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Commissioners criticize NDOT traffic signal changes (updated)

By Kristen Hackbarth
Published: Last Updated on

Drivers on Pyramid Highway have expressed frustration over the past week as advance warning signals for a number of stop lights have been modified by the Nevada Department of Transportation. The changes are part of a phased project to remove some of the highway’s advance warning signals and modify the operation of others. 

“This has frustrated my residents in Spanish Springs beyond belief,” said Washoe County Commissioner Vaughn Hartung during Friday’s Regional Transportation Commission board meeting. “Most people have lost confidence in NDOT who live in Spanish Springs.”

Washoe County Commissioner Vaughn Hartung

Hartung read a series of comments he received from residents who drive on Pyramid Highway and are confused by the changes. They said they are also concerned the changes will make driving the highway less safe. 

Hartung said he shared those concerns. 

“It’s very confusing, it’s a hindrance on the highway and it’s not making the traffic flow smoother,” he said. “I’m getting floods of emails.”

The changes, also being made to some warning lights on the Mt. Rose Highway, include adjusting the yellow flashing lights that warn that a traffic signal ahead is yellow or is red and a driver should slow down. The current setting for the lights is to continuously flash, which has drivers confused as to whether they should slow down or keep driving. 

RTC board chair Neoma Jardon said she understood the frustration and was also disappointed in NDOT’s response to the Pyramid Highway traffic concerns. She added that the continuous yellow flashing lights eventually become white noise and are ignored.

“That is my fear with these constant flashing lights,” she said. “I know in my travels out there I have found valuable the advanced warning system.” 

NDOT’s Darin Tedford, who spoke at the RTC meeting, said the changes are intended to improve safety and uniformity along the highways. He added that a phased approach – with 30 days per phase – will give drivers additional reminders of changes being made to the road and allow NDOT to study driver behavior during the phases.

In instances where drivers can see the traffic signal ahead, the advance warning signal may encourage drivers to “beat the light” instead of slowing down, which NDOT officials say can lead to more crashes. 

“Red-light running is one of the most serious traffic problems in the nation,” NDOT officials wrote in a press release. “It is estimated that vehicles running red lights cause more than 200,000 crashes and approximately 900 deaths nationwide per year.”  

In a presentation just before the update on the traffic signals, Tedford reported the top contributing factors to highway fatalities in the state were impairment and speeding. 

A slide from NDOT’s presentation to the RTC board on March 18, 2022, showing the locations of advance warning signals that are planned to be changed in updates that started in mid-March.

‘This has gone on for years’

Hartung has lived in a neighborhood off the Pyramid Highway for 35 years. He has regularly expressed frustration that no improvements have been made to the highway over the past three decades that have made it any safer or able to support the number of drivers now in the area. 

“We have not seen in 30 years any capacity improvement on the Pyramid Highway,” Hartung said. “NDOT should be looking at capacity improvements…We’ve had numerous developers that have built out there. There is a growing need for housing throughout the region, and it has not been addressed.”

Instead, he said, changes made by NDOT have made driving on the highway more difficult and at times less safe. 

He cited the turnouts from Lazy 5 Regional Park and a small Centex housing development, which only allows drivers to turn right, forcing them to then make a U-turn further up the highway so they can then travel south. 

The speed limit near those two right-in/right out points was increased from 45 up to 55 miles per hour after studies showed 85% of drivers were speeding, he said, but that hasn’t helped either. Now people are traveling at 65 miles per hour, he added.

“They raised the speed limit…instead of enforcement. They did not contact staff at Washoe County and let us know they were going to do that,” he said. 

Warning signal changes

The changes planned for Pyramid Highway’s traffic signal warning system started March 13 and will continue over the next several months with a phased approach. Similar changes are being made to warning signals on Mt. Rose Highway. 

All traffic signals will remain in place, but the flashing yellow warning lights and other signage is changing. 

Locations affected by the changes are:

Pyramid Highway

Remove Advance Warning Signals

  • Northbound at Calle de la Plata
  • Northbound and southbound at Eagle Canyon/La Posada Drive
  • Northbound and southbound at Wingfield Springs Road/Lazy Five Parkway        
  • Northbound and southbound at Sparks Boulevard
  • Northbound and southbound at Golden View Drive
  • Northbound and southbound at Los Altos Parkway
  • Southbound Pyramid Highway at Disc Drive

Modify Timing of Advance Warning Signals

  • Northbound Pyramid Highway at Disc Drive
  • Southbound Pyramid Highway at Farr Lane/Queen Way
An advance warning signal on the Mt. Rose Highway near Thomas Creek Road. Image: NDOT

Mt. Rose Highway

Remove Advance Warning Signals

  • Southbound U.S. 395A and Mt. Rose Highway 
  • Westbound Mt. Rose Highway at Thomas Creek Road

Convert to Continuously-Flashing Advance Warning Signal

  • Northbound U.S. 395A and Mt. Rose Highway intersection

Modify Timing of Advance Warning Signal

  • Eastbound Mt. Rose Highway at Wedge Parkway
  • Eastbound Mt. Rose Highway at Thomas Creek Road

The first changes to the warning lights were made the week of March 13. At locations where the advance warning signals are being removed, the lights will continuously flash for the next 30 days. Previously they had only flashed to notify drivers when the traffic signal ahead was yellow or red and drivers would need to slow down and stop. 

In mid-April, the flashing lights will be removed and replaced with static signs warning that a traffic signal is ahead. 

A third round of changes, in mid-May, will be to remove the warning light signal poles at locations where the flashing lights will no longer be used.

Community outreach questioned

Hartung said he hadn’t seen any real public outreach from NDOT on the changes being made to the warning signals until the public started expressing concern. He said he had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get data on the changes from NDOT after his initial requests for information went unanswered or were met with limited details.

“NDOT did not listen. They went ahead and made this change,” Hartung read from a comment he received.

“This is one more instance on the Pyramid Highway where NDOT has made the road less safe, not more safe,” he said. 

NDOT spokesperson Meg Ragonese said the agency did reach out to community members and commissioners to provide updates on the advance warning signal updates. She cited coordination and regular updates with partner agencies and local government officials — 25 since 2019 — including with Washoe County Commissioners.

Prior to these latest changes on the Pyramid and Mt. Rose highways NDOT presented updates at five community and neighborhood advisory board meetings in January and February, and posted updates on NDOT’s social media channels.

“Since July of 2020, we have also posted social media and hosted the www.nvsafesignals.com website to provide community members with important information and insight into these upcoming changes,” she added.

Hartung also said he was frustrated by the data from NDOT used to make these changes. 

The researchers used the wrong speed limit – 50 instead of 55 miles per hour as is posted – and measured drivers on a downhill stretch northbound on Pyramid just before the Los Altos stoplight. They found that more than 15% of drivers passed through the intersection at speeds between 50-60 miles per hour, and just 3% drove through at speeds 60 mph or faster.

“It’s a downhill run. You would expect them to be traveling faster, and you would be expecting them to be traveling at 55 mph, which is the posted speed limit,” Hartung said. 

He also said he was frustrated at the lack of a control site with which to compare the Pyramid Highway data to determine if sites without warning lights have different driver behavior. 

Washoe County Commissioner Bob Lucey, also a member of the RTC board and whose district includes the Mt. Rose Highway, said NDOT faces “paralysis through analysis,” and has done many corridor studies without offering any valuable solutions.

“It’s time that if NDOT isn’t going to be assertive and move forward with making these needed safety changes in these corridors then they should allow us to make those changes,” he said. 

Lucey also suggested that NDOT should be making changes known to improve safety, such as roundabouts and stop lights, before removing current safety equipment.

“I, like Commissioner Hartung, want to see these things move forward and I’d like to see them move forward faster,” he said. “If NDOT can’t functionally get those projects moving quickly I think RTC should take that role and move forward first and find ways to make that happen.” 

Hartung, speaking to This Is Reno following the meeting, added, “Look at the capacity improvements in southern Nevada versus northern Nevada. If this had been an issue in southern Nevada it would have been fixed years ago.”

Update: This story was updated to indicate that Hartung had to file a FOIA request to secure data from NDOT and to include response from NDOT on community outreach.

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