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Erik Burgess, Published November 02 2013

Ending the train pain: Smarter signals will aim to ease delays for drivers in Moorhead

MOORHEAD - Frustrated drivers stuck here at a seemingly endless train – or the red lights that come with it – have likely hurled more inflammatory insults.

But some Moorhead leaders have recently turned to one word to describe the train and traffic signals downtown – dumb.

Wade Kline, executive director of the FM Metropolitan Council of Governments, somewhat rejects that notion.

“They’re not dumb, but they could be smarter,” Kline said.

The city and the Minnesota Department of Transportation are in the early stages of installing a system that aims to make waiting on a train downtown a less aggravating process.

The Northwest Signal Voyage traffic controller software is the same system Minneapolis used to clear congestion on roads that intersect its light-rail transit line, said Moorhead City Engineer Bob Zimmerman.

“It is intended to respond more quickly and smarter to the interruption that the train pre-emption causes,” Zimmerman said.

With city elections set for Tuesday, how the trains coordinate with stoplights in Moorhead has become a campaign issue in mayoral and council races.

In addition to calling the signals dumb, some candidates have called for building an underpass at 11th Street. Kline said the new software is the “most cost-effective fix” possible. An underpass could be $35 million or more, he said.

The new signal software should be up and running by December for some lights, spring for others.

Increasing problem

While issues with trains in downtown Moorhead are not new, the interruptions they cause have become more frequent in recent years due to increased oil production in western North Dakota.

About 127 trains travel through Fargo-Moorhead each day, Kline said, citing 2012 Federal Railroad Administration data. That’s up from about just 68 trains a day in 2008 and about 100 per day in 2007, Zimmerman said.

Kline said about 67 trains alone chug through downtown each day on the tracks north of Main Avenue, one of the two tracks that travel through downtown. BNSF Railway expects traffic on that line to increase to as much as 96 trains a day because of activity in the Oil Patch, he said.

Obviously, the new signal system won’t get rid of the trains, Kline said, but it will improve how the signals react to the increase in train traffic.

“It’s much more intuitive at trying to move traffic,” Kline said.

Recognizing the frustration of many Moorhead residents, Zimmerman said the new software will help, but it’s not the silver bullet.

“There will still be train traffic downtown so there will still be interruption,” he said. “I think some of it’s going to be more a matter of perception as to whether or not it’s improved.”

Voyage ‘more intuitive’

With the current system, if a train is coming, the traffic lights try to clear cars off the tracks, halting east- and westbound traffic. Once the train is moving through, the traffic signals don’t know which cars have been waiting longer than others.

The new system can figure that out, Kline said. Where it has been used in Minneapolis, “it has done wonders to clear the queues,” he said.

Zimmerman said the new software is just better at detecting which signals are needed when a train is passing through and once the train is gone.

“If there are no pedestrians waiting, it will recognize that and not provide time for pedestrian crossing,” he said.

By December, MnDOT will have upgraded signals on Main Avenue at Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth streets, and on Center Avenue at Eighth, 11th and 14th streets, said spokesman Jerimiah Moerke.

By spring, the city will have installed the software on First Avenue at Seventh, Eighth and 11th streets, and on Center Avenue at Fifth Street.

Zimmerman said the city’s costs are between $200,000 and $300,000.

Another step Moorhead is taking is working with BNSF to figure out what the rail company can do to help improve traffic flow.

For instance, if a train is coming into downtown Moorhead, it sends a signal to alert the traffic lights to change, but Zimmerman said that signal is being sent too early and locking up the intersections for longer than necessary.

“We’re hopeful that, at some point in the future, (BNSF) would be able to reduce some of those times,” Zimmerman said. “I think that (fix) will definitely be noticeable.”

Zimmerman said he doesn’t know when BNSF could start making those changes, but he hopes it’s within the next year.

Other projects in works

Signal fixes aside, Moorhead will be making other fixes to the three major corridors thanks to a $3.4 million state grant awarded to the city in June.

Construction using money from the Corridor Investment Management Strategy – or CIMS – grant is expected to start sometime in 2015, if not sooner, Zimmerman said.

The city will add right turn lanes for turning east and south at Main Avenue and Eighth Street. A right turn lane for going east will also be added at 11th Street and Center Avenue and a right turn lane to the west will be added at 11th Street and Main Avenue.

The city will also improve the intersection of Center Avenue and Eighth Street, where sharp corners have been a nightmare for large trucks, Zimmerman said. Sidewalks on Main, Center, Eighth and 11th streets will also be widened.

The city has to bid the CIMS project out by June 5, 2015, per the rules of the grant, but Zimmerman said it could be done sooner. The city will need to acquire some right-of-way, which could take some time, he said.

“Those turn lanes really should help move traffic well with or without trains present,” Zimmerman said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518