Outrage continues over deactivated signals

Posted February 13, 2013 at 12:00 am

By LESLIE COLLINS
Northeast News
February 13, 2013

 (Editor’s Note: After our edition was sent to the press, we learned that the city has decided to install a “hawk signal” at the corner of St. John and Quincy. The hawk signal is a pedestrian signal that only becomes activated when a pedestrian pushes the button to cross the street. The light will turn red to halt traffic. In order to install the hawk signal, the current signal must be removed. Installation of the hawk signal will begin this Saturday and will hopefully be completed by the end of the week. Options are still being discussed for the St. John and Topping intersection which is near James Elementary. Look for more details in next week’s edition of Northeast News).

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Safety concerns. Area residents gather at Holy Cross Catholic School to discuss their concerns regarding the deactivated traffic signal at St. John and Quincy. Leslie Collins

When the city deactivated the crosswalk signal at Quincy and St. John Avenue last October, area residents became outraged and are continuing to protest the city’s decision.

Area residents organized a press conference Feb. 6 to discuss the detrimental effects of losing a functioning crosswalk signal near Holy Cross Catholic School and across from Budd Park. That signal will eventually be removed, said Sean Demory, spokesperson for the city’s Public Works Department.

Citywide, the Public Works Department deactivated traffic signals at 37 intersections and began installing four-way stops at a number of those intersections, including St. John Avenue and Hardesty; St. John Avenue and Van Brunt; and St. John Avenue and Belmont. In addition, the pedestrian signals located at St. John and Quincy and St. John and Topping, both near grade schools, were deactivated and programmed to flash yellow.

The city never notified area schools or residents of its plans.

“It made me feel like the city doesn’t really take us into consideration when they’re making these decisions,” Northeast resident Kara Palan told Northeast News. “We’re just a number to them. When small children and elderly people’s safety are at risk here, you can’t quantify that.”

When Northeast resident and Holy Cross parent Yuri Luna first noticed the signal at St. John and Quincy flashing yellow, she thought it was broken.

“The first time I read about it was in the Northeast News,” she said. “I never got a note from anybody (regarding the signal change). I was disappointed.”

Luna pointed out that parents sent their children to school, not knowing the signal had been disabled. Those parents might have made other arrangements had they known about the change, she said.

Deactivating the signal poses a risk to students, said Tonya Valderrama, a parent of five children who attend Holy Cross.

“The kids would hit that button out there and cross over safely. Now, there’s nothing to stop the cars,” Valderrama said. “Some of the kids are small kids and cars aren’t going to see them until they’re out in the street and they’re (cars) racing through there. It’s just not safe. There’s no crossing guards, nothing to protect them.”

Luna voiced a similar sentiment.

“Sometimes I’ve had to stop (suddenly) because they just dart across the street,” Luna said. “They’re little children. They don’t know. They can’t measure how far the car is and how fast it’s coming.”

While residents argue the city is creating a safety hazard, city officials say they disabled the signals because they’re looking out for everyone’s safety.

City engineers reviewed decades’ worth of traffic studies for each intersection and also conducted new studies, Demory said. What they found was the traffic signals weren’t warranted, according to federal guidelines listed in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). To have a traffic signal, an intersection must meet at least one of nine warrants, Demory said.

“The intersections we’re dealing with did not meet any warrants,” Demory said. “That’s the thing that I think people are missing.”

Those warrants evaluate four and eight-hour vehicle counts, pedestrian volume, vehicle counts during peak hours, accident history, school crossings, among others.

“We need to follow the federal guidelines. This is a safety issue,” said City Traffic Engineer Wei Sun. “This is not about funding or HR resources. This is a safety issue.”

“At the end of the day, we have to depend on the experience and judgement of expert staff to make these determinations based on the information they collect,” Demory said. “An unwarranted signal is a safety issue. An unwarranted signal results in drivers not driving the way they should. It results in good drivers being slowed down and in many cases, deciding to cut through a neighborhood instead of taking the street that they should. It inspires bad drivers to cut corners a little bit and play the odds – say that light’s a little bit yellow, so it’s good enough for me to cross. In a range of national studies, you’ve seen anywhere from 25 percent to 65 percent more accidents happening at an unwarranted signal.”

In the case of St. John and Quincy and St. John and Topping, those traffic signals never turned red unless a pedestrian pushed the crosswalk button. St. John and Quincy is a T-intersection with a one-way street running north. St. John and Topping is a four-way intersection, but has one-way streets in both the north and south directions.

Demory said the signals are outdated electromechanical signals dating back at least 50 years.

“They’re hard to maintain, hard to repair,” Demory said. “They are extremely, extremely finicky.”

In addition, the outdated signals can’t be synchronized with the city’s digital traffic signals.

Without a fully functioning signal at St. John and Quincy, Palan said she no longer feels safe crossing the street with her three children ages six and younger to go to Budd Park.

“I don’t feel comfortable crossing that street with my children now,” she said. “When you have multiple kids, it becomes difficult (to cross). You need that layer of safety. You really need that stoplight to give you time to cross the street.”

None of the signals citywide will be reinstated unless the city discovers a warrant has been met, Demory said. The city studied 250 intersections and plans to remove traffic signals from 144 of those intersections.

There are other options for ensuring pedestrian safety at intersections, Demory said. Those options range from adding zebra striping to installing additional signage to adding crossing guards or a grade-separated crossing, among others. Another option is installing a pedestrian signal that remains off unless a pedestrian pushes the button to make it flash red. The current signals at St. John and Quincy and St. John and Topping remain on 24 hours a day and used to remain green unless a pedestrian pushed the crosswalk button. Asked if the city would save money in electricity by removing the traffic signals, Sun said the city has not calculated potential savings and stressed again that the decision is based on safety and what’s best for pedestrians.

“Given the comparatively low amount of traffic on St. John and nearby four-way stops, we see significant gaps through which pedestrians may safely cross at St. John and Quincy,” Demory said. “These gaps allow alternate measures to be put in place, including the pedestrian bump-out at the crossing and the school speed zone.”

Engineers are still evaluating which options will work best, Demory said.

For Palan, those other options aren’t good enough.

“It’s just very disheartening to be downgraded in that manner,” Palan said. “This was a functioning light. It worked for us. It worked well for the pedestrians.”