Bee Investigator: Synchronizing Modesto's traffic signals a tough job

snowicki@modbee.comMay 19, 2013 

    alternate textSue Nowicki
    Title: Columnist, Faith & Family reporter
    Coverage areas: Weekly consumer column, plus features and news stories
    Bio: Sue Nowicki has worked at The Bee since 1982. She earned a Bachelor of Journalism degree from The University of Missouri, Columbia, and enjoys answering readers' questions and telling their stories.
    Recent stories written by Sue

— Do you ever need to get somewhere quickly, but seem to hit every red light?

A couple of readers complained about the lack of synchronized traffic lights, so I drove a trial loop around Modesto right about 5 p.m. last week. Traveling at the posted speed limit or slightly below, I went north on McHenry, west on Briggsmore, north on Tully, west on Rumble and south on Carver to Ninth Street, where I hung a left to B Street.

I hit mostly red lights, but most held me stationary for less than a minute, with the longest wait at the Carver-Briggsmore intersection.

Ninth Street was by far the worst. Although the wait times often were only seconds long, I had to stop at nearly every light, and there are a lot of them between Carver and B.

Steve King, a longtime Modesto resident, believes the city should vastly improve the flow of traffic.

"The city claims the traffic lights are totally synchronized ... an obviously ridiculous claim," he said. "They aren't anywhere close to being timed."

I contacted Jeff Barnes, Modesto's traffic engineer, who invited me down to the traffic operations center in Tenth Street Place. Anyone can stand at the windows on the fourth floor and watch multiple screens showing traffic at intersections throughout the city. The office also contains a large whiteboard, several computers and a bookcase full of 6- to 8-inch-thick binders with information about traffic lights, speeds, pedestrians, problems, etc.

I was given a map that tallied the daily number of vehicles driving through each intersection. It shows that 66,668 move through the Briggsmore-Highway 99 overpass stoplights each day. Aside from that spot, the busiest intersection is — you probably can guess this — Briggsmore and McHenry, with 60,682 cars. That's also the stoplight that gets the most complaints.

One thing to note, said Barnes, is that the California Department of Transportation controls the stoplights on McHenry because it is considered a state highway (Highway 108), as is Maze Boulevard, which is Highway 132.

But all of the lights take complex engineering, he said. It's easy to ease traffic flow on a one-way street. It's much harder to coordinate major east-west and north-south streets with all of their cross streets, especially when you add in the heavier traffic periods in the morning, at noon and at the end of the workday. The city adjusts its lights during those three periods.

Then there are the ants. Yes, ants, which sometimes eat the insulation on traffic light wires and cause signals to malfunction.

The flow of traffic also is affected by where subdivisions are built and by businesses that start up or close down.

"Traffic is dynamic; it's always changing," Barnes said. "People think it's a simple thing. It's not. It's complex. If you make an adjustment at one (stoplight), it impacts other intersections."

Here's one tiny part of the complexity: Traffic engineers once were told to set pedestrian crossing lights at four feet per second — the average speed for pedestrians. Engineers now have to allow more time as pedestrians are getting older, fatter and-or slower — 3.5 feet per second.

Barnes and Mark Murphy, another engineer, said the last complete Modesto traffic study was done in 2007. They've received a grant to update that study in downtown Modesto; it should be finished by early 2014.

In the meantime, Murphy said, the department checks out every complaint that comes in. For example, he said, it recently received a complaint about the signal at Sylvan Avenue and Claus Road in northeast Modesto. It found that a wire running under the pavement to detect the presence of cars was broken, so the stoplight wasn't responding as it should. That problem has been fixed.

Last week, Barnes and Murphy invited King to see their equipment and explain their challenges. He came away impressed with their work but thinks more can be done.

"I learned an awful lot, and I do recognize that the gentlemen in charge of this are utilizing all of their resources to try to make traffic flow as best as they can," King said. "I'm not surprised to find out it comes down to a lack of resources, which all governmental entities are facing today."

He believes the city and state should find the extra resources needed to make this a priority.

"There should be some street we could get on and go across town without stopping," he said. "The fuel savings, the air pollution, the saving of people's time are all things we should strive for. A tremendous amount of pollution could be taken out of the air by not having cars sitting (at stoplights) idling."

Ed Staley is another longtime Modestan. He said the Oakdale Road-El Vista Avenue-Mitchell Road corridor from Modesto through Ceres, ending at Highway 99, is one of the worst in the area.

"It seems that Ceres has a desire for people to stop at every light there," Staley said. "Perhaps the merchants have talked the city into timing it that way, hoping that one would be encouraged to turn into the many strip centers and stores that have been built along the route."

Toby Wells, city engineer for Ceres, laughed at the thought and echoed many of the comments by Barnes.

"Last year, we implemented some new timing for three corridors in Ceres: Mitchell, Hatch and Whitmore," he said. "It's a balance between the side traffic and the main corridors. If we had green lights all the way down (Mitchell), someone is going to be sitting for a long time on Fowler Avenue. How long are you willing to make moms taking kids to school wait?"

It would be nice, as King suggests, to have at least one or two streets in Modesto and nearby cities that provide a smooth flow across town. In the meantime, the traffic engineers probably would appreciate grace rather than curses as they work to erase as many traffic headaches as possible. After all, they're out there driving the same roads and stopping at the same lights as the rest of us.

And if you have a complaint about a Modesto traffic signal, call (209) 577-5468.

Next week: Why does a business get to close a city street for months?

Send questions to Sue Nowicki at, fax to (209) 578-2207 or mail to P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352-5256.

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