Lights out in New Castle: Reducing traffic signals

There will be a regional approach to keep traffic moving more efficiently.



NEW CASTLE, Pa. — Consider this when you’re at a red light:

New Castle has the most traffic signals anywhere in southwestern Pennsylvania outside of Pittsburgh.

In all, there are about 60 intersections in the city controlled by traffic signals. Some of those signals have multiple lights in case one isn’t working properly.

A program kicking off this month aims to help reduce those traffic lights or, at least, keep traffic flowing at a better rate to help eliminate some pollution from idling cars — and possibly save municipalities a few dollars on electricity and traffic light maintenance.

The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, which serves a 10-county region stretching from Lawrence County in the north to Washington County in the south and the city of Pittsburgh, is taking a regional approach to keeping cars moving on the roads.

The problem, said Doug Smith, traffic planner for the commission, is that most traffic signals in Pennsylvania are maintained and controlled by local municipalities. That makes it hard to coordinate a smooth traffic flow on a heavily traveled road that might pass through several municipalities, he said.

“They look pretty simple. Red, green and yellow, but they are actually pretty high-tech. To get the most out of them, you have to coordinate them,” Smith said.

Smith said the commission is hoping a regional plan, with some cash and technical assistance for struggling municipalities, will help keep traffic moving. The commission gets its funding from annual dues paid by each of the member counties, and each county turns over its state Department of Transportation funding for larger regional projects.

Lights per community

Pittsburgh by far has the most traffic signals in the region with almost 600.

New Castle is next with 60 and after that the number drops down to 48 for communities like Monroeville, Mount Lebanon and Wilkinsburg — all communities closer to Pittsburgh. In most cases, communities might only have one or two traffic signals, Smith said.

Henry Sturdifin of Union Township was surprised to learn New Castle had so many traffic signals. He travels daily downtown to pick up newspapers and play the lottery at the American News Stand.

“They are everywhere. Every two or three blocks ,you have to stop for a traffic light,” he said.

City officials were also surprised to learn that New Castle was only second to Pittsburgh in traffic signals.

The signals, whether on a city- or state-maintained street, fall to the city workers to maintain, said Mike Rooney, director of public works. He said the city has considered in some instances eliminating traffic signals, such as one that was knocked down at the intersection of Falls and Mercer streets recently. But they found there was too much red tape through the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to have it permanently removed.

A helping hand

Smith said his organization would help municipalities when dealing with the legalities of eliminating lights.

Eliminating signals is just one approach the commission intends to take, he added. It will also look at coordinating traffic signals to keep cars moving, and upgrading signals to more energy efficient LED lights.

“For many local municipalities, their priorities are to fix roads and patch potholes. A lot of them don’t see the benefit of this,” Smith said.

He said LED lights use 80 percent to 90 percent less electricity than the old bulbs and are guaranteed to last for five years.

Rooney said the city is already on top of the last suggestion, having replaced most of the old energy-hogging lights with the more efficient LED signals.

The cost of upgrading the signals basically pays for itself in energy costs down the road.

Smith said the commission intends to spend the next six months pitching the plan to municipalities. It’s likely to take a few years to get this program going since the entire region encompasses 7,000 square miles, he said.

The commission plans to identify the most congested areas and address those first.

“If you have 5,000 to 10,000 cars on a road and you can save each one a minute of time, it can add up. The less time there is idling at traffic signals, the less pollution,” Smith said.

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