By Ashley Luthern
Motorists traveling throughout the Mahoning Valley may have noticed something new while stopping at an intersection.
The Ohio Department of Transportation is installing light-emitting diode (LED) traffic signals, replacing the signals with incandescent bulbs and older-model LEDs.
ODOT crews were working on Western Reserve Road near the Interstate 680 exit ramp this week and already have installed some lights along U.S. Route 224, state Route 7 (Market Street) and state Route 46.
The project cost for ODOT District 4, which includes Mahoning and Trumbull counties, is $1.6 million and is paid for by the federally funded Highway Safety Fund, said Brent Kovacs, the district’s public information officer.
The Highway Safety Fund is designated for safety-upgrade projects such as traffic-light replacement.
“Most of the old signals had ... incandescent lights that use 135 watts, and all new signals are LED that use about 17 watts. The energy savings alone in a year and half will pay for the upgrade,” Kovacs said.
LED lights were first installed in some traffic signals throughout District 4 about seven years ago and were due for replacement, Kovacs said.
The housing — or exterior — of the traffic signals were “in bad shape,” Kovacs said. “All of the old housing with LED lights that are still in usable condition will be given to cities or townships to upgrade their old incandescent signals. The funding for this project provides for all the fixtures to be replaced instead of having a mixed batch of old and new at an intersection.”
Using less energy, however, means that the LED lights do not release much heat, or excess energy, and may not melt snow as easily as incandescent bulbs.
Media reports from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Toronto in the winter of 2009-10 show that some safety officials said the buildup of snow blocked the lights and made driving more dangerous.
“It only happened under certain conditions” depending on wind, temperature and type of snow, said Lonnie Tebow, transportation and traffic programs director for the International Municipal Signal Association.
“It doesn’t seem to occur terribly often, and many areas are looking at ways to prevent and take care of it. They’re still doing research on what’s the best way to remove or prevent it from happening,” said Tebow, who attended a federal highway administration focus group earlier this year that addressed snow and LED traffic lights.
If a traffic light is not visible for whatever reason, such as a power outage or snow, Tebow advised drivers to treat the intersection as a four-way stop and to be cautious.
Kovacs said snow has not and should not be a problem because of the overhang above the light.
He added that the LED lights have several benefits over incandescent, such as the new traffic bulbs have to be replaced only every five to seven years, compared to once a year.
The new lights are made of black plastic, so there is no paint on them that could chip or fade, Kovacs said. “Another thing is these black back plates have been shown to reduce crashes by making them more visible by decreasing background [distractions].”
Sgt. John Allsopp, traffic unit supervisor for Boardman police, said he’s never heard a complaint from a driver that they had trouble seeing a traffic-light signal but that he thinks the longer lifespan of LED lights will be beneficial.
“We are constantly calling to report a light bulb is out,” Allsopp said. “I think it’s a win-win for everyone, and hopefully [the state] can save money on it.”
Kovacs said ODOT District 4 will replace “a high majority of the traffic lights that ODOT maintains” but did not have a total number available for the district or either Mahoning County or Trumbull County.