Judy Cartwright writes the Community Watchdog column
When a brand-new traffic signal came to Centerport, Watchdog got an earful.
'It's an unbelievably ridiculous thing," one reader said in January. "We don't need extra things like this on Long Island . . . You can't make everybody on a main road stop every time someone comes out of a side road."
And early this month: "I thought you might be a person to investigate what I consider just plain waste and possible political abuse of power in the Town of Huntington," another reader wrote to Newsday transportation reporter Sarah Crichton.
In between were others similarly suspicious that the traffic light had been positioned and programmed to give drivers on the side road, Blenheim Lane, a green light any time they needed to exit. That Centerport Road is a busy north-south route, and Blenheim is a short road with a handful of houses, helped fuel the perception.
Suspicions aside, drivers expressed annoyance with the traffic signal itself -- why it was even needed.
So here's the explanation from the agency that installed the signal:
It was put there to slow traffic. Period.
The road has a historic "pattern of speeding," said William Hillman, chief engineer of the Suffolk County Public Works Department -- a history of vehicles rounding the downhill curve at high rates of speed and, in inclement weather, running off the road.
"If it's a dry road and you travel at the posted speed limit, you should not have any problems," Hillman said. But when the roads are wet, "it is a challenge . . . without a doubt."
Hillman said a traffic signal wasn't the department's first choice for the location. But it became the only option after a plan to straighten the road fell to community opposition two decades ago.
The new traffic signal has another distinction: Unlike any other on Long Island, it is programmed to turn red when approaching traffic is speeding.
For northbound traffic, it works like this: An electronic sign displays an approaching vehicle's speed on the 30 mph road. A speeding vehicle triggers a sensor that instructs the traffic signal to turn red by the time the vehicle arrives, Hillman said. On a recent Watchdog visit, the electronic readout flashed 32 mph and, as we neared the signal, the light changed to red.
Mike Montobano of Centerport is among drivers unhappy with the location of the signal. "Going north on that grade" -- downhill, with a sharp curve -- "is already a really tough call," he said, and southbound traffic going uphill will find it tough to stop and start in icy weather.
Hillman said a weeklong experiment with stop signs had a "positive impact on reducing speed" but also led to concerns similar to Montobano's about uphill stops and starts. So to reduce the frequency, "we came up with the idea to only stop them if they were actually speeding." The result was the traffic signal tied to speed, a tactic he said is not used elsewhere in the county.
Spokesmen for Nassau County and the state Department of Transportation said there are no such signals on their roads.
Montobano says the signal should be relocated, either north or south.
But that "wouldn't have the desired effect of slowing traffic down," Hillman said. Northbound drivers "would have more time to speed up again for the curve . . . They'll put their foot to the floor to make up for lost time" spent at the red light.
It's too early to know what effect the signal is having on safety, Hillman said, adding that traffic engineers typically gather three years of information before making a determination about a signal's effectiveness.
We should note that the signal does turn green for drivers exiting Blenheim. As for the perception that someone with political clout must live on that lane: Lora Gellerstein, an aide to County Legis. William Spencer, says local residents actually objected when the signal was proposed. Gellerstein was an aide to Spencer's predecessor, Jon Cooper, when options for improving safety on the road were under discussion.
The signal "isn't about the side street at all," she said. "It's about the speed people use there."
Hillman said even if a neighbor had political pull, it would have no bearing on placement of a signal. "It's purely a traffic safety device," he said. "That's it."
I'll ask again: How long are drivers expected to stop at red lights before making a right turn?
The issue persists because, even though Watchdog has quoted both Nassau and Suffolk officials saying the only requirement is a complete stop -- meaning 0 mph -- readers continue to report that they're being told either 3 or 5 seconds is required.
Some say the conflicting information came from a person at the other end of the toll-free number on the red-light citation. Others say they have been given similar information at their local police precincts.
The official policy in both counties continues to be that a car must simply come to a complete stop -- one that doesn't involve counting off seconds. So let's try to clear this up: If someone in law enforcement or red-light camera ticketing tells you a complete stop requires a number of seconds, let me know. Be sure to get that person's name.
The best way to reach me is at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for the help.