH MY GOD - Montgomery County is turning into Fairfax County!

Posted by: dude7 | November 5, 2009 10:01 AM | Report abuse

I appreciate the move to make Ride-On buses free, but the buses are stuck in the same traffic, with the addition of making stops.

Posted by: aqbailey | November 5, 2009 10:23 AM | Report abuse

"Other problems stem from cars in intersections when lights change, which just "causes complete gridlock," she said."

Cars blocking the intersection has been an enormous problem. Along with free bus service, I'd like to see more police visibility at major intersections to deter motorists who block the box.

Posted by: jwind | November 5, 2009 10:46 AM | Report abuse

I understand that there are a lot of intersections, but why aren't police out directing traffic/manually controlling the traffic lights? At least place them at the major intersections. And especially at intersections with left turn lights and heavy left turning traffic. The non-rush hour timing is really horrible for handling the amount of traffic at these intersections. Last night it took 20 minutes to get through the left turn light at Randolph Rd. and Georgia Ave. (Heading East on Randolph turning North onto Georgia). So many people blocking the box making it impossible to get anywhere.

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | November 5, 2009 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps they should get Professor Falken out from Norad and smack Joshua around a bit.

Posted by: slappygilmore | November 5, 2009 10:55 AM | Report abuse

Imagine using an ancient computer system with no redundancy capability (failsafe procedure) for a critical social function such as this. Perhaps the Y2K bug hit belatedly. There ought to be hell to pay. It will be interesting to see whether the cause of this problem is identified and shared fully with local citizens, and whether there is any meaningful accountability, including rolling heads. Were "best practices" implemented? The county needs to re-examine its priorities and properly resource essential functions. It's not as if we've starved the MoCo government of tax revenue over the years.

Posted by: rboltuck | November 5, 2009 11:38 AM | Report abuse

I hear that it will be at least a week until this is fixed and the problems, they noted on NPR just a moment ago are a result of old equiptment. The county has blambed this not on human error or poor planning but on a lack of tax dollars funneled to their program. Got to love MoCo.
Took me 2 and 1/2 hours to drive the 8 miles home last night. Took me 2 hours to get into work this morning.
The next week is going to be fun!

Posted by: LoJankFilDee19338333 | November 5, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

"The county has blambed this not on human error or poor planning but on a lack of tax dollars funneled to their program. Got to love MoCo."

Um, common sense would say they're right. This was a computer malfunction, not a human error, and since the computers are being phased out, seems like they have wanted to bring this system up to speed for a while. Personally I think this is funny. It shows exactly how effective MoCo has been at managing rush hour traffic seamlessly for years and years. If this is the first glitch--that's quite a feat. Please keep your spiteful blathering to yourself.

Posted by: crzytwnman | November 5, 2009 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Hey crzytwnman, I will spitefully blather all I want and you cannot stop me. I pay WAY to much in taxes for the county to use a Carter-era comptuer to run traffic here and to take 6 years to phase it out. This reeks of the recent Metro problems that cause the train derailment. Incompetent county executives, incompotent city managers, etc who would prefer to place blame on the tax payers or things out of their control while they are the ones wasting MILLIONS of dollars on unnecssary things. There is no way you can argue about that.
You crzytwnman are probably one of the half-baked hippy liberals that are the root cause of this problem. Let's waste tax money, spend on big government, hire incompotnet people and give money away to those too lazy to work.
In the end of the day I say you sir - and those like you working for the horrible Montgomery Country goverment are the cause of this problem.

Posted by: LoJankFilDee19338333 | November 5, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

people stopping in the middle of an intersection is nothing new. i need to make a left turn to get in my development every night and people pull up as close as the can to the car in front of them and dont allow any cars to pass thru unless you cut them off before the next car does the same thing.

Posted by: astroman215aolcom | November 5, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Does Montgomery County have a TRAFFIC DIVISION? If so what are they doing about it?

Posted by: Poor_man | November 5, 2009 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Moco is Loco. Literally, loco because you have to be crazy to live there.

Posted by: biffgrifftheoneandonly | November 5, 2009 1:48 PM | Report abuse

In the lifespan of this computer has MoCo lifted one finger to make it encourage bicycle commuting? no. This episode harkens back to the traffic chaos in 2002 when closing only a few intersetions paralyzed traffic across the lower county. Had there been bike lanes at least some people would be able to get around instead of sitting in their cars adding to the carbon dioxide levels.

Thanks Doug Duncan and Isiah Leggett!

Posted by: theSeaHawk | November 5, 2009 2:03 PM | Report abuse

If only they would have spent that $60,000 used to build Ike his own bathroom on a traffic control computer!

Posted by: thetan | November 5, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse

I only walk in Silver Spring, I don't drive (I take Metro to work in MD from home in VA), but I spend a lot of time trying to cross streets without getting killed, and so I'm really familiar with the traffic light patterns there -- which are definitely wrong today.

But the funny thing is... the traffic lights had this same not-normal pattern down here a couple of months ago, too, for a day or two. I remember wondering if they were trying a new traffic pattern at that intersection (Colesville/Wayne) and thinking that, if so, it sucked. Two days later the normal pattern was back, and I thought nothing more of it.

But now... I wonder if this is the first failure MoCo has had with that computer system, or if it's just the first one big enough to raise an outcry?

Posted by: EtoilePB | November 5, 2009 2:26 PM | Report abuse

As much as I'd love to jump on someone here, I think the fact that they had already identified this as a problem, and had already started the process to fix it means that MC DPWT/MD SHA didn't completely have their heads up their tails on this one.
As others have said, you only realize what you have when you lose it. As someone who often commutes to Fairfax Co., I am reminded every day how superior MoCo's system (however antiquated) is to anything else in the region. If it breaks for a few days, that's life... "Stuff" happens.

Posted by: vtavgjoe | November 5, 2009 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Raise your hand if yesterday you knew the first thing about the system running the lights? I'm glad the system crash since it's the only way things get fixed. In the meanwhile you take a bite of the sandwich and deal.

Personally, since I heard on NPR that the lights were out of sync I was ready for it. I realized everyone was in the same boat. I knew today that it wasn't some moron on Rt. 355 reading his paper, drinking coffee, and texting at the same time who rear ended somebody doing likewise.

Half of the people getting so upset at the failures of technology are the same people who can't go a day without their blackberry and have a heart attack when their wireless goes down for 5 minutes.

Everyone chill.

Posted by: Rainier1 | November 5, 2009 2:46 PM | Report abuse

In a post-9/11 era, how can any municipality, especially one as supposedly affluent as MoCo, justify not having a disaster recovery plan that includes a hot site to which you can cutover if the main system crashes or is somehow disabled?!? As an IT professional, this just boggles my mind how this most obvious step in planning was not addressed at least over the past 8+ years since the attacks, let alone over the past 30 years the system has been in place just one byte away from total meltdown.

Fortunately, all I need is a network connection to work. I worked at home until rush hour ended, then took Metro in to my DC office to avoid the 1 hour it took yesterday to drive 6 miles from my home to Shady Grove Metro.

Posted by: kwbinMD | November 5, 2009 3:07 PM | Report abuse

Why weren't the police directing traffic? Perhaps it was too cold; or they were still on their doughnut breaks...

Its a shame that we can spend $30 million on the ICC but can't spend a few hundred thousand to update a 30 year old computer system.

Posted by: AmericanProud | November 5, 2009 4:03 PM | Report abuse

@AmericanProud $30 million on the ICC?? Try $2+ billion!

Posted by: kwbinMD | November 5, 2009 4:17 PM | Report abuse

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