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In thankless job, one man at ACHD wages war on gridlock in ever-growing Ada County

Sitting at a traffic light? This is the guy who times them.

Mike Boydstun is Ada County Highway District's traffic management engineer. It's not as easy as you think.
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Mike Boydstun is Ada County Highway District's traffic management engineer. It's not as easy as you think.

A photo above a desk at the Ada County Highway District offices depicts “a blind, one-armed marsupial with a head wound.”

The stricken marsupial, according to a long-ago Statesman letter to the editor, could easily do a better job of timing Ada County’s traffic signals than the guy who actually does the job.

The computer-generated photo graces the office of the guy who’s been doing that job longer than anyone. I’ve silently (and not so silently) cursed this gentleman while stopped at red lights that seem to have no earthly reason for being anything other than green. Cursed him without even knowing his name.

That, of course, is patently unfair. What do I or other motorists who take his name in vain know about how he does his job, how difficult it might be or what problems he faces?

So I spent some time with him to see whether he’s as incompetent as we motorists think he is.

He isn’t.

The man with much of the responsibility for timing the county’s traffic signals, all 432 of them (plus some 80 pedestrian signals), is neither blind nor a marsupial with a head wound. His name is Mike Boydstun, and he’s quite good at doing a difficult and often thankless job.

“It’s not rocket science,” he says, only half joking. “It’s more complicated than that.”

The nerve center

ACHD’s traffic operations engineer, Boydstun divides his time between working in his office, driving to trouble spots and working in the district’s Traffic Management Center.

I’d envisioned a cramped office with a single display of complex information about traffic flows. The reality is quite different. The traffic management center is a spacious room painted a soft shade of blue, with 52 flickering video screens on one wall.

The screens display real-time images of intersections throughout the county. The images come from 181 closed-circuit television cameras. Boydstun and five other district employees take turns watching for traffic-flow problems.

If they see one, they can activate advisory messages on electronic reader boards along roadways. They can send pertinent information to the Idaho Transportation Department, the media and Micron (the valley’s largest employer) so it can alert its employees in the event of freeway blockages. Engineers can fix problems by changing signal timing remotely or by making changes at the signals themselves.

A big part of Boydstun’s job, a part that can keep him awake nights, is adjusting the timing of signals to make traffic flow more smoothly.

“Sometimes the problems are troubling and we keep thinking about it and not coming up with a solution,” he said. “Sometimes it helps to get away from it. You have to walk away, and when you’re not even thinking about it, sometimes in the middle of the night, the answer hits you.”

‘A tin bullet’

A recent example is a new timing plan to improve northbound rush-hour traffic on Glenwood Street between State and Chinden. It was an idea that hit him when he wasn’t thinking about it.

“I wouldn’t call it a silver bullet; maybe a tin bullet,” he said. “It made it so that it doesn’t seem to be quite as congested during the afternoon peak.”

Two of my pet peeves are the lights on Front at Avenue A and on ParkCenter at Mallard, both of which tend to evoke the frustrated motorist’s refrain: “Why can’t these (expletive deleted) signals see that there’s no traffic on the side streets?”

Actually, they can. Like many signals in the district, they have a “vehicle detection” feature. In the case of Front and Avenue A, however, traffic flow improved when it was deactivated.

“If there’s just one car on Avenue A, we could use vehicle detection to give it a green light for a short time and then turn the green back to Front,” Boydstun said. “But that would mean that drivers would get to the next signal early and have to stop there, resulting in a choppy traffic flow on Front.

“By changing it to a fixed-time operation regardless of the number of vehicles, you get stopped at Avenue A, but then you should be be clear all the way to 13th during nonpeak hours.”

The key phrase being nonpeak hours.

Check the cabinet

OK. But what about Mallard?

“You say the light is red on ParkCenter when there’s no cars on Mallard?” he asked me.

“Yes. Even on Sunday morning, when there’s no traffic at all.”

“Hmmm. We may have a problem there,” he said. “I’ll send a signal tech out to check the cabinet.”

Every intersection in the county with a traffic light has a traffic signal controller cabinet. In Downtown Boise and certain other locations, they’re the boxes decorated with artwork. Traffic signal engineers adjust equipment in the cabinets to change the timing of traffic and pedestrian signals.

Later the same day, Boydstun sent an email saying the technician had found a problem at the Mallard-ParkCenter cabinet and that it would be fixed in a couple of days.

Red lights at pedestrian crossings can be another source of frustration. Why do we have to wait forever for flashing red lights when there are no pedestrians in the crosswalk?

Answer: We don’t. Stopping is required only for the flashing yellow and solid red. It’s OK to proceed on the flashing red – provided you don’t mow down any lingering pedestrians.

“A lot of people don’t realize that they can go on the flashing red, which is the benefit of it,” Boydstun said. “It helps move traffic.”

Many people, he added, also don’t know the meaning of dashes painted on the pavement at the ends of solid lines denoting bicycle lanes. They tell motorists they can turn there (while yielding to any bicyclists that may be present), and they warn cyclists to watch for vehicles making turns.

Ups and downs

Boydstun, 54, has worked at ACHD for 17 years as a traffic operations engineer and before that an assistant traffic operations engineer. Prior to working for ACHD, he spent just over 13 years as a signal technician and engineering assistant with the Idaho Transportation Department. His degree is in electronics engineering technology.

He likes his job “most days, because every day is different. I never know when I come in what will happen that day.”

The days he doesn’t like?

“When everybody’s calling and yelling at us.”

He responds to every phone call or digital complaint from motorists who think that anybody, just anybody, can do a better job of timing the traffic signals than he’s doing.

“Most people are nice, but some just want to vent. They ask me if I actually drive the problem spots. Yes, I do,” he said.

“… A lot of people who complain focus on just the one thing that’s bothering them. They don’t see the big picture, that changing something in one place can affect other places.

“The biggest thing for people to be aware of is that we do try to be proactive and make things as efficient and effective for the public as we can. There are times when we have peak congestion and there’s not a whole lot we can do. But what we can, we do.”

Tim Woodward’s column appears monthly and is posted a day later on woodward blog.com . Know someone with an interesting story for him? Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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