Traverse City News and Events

Lights Out: Here’s What’s Behind The Recent Uptick In Local Traffic Light Outages

By Craig Manning | June 25, 2022

Feel like there have been an unusual number of traffic light issues around town lately? You’re not wrong. In the past four months, the Grand Traverse 911 Facebook page has posted more than 15 bulletins notifying locals about traffic light outages or malfunctions, including five incidents in June alone. Those light problems have occurred all over the community, including at major intersections on Grandview Parkway, Munson Avenue, South Airport Road, and more. Is this streak of outages merely a coincidence? Or is it the sign of a wider-spread problem with local infrastructure? The Ticker investigates.

Traffic signals in and around the Traverse City area are managed by three different agencies. Most signals within the city proper are controlled by the city government, while the majority of the lights across the county fall under the purview of the Grand Traverse County Road Commission (GTCRC). However, because several state trunklines run through the Grand Traverse region – including M-72, US-31, and M-37 – some of the area’s highest-profile lights are managed by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT).

Most of the recent outages have impacted GTCRC or MDOT lights. City Engineer Tim Lodge tells The Ticker that the City of Traverse City has “not experienced an uptick in issues” with the signals it manages.

That’s not to say city drivers have avoided the impact of unreliable traffic signals, though. During the week of June 13, there were three separate issues at MDOT-managed signals within city limits. On Wednesday, June 15, the traffic signal at the M-22/M-72 intersection was in “flash mode,” which means it was blinking red in all directions. The next day, Grand Traverse 911 reported that MDOT was experiencing “some signal issues along Grandview Parkway and Munson Avenue,” with lights at Cass Road, Park Street, Eighth Street, and Airport Access either “in flash mode or completely out.” And on June 18, the traffic signal at Division Street, West Fourteenth Street, and Silver Lake Road went into flash mode.

According to James Lake, an MDOT communications representative for the north region, a variety of factors are behind the recent erratic behavior at local MDOT lights. “In early May we had some issues at the Grandview Parkway/Division Street light, but once we replaced some relays, that issue was resolved,” he says. “We’ve had some signals dark or in flashing mode attributed to recent storms, but nothing linked to the signal system. These are issues we have at all signals across the state with power outages.”

The caveat is that power outages might be a bigger problem than usual this summer, and not just because of storms or heavy wind events. Northern Express, The Ticker’s sister publication, reported earlier this month that Michigan and surrounding states are facing a 1,200-megawatt energy shortage this summer due to rising energy usage, shifting power sources, red-hot summer temperatures, and several other factors. The result could be a less reliable power grid, with the potential for rolling blackouts on hot summer days.

Lake says MDOT will be keeping close tabs on the energy situation this summer to watch how it impacts traffic signals. More likely than a total blackout of traffic lights, he notes, is a “brownout,” where electricity keeps flowing but at a lower-than-typical level of voltage.

“We’re aware [of the energy shortage], and we’ve seen some high-power usage resulting in some brownouts that result in our signals reverting to flash mode,” Lake says. “Similar to when lights in your home flicker during a storm, our signals respond to inconsistent power supply by switching to flash mode. When in flash mode, we respond to reset the signal and return it to full operation. Our signals are powered by the local power grid, so they are subject to the same outages as all users in that area. In the case of a flashing signal, drivers must proceed with caution through the flashing amber signal, or stop and proceed when traffic is clear when it is flashing red. In the case of dark signals, that intersection is treated as a four-way stop, per state law.”

GTCRC has also dealt with its share of traffic signal issues this year, most notably (and repeatedly) at the intersection of South Airport, LaFranier, and Barlow. Wayne Schoonover, county highway engineer for GTCRC, says most of the county’s issues are the result of aging infrastructure.

“There is an uptick on the amount of maintenance that we're doing,” Schoonover explains. “We've got a group of signals right now that are 15-20 years old, and we’ve not done any heavy maintenance on those. So we’re overdue on some of that maintenance. Wiring really only has a realistic service life of about 15 years, so we've got wiring out there that's old and brittle. It gets frayed, and the wires start to rub together and actually start to fuse together. And then that creates major issues for the traffic signals.”

Old wiring was the culprit at the South Airport/Lafranier/Barlow intersection, which experienced multiple issues back in April. According to Schoonover, the major outage at the light – which occurred around April 15 and lasted for several days – actually happened as GTCRC crews were working on a “heavy rebuild” of the infrastructure. “We were going along [with our maintenance], and in the middle of the process, we had a critical failure,” he says. “So, for four days, everything was just in flash mode.”

Schoonover assures that all the new wiring for that particular traffic signal is now “online,” which should allow for significantly more reliability in the future. He also notes that GTCRC is in the planning and design phase for several more “heavy rebuilds” on intersections nearby that “are having some of those same experiences.” Top priorities for this year include the signal at the South Airport/Garfield intersection and the light at South Airport, Veterans Drive, and Victoria Drive, though other upgrades will follow in the near future. “We’re going to have several intersections per year that we’ll be doing major rebuilds on, in order to get everything up to speed,” Schoonover says.

Another factor that could be at play at county lights, Schoonover notes, is the county’s implementation of SCOOT technology. SCOOT is described as a “dynamic, on-line, real-time method of signal control that continuously measures traffic demand on all approaches to intersections in a network and optimizes the signal timings at each intersection to minimize delay and stops.” MDOT already implemented SCOOT on its local signals, and GTCRC is in the process of rolling out the technology. Per Schoonover, that upgrade will eventually lead to a much more efficient and user-friendly traffic signal network throughout the county. In the short term, though, there are some growing pains.

“Part of [the SCOOT implementation] is that we had to do some rather significant upgrades in equipment on a lot of our systems,” Schoonover says. “So now you're intermixing new equipment with older equipment. Sometimes, that creates some pressure points on the electronics, which don't always play well together. So, we've had some issues there. We've identified, for instance, that we have some limitations where SCOOT is not able to fully address and optimize because we don't have pedestrian push buttons at every single intersection. In those intersections, the signal doesn't know if anyone's going across or not, so it has to accommodate a longer green time. This summer, we’re getting that all up to speed, to where we’ll have push buttons at all the necessary intersections, so SCOOT can truly optimize and move traffic through the corridor.”

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