Grant to Design Traffic Forecasting Model

City leaders soon could have a clearer, more accurate and quicker way to predict how their decisions will affect future traffic problems. The groundbreaking computer modeling system someday could be used across the state to help prevent – or at least lessen – traffic headaches years in advance.

Andrew Hecker, project manager for engineering firm Moffatt & Nichol, told the Suffolk Economic Development Authority Board on Wednesday that the city and Isle of Wight County have received a $450,000 state grant to pursue the technology in a joint project.

The tool will allow city planners to run different development scenarios and instantly see how each affects traffic patterns. For instance, a planner could change the zoning of part of the city from residential to industrial and project how that would affect traffic patterns 25 years later.

It'll be as easy as scrolling over part of a map and saying, "Here's a whole bunch of stuff that's green, make it yellow," Hecker said. Eric Nielsen, Suffolk's director of public works, said he knows of nothing else like it in the world of planning. "I think it's a wonderful tool," he said.

The model will use data from the city's Geographic Information System and the state Department of Transportation. It will allow users to change a host of variables, such as speed limits and the number of lanes on a road. "The good thing about the model is, just change and see" what happens, said Hecker, whose firm helped develop the proposal.

In one rudimentary example, Hecker showed how a change in zoning created a red line on one road, signifying a "transportation deficiency." The system also will allow users to change how they rank the deficiencies. A planner could tell the model to give greater weight to environmental, quality of life or economic factors, Hecker said.