Stopped light: Long wait at downtown signal triggers questions

Besides creating delays on Water Street, the Third Street SE stoplight is also known for once having a Southern-accented male voice instructing pedestrians when to cross.
Staff photo Besides creating delays on Water Street, the Third Street SE stoplight is also known for once having a Southern-accented male voice instructing pedestrians when to cross. Staff photo

On Water Street, buses regularly back up at a traffic light at Third Street SE that has the Water Street Parking Garage on one side and a half street dead-ending on the Downtown Mall on the other. Water Street traffic can idle at this light for nearly a minute, by this reporter’s count. The Charlottesville Area Transit advisory board asked that it be changed, a request that was under way until City Manager Maurice Jones intervened and put the request on hold.

“Some business owners raised some concerns that they believe this crosswalk is the best one for folks with mobility issues or handicapped to get on the mall,” says city spokesperson Miriam Dickler. “They asked the city to reconsider. We put a pause on that to consider other options.”

That pause has raised concerns for Lena Seville, who sits on the CAT advisory board, which has been asking that the signal, which is right after a bus stop, be changed for months. “We were told Neighborhood Development Services couldn’t restripe until the weather was warm,” she says. “Everything I was told was that it was going to be removed.”

Seville also says she was told someone on City Council had intervened on someone else’s behalf who did not want the signal removed.

“A lot about this bothers me,” she says. “There’s a process in place. They’re elected to be fair, not to get special treatment for friends and donors. They’re supposed to work for the overall benefit of the public, not the special benefit of individuals.”

“Nobody I talked to had talked to anybody from City Council about this,” says Dickler. “People contact the city manager’s office all the time. It’s a totally appropriate way to contact the city.”

She says Neighborhood Development and CAT staff are working to evaluate the situation.

“It does delay the buses,” especially at the bottom of the hour when 11 buses leave the Transit Center and get stopped at the light, says CAT manager John Jones. “The last bus in line can lose four minutes of transit time. People riding the No. 10 bus are quite sensitive to delays.”

“It seemed ridiculous to back up traffic on that street,” says Seville. “Each bus has to wait for its own green light.”

From her own observation at the bus stop, she says it’s rare to see someone use that crosswalk. And she says the green light for dead-end Third Street stays green as long as it is on Water Street—with no traffic coming out of Third.

“The thing is, it’s not activated by actual use,” she says. Lights can have sensors or can be pedestrian activated. “I don’t think it should work the way it works. It could be modified.”

It’s not the first time there has been grousing about the city’s handling of traffic lights. The long-awaited McIntire Interchange opened in February 2015, and for months drivers languished through multiple cycles at a light that was green for only 18 seconds, despite heavy traffic volume, backups and complaints. Lights installed at Park Street also stalled commutes.

Citizens who have concerns about traffic issues can contact Neighborhood Development, for which Rashad Hanbali is the new traffic engineering manager, says Dickler. Or, apparently, they can also complain to the city manager’s office.

“It appears there’s sort of a lack of transparency and evenness to this process,” says Seville. “It feels like things are happening behind the scenes. I would have liked it transparent and public.”

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