Why Dallas' Traffic Lights Are So Terrible

My personal traffic-signal nemesis is where Garland Road and Gaston Avenue meet at the southern tip of White Rock Lake. Woe to the southbound driver who, having hit the intersection at 6:30 p.m., and having just learned that the squirming 4-year-old in the back seat has to go potty RIGHT NOW, must then watch one, two, sometimes three green lights flash to red before he's finally allowed passage.

There are dozens of such intersections in Dallas, maybe hundreds, spots where the signals are so maddeningly ill-timed that they must be the work of some malevolent city bureaucrat who takes perverse pleasure in watching the veins bulge in drivers' foreheads.

On the contrary, the man who oversees Dallas' traffic signals is a mild-mannered engineer who seems to be making every effort to make drivers' lives easier.

We would tell you his name, but we missed it when he introduced himself to the City Council's transportation committee. When we called the number listed for the director of the city's streets department, and asked the name of the assistant director with the Indian accent who had given this afternoon's briefing on traffic control signals, we were placed on hold then, after about a minute, informed that the man had been interim City Manager A.C. Gonzalez. When we replied that, no, it wasn't, we were met with a sigh, placed on hold for longer this time, then told that the streets department doesn't oversee traffic signals. (Yes, it does.)

(Update: We have been informed that the engineer in question is named Aurobindo Majumdar.)

The fact that the streets department seems to be unaware of one of its basic functions doesn't inspire confidence in its ability to operate a system as complex as the city's network of traffic signals. Further investigation reveals that this lack of confidence is entirely warranted, which is why the mysterious streets department official was briefing council members today and beginning sentences with warnings like "If our computer system fails..."

"Basically, our system is old," he said of the immense network of sensors, timers and computers that control every traffic light in the city.

The central computer system, which is "at risk of failure," is the most vulnerable. It dates to the 1980s and once belonged to Time Warner until the company deemed it obsolete and pawned it off on the city. But other key elements of the system, like the on-site computer that actually tells each signal to turn green or red, and the equipment that relays information are also at the end of their useful life.

The proposed solution is a system-wide upgrade that will cost $12.5 million, last three years, and should avert catastrophic failure. As an added bonus, it will allow for real-time monitoring of traffic, so engineers sitting at the central computer can adjust signal timing and self-diagnose problems before a traffic light malfunctions.

This solution, however, is only partial. It leaves out the lights themselves, which are also old and nearing the end of their useful lives.

"Right now focus on getting the brains ... Then they're going to have to address the hardware," Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan said.

And even the new system will require human monitoring, which is currently at a premium.

"You're not even covering the p.m. rush," Jordan said. "The ability to change signals on the fly because of accidents, they can't do that now because of the equipment. Even if they had the equipment, they don't have the staff."

In other words, it'll be a while before you're commute's any less maddening.

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