Motorist: Road realignment should put traffic-signal removal in gear

Q: It's been years since Airport Road was relocated north of Lehigh Valley International Airport, creating a new intersection at Schoenersville Road. However, the 'old' intersection of Airport and Schoenersville roads at Gregory's restaurant still has operating traffic signals, with minimal traffic. I have often wondered about the annual cost of operating and maintaining traffic lights at any intersection, not to mention the installation costs. It seems that at Gregory's, a two-way stop sign would suffice, allowing a free flow of traffic on Schoenersville and Weaversville roads, and saving the operating costs of a traffic signal.

— Ross Wilson, Bethlehem

 A: To my surprise, Ross, PennDOT's regional traffic-signals manager, Tom Walter, said traffic signals have been removed from intersections in our area, though it's a rare model. Normally a staunch defender of properly designed and phased traffic lights — that's his business, after all — I had assumed Walter would say it's never happened in six-county District 5.

But he recalled "a few" instances about a decade ago, the signals removed as part of a comprehensive signal-improvement project in Reading in which more than 60 intersections were studied, their signals tweaked or re-phased or replaced to help improve traffic-flow efficiency.

"The Reading Central Business District project was a signalization project for approximately 66 signalized intersections in downtown Reading" meant to improve traffic flow in the downtown, Walter wrote in an email. "As part of the preliminary engineering of the project, the … traffic counts indicated that there were a few existing traffic signals that did not meet the current traffic-signal warrant criteria. This meant that the signals could be removed and appropriate traffic control [stop signs] implemented if the city would agree." The city agreed and the lights were taken out.

Another engineer in Walter's office said it's probably harder to get signals removed than installed, mostly because removal is so far off the usual main-road procedure. I don't find that surprising. If an intersection fails to meet enough of the warrants to qualify for signals, engineers sometimes can detour the warrants by using their judgment to determine, for example, that signals would mitigate dangerous traffic conditions and thereby improve safety. That's perfectly legitimate; the process is designed to work that way. But it suggests that most traffic engineers, being generally amenable to signals, might be loath to remove them.

Motorists sometimes suggest that traffic would flow more efficiently at specified intersections in the light-traffic overnight hours — 11 p.m to 5 a.m., for instance — if set on "flash" mode, with flashing-yellow "caution" lights for main-road vehicles and blinking-red "stop and yield" mode for side-road traffic. Walter contends that modern, properly designed and functioning signals should react quickly enough when sensing side-road traffic to provide better, more efficient traffic flow than flashing signals.

That might also stem from a bias in favor of the kind of technology and systems that Walter and others in his field normally embrace, but signal defenders make another point that's harder to dispute: that functioning signals boost safety, at least a bit, by making standard intersection rules harder to ignore. The shortcut version: A solid red light is more likely to elicit a full stop, or at least a more careful stop, than flashing red, which shares the function of a stop sign — and we know how easily those can be ignored. One of the arguments against allowing right turns on red was that it would diminish the level of respect for red lights generally. Right on red probably does have this effect, but it's a subcompact factor that shouldn't preclude properly and safely executed right turns on red.

A number of people have suggested, over roughly the past year, that some of the lights on the Airport Road corridor between Union Boulevard in Allentown and Route 22 in Hanover Township, Lehigh County function very poorly, or are not working properly.

As for the signals at the "old" Schoenersville-Airport intersection, Ross, I can understand the reasons for your proposal. Traffic volume has declined significantly, much of it now handled by the wide, multilane intersection to the southeast.

However, after a only about an hour out there on a recent weekend, I'm amazed at how much traffic continues to roll through there — even between 5 and 6 p.m. on a Sunday. With businesses on three of the four corners (one of them, Gregory's, is closed), Schoenersville traffic was considerable; I can only imagine the difference at the same time on weekdays, particularly Fridays.

A gas station and a pharmacy are on the other quadrants. Airport property to the southwest probably precludes future development, but southbound traffic from Weaversville Road is considerable, and even the small residential area to the north generates a surprising amount of traffic. Only the short stretch of Airport Road to Race Street seemed short on traffic during my visit.

It's a compact little intersection, Ross, but I would bet the signal warrants continue to be met. The intersection lies on the line between the two Hanover townships (Lehigh and Northampton); one or both would have to ask PennDOT for permission to remove them — and if approved, pay to have the work done. True, they'd save some maintenance and energy costs, but seems a low-octane lure for removal.

There's a wide road of variation in traffic-signal installation costs, mostly because PennDOT often mandates road improvements as a condition for approving the lights. Some Hanover Lehigh officials contended the $150,000 cost of signals at nearby Race Street and Willowbrook Road was twice what it should have been without the state-mandated road widening and improvements. PennDOT says it would be foolish to install signals at overburdened intersections without adding the turning lanes, green-arrow phases and the like to gain the most efficient traffic flow for the long run. While that's understandable, the municipal complaint is being stuck with the sticker price. Major road realignment required for the new signals at Kernsville and Claussville roads in Lowhill Township jacked up the tab to $1.3 million; a federal grant was needed to get the project off the starting line.

Road Warrior appears Mondays and Fridays, and the Warrior blogs at mcall.com. Email questions about roadways, traffic and transportation, with your name and the municipality where you live, to hartzell@mcall.com, or write to Road Warrior, Box 1260, Allentown, PA 18105-1260.

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