We all hate it when red light after red light stops us in our tracks.
It turns out we don’t much like it when those traffic signals go away, either.
As Kansas City ditches outdated traffic signals and plants stop signs in their place, neighborhood leaders grow annoyed while some motorists turn the color of brake lights.
It started with 37 intersections a few weeks ago, where traffic signals started flashing red, prompting motorists to halt at 4-way stop signs and then proceed. Ultimately, the plan is to replace lights with signs at 144 locations, or more.
A flood of emails and phone calls poured into City Council offices.
Among the complaints: Those stop signs just create bottlenecks and backups as each car lurches forward, during rush hour and after church on Sunday mornings. Likewise, residents worry about new dangers to pedestrians, the disabled and drivers confused by the four-way stops.
The trek to school, by some accounts, is newly treacherous. At least one crossing guard is seeing too many close calls between motorists.
Shifting from lights to signs may make sense to traffic engineers, but so far the change isn’t going over well at street level in Kansas City.
“The stops do not provide as viable and safe an option for traffic control, no matter what a study from anyone in City Hall says,” said the Rev. Vernon Howard, senior pastor of 2nd Baptist Church, which is located near several of the affected intersections on East 39th Street.
Troost Elementary School crossing guard Lillian Anderson was particularly concerned about children walking to school and crossing 59th Street and The Paseo, which now has four-way stop signs.
“They are taught to cross on the green light. Now, we do not have it,” she wrote City Councilwoman Melba Curls. “People are running the stop signs. They are texting and on the phone. Our children’s lives are in danger.”
The message has been loud and clear to Third-District Councilman Jermaine Reed, whose inner city district has 19 of the 37 intersections.
“There has been a public outcry from citizens all throughout the Kansas City area,” Reed said. “Citizens were displeased with the way the process took place.”
Last week, the Council responded,not so fast
It suspended the removal process for 60 days and told City Manager Troy Schulte to re-evaluate the 37 intersections, while developing a community outreach plan.
In an interview, Schulte took the heat for changing the lights without giving the public advanced notice.
He said it has become increasingly apparent that the signals are antiquated, pricey to upgrade and becoming the cause of accidents. There’s simply not enough traffic at the intersections, he said, to justify buying more modern lights.
“I said, ‘Let’s get going and get ‘em taken out,’ ” Schulte acknowledged. “They are 50- to 60-year-old technology. We’ve been having higher and higher failure rates on them. Because they’re not warranted or not properly constructed, we’ve had some very expensive legal settlements.”
One wrongful death lawsuit resulted in a jury verdict of nearly $382,000 against the city, after plaintiffs argued the city had outdated signals at 18th and Charlotte streets. That case is on appeal.
In another example, Schulte said, an antiquated signal was stuck on red for two hours last fall at 63rd Street and State Line Road.
Kansas City tried to start removing outdated traffic signals more than a decade ago, but got such a public backlash that it abandoned the effort. Schulte said the city simply cannot put it off any longer.
“Every day that those older signals are out there,” he said, “we run the risk of catastrophic failure and the city is at risk with those issues.”
Schulte sees ways to address the community’s concerns, especially protecting school children and pedestrians. They include better signage, clearer crosswalks and — in a few cases — new signals with buttons that allow pedestrians to change the light just when they need to cross against oncoming traffic.
Kansas City currently has traffic signals at 604 intersections, including the 37 in question. But traffic engineers say evaluations on 245 intersections show 144 don’t warrant signals under federal guidelines.
The remaining intersections will be evaluated over the next 18 months, and many of those may not be in compliance either. Federal guidelines say signals aren’t justified when traffic volumes drop below a specified level. Other factors include pedestrian volumes, accident history and the rest of the roadway network.
Some intersections have only 25 percent of the traffic count needed to justify a signal. For example, 39th and Brooklyn averaged 500 vehicles from 7-9 a.m. during a spring 2010 traffic analysis, when it should average 2,000 vehicles. Armour and Warwick averaged 625 vehicles during morning rush hour in 2009, and would need an increase of 80 percent to justify a signal at that location, according to public works spokesman Sean Demory.
With population shifts, and highway construction, traffic patterns have changed.
“As 71 Highway/Bruce Watkins has come into play, as the interstates have come into play, a lot of these roadways that were high capacity, high traffic roadways of the time have seen a significant reduction in the amount of traffic they have,” Demory said. “You’re seeing these streets become neighborhood streets and that’s what we’re attempting to address.”
Traffic engineers say the 37 intersections meet none of the recommended guidelines to justify a signal. Many of those intersections are in the urban core, but some are in Old Northeast, Midtown and in South Kansas City. Many of the public complaints relate to signal changes in and near the Paseo and 59th Street; Cleveland Avenue and 39th Street; Indiana Avenue and 39th Street; St. John and Topping avenues; Armour and Warwick boulevards; Meyer Boulevard and Main Street; and Meyer and Oak Street.
Schulte said the electro-mechanical signals are so old that the city can’t get parts, and routine maintenance is $108,000 per year. Upgrading them to modern signals costs $250,000 per intersection, or $9 million total just for the 37 intersections. Stop signs, meanwhile, cost $250 each and can be installed by city workers at a nominal cost.
If traffic signals are not justified under federal guidelines, the city can’t use federal funds. By contrast, when signals are justified, federal funds sometimes cover 50 to 80 percent of the cost.
Still, critics say the public should have been consulted first.
School Board member Joseph Jackson said 11 of the initial 37 intersections were near schools, where staffers, children, parents, bus drivers and other motorists were caught off guard.
“People don’t know the rules of a four-way stop,” Jackson said. “They roll up and don’t stop. ... It’s not safe.”
He said the school board has major concerns about the city’s approach and wants a list of all 144 intersections that may be affected.
John Murphy, who lives in the Armour Fields neighborhood, said St. Peter’s Catholic School has many students who walk or bike to school along Meyer Boulevard. They now have trouble getting across Oak Street, where there’s no longer a green light.
“The city wants to turn these streets into impassable moats of traffic,” he said.
However, some people are adjusting and say they actually like just stopping at a stop sign, instead of having to wait for a green light.
Councilwoman Cindy Circo said she’s had people plead with her not to retain the traffic signals, because they prefer the new stop signs. There’s an adjustment period and a learning curve, she said, but some people appreciate the change.
Councilman John Sharp, chairman of the public safety committee, said the change may well be justified at many locations. But he said the city should pay attention to the experts — its residents — who know the special neighborhood circumstances that may not be revealed in a traffic count.
“You can’t use a mechanical, cookie cutter approach,” Sharp said.
Councilman Scott Wagner said the city must learn to listen, before it gets the public in an uproar.
“We do, and then we try to ask forgiveness,” Wagner said. “We have got to get out in front and communicate.”