ST. PAUL (AP) -- Traffic experts from coast to coast will be watching when Minnesota turns off its 430 ramp meters in the next few weeks.
In 30 years of ramp meters, no one has ever studied what would happen if the those traffic lights at the end of freeway entrances were turned off.
But that is just what Minnesota intends to do. The state Department of Transportation planned to announce Tuesday when the experiment will start.
"A study of this magnitude has not been done anywhere in the country or the world," said Mike Sobolewski, the study's project manager with MnDOT.
The Legislature ordered the study earlier this year. It will shut down the meters to see what happens to congestion, travel times and safety.
Cambridge Systematics of Massachusetts will administer the test. The firm has already been gathering the baseline data.
Once the lights are turned off, the test will involve timed commutes with paid drivers, focus groups and telephone surveys to gauge traveler's reactions.
"I think we're plowing new ground," said Al Steger of the Minneapolis office of the Federal Highway Administration. "A lot of people are watching because a lot of money has been invested in meters. If it shows they're not what they're cracked up to be, there will be a lot of reevaluation."
That's what state Sen. Dick Day and other ramp-meter critics are hoping. Day sponsored the bill that mandated the study.
Day fervently believes that commuters can get to their destinations faster without the meters.
"We started with one meter on I-35, and now 30 years later we've spent $70 million on them and MnDOT can't point to one study that proves that they work," said Day, a Republican from Owatonna.
The theory of ramp meters is that cars entering a freeway are like BBs flowing into a funnel. With a slow flow of BBs, the funnel works fine. But if the BBs arrive in a rush, they clog in the funnel's neck.
Two years ago, Phoenix conducted a similar test, though there were fewer meters, fewer freeway miles the shut-off was shorter.
The results confirmed the expectations of the Phoenix Department of Transportation: Freeway traffic slowed 5 to 10 mph when they turned the lights off.
"Ours was a much smaller scale," said Tim Wolfe, assistant state engineer for transportation technology in Phoenix.
And that's why Wolfe, along with so many others in the traffic management field, is eager to see the results of Minnesota's experiment.
"We're dying to find out how this goes," he said.
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