Traffic lights that blink after every rain, traffic lights that seem to never turn green, traffic lights that are timed just exactly right to ruin your morning commute: These headaches are symptoms of Waco’s worn-out traffic signal system, and city traffic engineers are offering a $12 million cure.
Iteris, a consultant hired by the public works department, recently visited 176 signalized intersections along with city staff and cataloged their condition.
In a $49,000 study, the firm found that 133 of the signals were installed before 2000, and the wiring and electronics for most of them are obsolete or failing. Investigators found tangles of frayed cables in underground vaults that flooded regularly.
“That’s kind of scary,” Iteris regional vice president Nader Ayoub told Waco City Council last week. “Water and electricity don’t mix. When water rises and fills those boxes, the signals go to flash. . . . Every time it rains, 10 to 15 signals go to flash.”
Public works director Octavio Garza, who has been here since 2014, said he wasn’t surprised by the dire findings.
“I was surprised when I got here that it was so bad,” Garza said. “I get bombarded with calls every time it rains, because signals are going into flash or even going dark. We have people out there at all hours of the night trying to get signals to flash and put up stop signs.”
Garza said the city has a chance not only to fix the reliability issue but to make a giant technological leap that will allow city staff to monitor traffic all over town and adjust traffic signals remotely. That would mean installing tiny cameras at all signalized intersections and connecting them to a “traffic management center” through a radio Ethernet system.
Of 12 midsized Texas “peer cities,” only Waco, Abilene and Bryan lack such an Ethernet system, and those other two cities are preparing to install them, city officials said.
Garza said city engineering staff will begin in the coming year to make some improvements to the system, but a lasting solution will require debt-funded capital investment.
He said he plans next year to ask for $2 million in traffic light safety and reliability improvements for 2017-18, with $10 million more during the following three years.
The payoff will be a reliable traffic signal system, lower maintenance costs and better traffic flow, Garza said.
“The main thing is that the signals will be reliable,” he said. “If they go dark or flash, it will be much less often than it does now. The efficiencies of the corridors is going to go up. We can make adjustments based on traffic volumes for circumstances like football games.”
The technological improvements would allow for an “intelligent transportation system” that would allow traffic engineers to manage traffic in real time.
Currently, traffic lights can only be synchronized through a laborious process that involves adjusting each one manually. Under the new system, lights could be timed as needed, depending on traffic flow.
For example, commuters might find longer green lights coming into downtown in the morning, as well as long green lights on their way out of downtown in the afternoon.
The new program would get rid of troublesome underground “vehicle detection loops” and replace them with cameras that gauge traffic flow. Many intersections already have detection cameras, but the new system would give traffic engineers and public safety officials a live video signal from every signalized intersection, helping them monitor traffic and wrecks.
Garza’s proposal comes at a time when the city already has its hands full with big infrastructure projects. The city this year sold $90 million in bonds for water, wastewater and street improvements. Garza is asking for $110.3 million in overall street improvements in the next five years, including the traffic signals.
Councilman Dillon Meek said the study confirmed the problems he already suspected with the traffic light system.
But Meek said he is seeking more information about the impact of the current system on safety and maintenance so the council can discuss how much of a priority the traffic signal overhaul is.
“When a stoplight goes out and goes to blinking red, what are the safety implications?” he said. “How much are we spending on repairs every time that happens? We need to know what the answer to that is. We need to continue to evaluate the state of our infrastructure. Hopefully, we can prioritize it in such a way that makes sense.”