Watchdog: Round Swamp Road traffic signals trouble residents
Two new traffic signals that showed up six months ago on Round Swamp Road in the West Hills section of Huntington are an unwelcome intrusion to many drivers.
'I suspect that not many people are happy with these lights," Robert Halle, of Huntington, wrote in an email. "I think people feel that the town took a road where traffic moved reasonably well and created unnecessary traffic."
He described backups lasting several minutes.
"It is hard enough getting anywhere on Long Island these days," he wrote, a sentiment many of us can appreciate. "It seems a step in the wrong direction."
The signals were installed as one element of a plan designed to slow traffic on the road in part by rewarding drivers traveling at the 30 mph speed limit with a green signal.
Huntington's director of transportation and traffic safety, Stephen McGloin, told us the system is designed to work as follows:
"The signals are set up for speed control. If you travel at 30 mph, by the time you get to the signal it'll turn green. That's the whole premise, to control your speed."
McGloin conceded it's more complicated than that, in part because traffic approaching on side roads can trigger a light change. Still, a vehicle traveling faster than 30 would have a good chance of encountering a red light, he said, which would change to green shortly.
But the signals haven't always performed that way. And Halle is right: As very long red lights have persisted, long traffic backups have, too.
There's no question adjustments have been needed, McGloin said.
"This is not a perfect science. It's not," he said in a telephone interview. "We're constantly making adjustments as things come to our attention."
And it turns out that backups -- shorter backups -- are part of the plan: Vehicles waiting at a red light are intended to form a platoon when the signal turns green.
"What we're trying to accomplish is platooning the vehicles, grouping them together," McGloin said. "If the front car is traveling at a safe speed, anyone behind them does, too. So we've slowed them all down." He said such an arrangement is preferable to a string of vehicles "six, seven, eight car lengths apart that can travel at their own speeds."
But drivers have told him they object because the changes have slowed their commutes; some say they're accustomed to driving 50 mph.
"You can't travel at 50 mph safely on that road," he told us.
The 1.4-mile stretch of Round Swamp from Northern State Parkway to Jericho Turnpike, its straight sections punctuated by sharp curves, does send mixed messages: It's a tree-lined residential road befitting a 30 mph limit. But it's also a significant north-south thoroughfare, one with its own parkway exit. Daily traffic volume has reached an average of 10,650 vehicles, McGloin said, almost a third of the 31,000 average on nearby Jericho Turnpike.
Suffolk County police report 164 accidents on that section of Round Swamp in the past four years, starting in July 2009, with an increase each year: 34 the first year to 50 for the 12 months just ended. One, in 2011, was a fatal accident.
Granted, of the 164, there were 65 at the north end of Round Swamp, at Jericho Turnpike, and 31 at the south end, at the parkway. That leaves 68 along the residential roadway, an average of 17 a year.
Reducing those numbers is where the new signals come in. "We've got to make sure we stop the accidents we can," McGloin said. The town also installed white roadway markings -- the Federal Highway Administration calls them "optical speed bars" -- intended to give the illusion that we're traveling faster than we are.
The signals are positioned close to the midpoint of Round Swamp at side streets about 200 feet apart: Highhold Drive and Manetto Hill Road. Those locations reported the highest number of accidents in the past four years: seven at Highhold, 12 at Manetto Hill.
On a recent afternoon, cars and even school buses began to ignore a red signal that refused to turn to green. We told McGloin, who said an engineer from the manufacturer was due to inspect the equipment last week.
For now, he said, the signal has been reprogrammed to behave as a conventional signal.
Signal flaws aside, speeds have come down since the devices were installed Feb. 8, he said. And by mid-July, police report, the number of accidents along the roadway (excluding those at Jericho Turnpike and the Northern State) was down by about a third compared with the same period last year.
We'll revisit the signals before the end of the year to see how the accident rate, and drivers' sanity, are faring. But we can't argue with what the town aims to accomplish.