Denver's latest traffic plan depends on getting you out of your car

Read a list of Denver's eight worst intersections on the Latest Word blog.

Just south of downtown, a fender bender on Speer Boulevard jams up a long line of cars, which spills into the intersections at 13th and 14th avenues.

A white van making a right turn on red from Alameda Avenue onto Colorado Boulevard lurches into the intersection, then abruptly stops, transfixed by a rare crossing of pedestrians.

Street smarts: Denver Department of Public Works manager Bill Vidal wants to change the way traffic flows through Denver's "travel sheds."
Street smarts: Denver Department of Public Works manager Bill Vidal wants to change the way traffic flows through Denver's "travel sheds."
Policy analyst Randal O'Toole  doubts the city's plan will relieve congestion.
Policy analyst Randal O'Toole doubts the city's plan will relieve congestion.

A brightly attired eastbound bicyclist races through a changing light at Federal and West 23rd Avenue — on his way to REI, no doubt.

If God is everywhere, then He sees all this and more, like that black Escalade cutting off a silver subcompact at Broadway and Sixth. I see it, too, because I happen to be a certain somewhere: the Transportation Management Center on the fifth floor of the Wellington E. Webb Building, operated by Denver's Department of Public Works. Surrounded by computers and facing a wall of video monitors, city employees quietly watch the surging traffic across the metro area, as the quirks and horrors of another afternoon rush hour get under way.

The city has 120 zoom cameras positioned at key intersections around town, and the TMC has enough video screens to present 64 different images of the traffic situation at once. But that's more stop-and-go than the human brain can possibly process, so the staff usually focuses on a few main corridors: Hampden, Evans, Alameda, Colfax, Speer, Colorado, Broadway and so on.

The top row of screens is reserved for views of I-25 and I-70 traffic; the Colorado Department of Transportation can deliver video to the city of highway conditions from Limon all the way to Hanging Lake, and from Pueblo to Northglenn. Denver operates its own cameras on the city's highway access ramps and sends the feeds to CDOT. On the rest of the screens, the images shift as staffers channel-surf, like couch potatoes hunting for the NASCAR Network.

The city's traffic managers do more than just watch, of course. Many of the traffic lights throughout the area can be controlled from the center. The team makes adjustments, reports malfunctions and outages to repair crews, types out traffic alerts that blaze on electronic billboards on major thoroughfares, warning motorists of trouble ahead. At more than a hundred intersections, the cameras have sensors that can detect when too many cars are waiting at a red light and alter the signal timing, a huge advance over the old sensors embedded in the pavement.

"We manage every big event from up here," says Matthew Wager, the TMC's overseer. The center has traffic plans in place for every Rockies and Broncos home game, every People's Fair and Taste of Colorado, as well as plans for morning and afternoon downtown commutes. During the Democratic National Convention last August, the control center was packed with officials from half a dozen state and federal agencies, who linked their technology with the city's array of cameras and tracked traffic and protesters in every direction.

For Wager, managing traffic is largely about managing information. He talks about the quest to get all of the traffic signals in the metro area coordinated and providing more timely reports about traffic disruptions to the traveling public. The city offers feeds from a few of its traffic cams online and highway advisories on the radio (at 870 AM), but Wager wants to get the word out more quickly to the individual driver — the busy mother with child and cocker spaniel, for example, heading toward that backup on Speer.

Other than the Speer slowdown, things are looking fairly calm on the video screens this afternoon. "In the big scheme of things, traffic in Denver is really good compared to a lot of other big cities," Wager says. "We're just starting the rush hour, and as you can see, we're in pretty good shape. It's not getting worse as fast as it could because we're doing better with the roadways that we've got. We fix problems faster."

Denver has, in fact, caught something of a break in its rush-hour follies of late. Completion of the T-Rex expansion and light-rail line on I-25 in 2006 brought a momentary reprieve for commuters in the southeast corridor, and the national recession appears to be slowing the pace of population growth in the region. But long-term projections call for the city's emerging congestion issues to get much, much worse. Planners expect the metro area to experience a 30 percent increase in population by 2030. That's more than a million additional people, which translates into a jump in daily "person trips," from 4 million on the city's roadways today to 5.4 million two decades from now.

A Denver Regional Council of Governments map shows current metro congestion as a series of neat, bright-red lines, designating a few corridors where significant delays can be expected for more than two hours of each day because demand exceeds capacity during peak travel times. The projected congestion for 2030 shows up as a startling mass of red welts. They're all over the place, oozing into each other, a mess of clogged arteries and blocked thoroughfares, like the battered heart of a morbidly obese chain-smoker, about to explode.

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