Several Omaha neighborhoods could lose traffic lights that drivers and pedestrians use to get into and out of residential areas.
The city may remove the signals at up to eight local intersections, stretching from 142nd Street and West Maple Road in west Omaha to 16th and Sprague Streets in the northeast part of the city.
“We use these lights every day,” said Sally Kammerer, who lives in northwest Omaha’s Candlewood neighborhood, where two lights could be removed.
The Omaha Public Works Department identified the eight intersections using traffic counts and other measures as part of a decade-long city audit of local traffic signals.
The intersections targeted were used less often than national engineering guidelines recommend for a traffic light.
The city says it must evaluate local traffic signals to access federal grant funds covering 80% of the $35 million cost of upgrading the city’s traffic lights. The signals need to be updated, officials said. Many are still operated by floppy disks.
But Public Works says it would scrutinize local traffic lights in the same way if the city was using its own money, said Jeff Riesselman, the city’s traffic engineer.
Public Works officials say traffic signals aren’t always a positive. They can contribute to an increase in traffic accidents. There’s also a chance that traffic at many times of day would move more freely without a light.
Six of the eight identified intersections are being taken out of service on what could be a temporary basis. The city started bagging or covering up those signals last month to monitor how traffic flows without functioning traffic lights. The rest will be bagged soon. They’ll be out of commission for up to eight weeks.
The city will send engineers to drive into and out of those six intersections at different times of day to observe the intersections under different conditions, to decide whether the neighborhoods would be better off without the lights, Riesselman said.
The city is handling two other traffic lights differently, one at 69th and Blondo Streets near St. Pius X/St. Leo School, and one at 25th Street and Ames Avenue near Saratoga School.
Public Works has said it won’t remove the signal near Pius unless school leaders agree.
St. Pius Principal Cory Sepich said Friday he would prefer to keep the light because cars drive quickly down 69th Street, and his school of more than 700 students sometimes uses an adjacent parking lot for recess.
“We like the light as it allows many, many students to cross safely to and from the parking lots at all times of the school day,” he said.
The signal near Saratoga School is being removed as part of city sewer work. Most of the middle and high school students who go to Saratoga ride buses from around the city instead of walking from the neighborhood, so the signal is not needed, the city says. City Councilman Ben Gray said he has heard no complaints from neighbors.
People in other affected neighborhoods, however, say they are frustrated about the possible loss of traffic lights. Several have told the city they want their signals saved. Many are seeking answers, including what amount of traffic city engineers have to observe to keep the lights.
Councilwoman Aimee Melton is holding a meeting about the lights Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at St. Robert Bellarmine Church, 120th and Pacific Streets. Public Works officials plan to attend.
Her northwest Omaha district could lose traffic lights in three places — 120th Street and Rose Lane, 132nd and Hamilton Streets, and 142nd Street and West Maple Road.
She said she uses the lights at 120th and 132nd daily to take her kids to school and wants to keep them. She lives in the nearby Ridgefield subdivision.
She knows the federal grant the city applied for requires the city to study each of the intersections. But she and others in the area won’t let the lights go without a fight.
“The consensus is those lights have prevented multiple accidents, and now we’re going to take them away,” she said. “We haven’t lost them yet.”
Councilman Pete Festersen said he has heard from several Keystone-area neighbors worried about losing a Fort Street traffic signal. He asked anyone with concerns to contact the Mayor’s Hotline at 402-444-5555 or Public Works.
“I know Public Works feels like they have a rationale, but it seems counterproductive in areas where we have speeding and pedestrian safety concerns,” he said. “Especially when it’s near a school.”
For many, the problem boils down to how hard it is for drivers to turn onto major streets, said Diane Briggs, president of the Hillsborough Association of Land Owners.
She worries about removing the signal at 142nd Street and West Maple Road because of the people who live in apartments and homes in the area, as well as patrons of a nearby preschool.
“It’s not always easy now,” said Briggs, a real estate agent. “Without the light, you’d have to sit there long enough for a stoplight elsewhere to catch the cars.”
For Kammerer and other neighbors, it seems silly to take away a safety measure like a traffic light to study its effectiveness. What, she asked, would officials tell a parent who lost a child at one of those intersections?
“It’s your government at work,” she said, “and it stinks.”