The corner of Park Street and University Avenue on the UW-Madison campus.

Madison plans to outfit traffic signals and buses along Park Street with “smart” technology to improve safety and on-time performance of public transportation vehicles early this year.

The city applied for a $40 million grant from the federal Department of Transportation in 2016 through the Smart City Challenge, which asked for innovative transportation system proposals from mid-sized cities.

Though Madison did not receive the grant, Assistant City Traffic Engineer Yang Tao said the city still wants to take advantage of the proposal’s ideas such as piloting a “connected vehicle” project along the Park Street and Fish Hatchery Road corridor.

“We want to harness the power of technology to innovate transit vehicles to improve safety and equity,” Tao said.

Tao said the city will start by installing five intersections — with plans for an estimated 26 — along the busy transit corridor from University Avenue to the Beltline with dedicated short range communications technology.

Additionally, the city’s engineering division and UW-Madison’s Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory will coordinate with Metro Transit to install units on buses that run the route several times a day.

The entire project, expected to be completed over the next five years, is estimated to cost between $1 million and $4 million, depending on how many applications are developed. However, the city is working with private companies that are donating initial equipment at no cost to the city.

Additionally, the city and the university are planning to apply for federal technology grants to fund the project.

When the new technology is installed, the devices on buses and on stop lights will be able to communicate with each other. Tao said the manufacturer has pushed back the shipping date but hopes to install the stop light devices early this year.

The university and the city are working in partnership to develop the technology that will be on vehicles. 

For example, a stop light would be able to know that a bus is approaching, how many passengers are on board and if it is on schedule or not. The light would then adjust to prioritize keeping the bus on time by changing the length or sequence of lights.

“This will greatly benefit the transit dependent low-income residents near the test corridor,” Tao said.

In addition to the equity implications, transit planner Mike Cechvala said the corridor is a good candidate for the technology because of its possible future use as a bus rapid transit route. The technology will make Metro's service" faster, better and accessible," Cechvala said. 

The system would also be able to provide alerts to buses turning through a crosswalk if a pedestrian is crossing the street. Future safety applications, including curve and inclement weather speed warnings, will also be developed.

Madison has already adapted parts of Fish Hatchery and McKee roads with traffic signals that adjust the timing of green and red lights based on real-time traffic data. If an event like a car accident impedes traffic, the lights react by changing their speed.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.