Lights out in River City: Call this number. Now!

Friday, November 30, 2007

The fellows who are responsible for traffic lights in Cape Girardeau seem nice enough. Really, they do.

These men politely answered all of reporter Peg McNichol's questions for a story that was published Tuesday.

Some of these nice guys work for the city. Some of them work for the Missouri Department of Transportation. That's because traffic signals on state highways that go through town are maintained by MoDOT. The lights on city streets are the responsibility of city workers.

Without being critical of any of these fine gentlemen, I'd like to make an observation: "Nice" isn't going to fix the mess with this town's traffic lights.

The occasional malfunction is to be expected. Even the most impatient motorist will tolerate a breakdown now and then in the electronic gizmos that make lights change from red to green and back again.

But when so many traffic signals in town -- there are 43 all told -- are gummed up, it's more than a mere maintenance issue. It's a frustrating nightmare. And it's dangerous as all get-out.

Take the lights at Kingshighway and Broadway.

This is where two of Cape Girardeau's main arteries meet. Let's not waste time reviewing how on earth traffic from a commercial building's parking lot on the west side of Kingshighway came to be controlled by this complex signal. Let's focus on the fact that sometimes the signal there holds two lanes of westbound traffic waiting to turn left so long that irate motorists risk their lives and/or expensive tickets to make the left turn on red.

It happened Thanksgiving Day. I was taking my mother home after a wonderful turkey dinner at our house. We could see the left-turn lanes on Broadway had red lights from as far back as Caruthers Avenue. The lights were still red when we got to Kingshighway. There was no traffic on Kingshighway. After a few moments, the motorist in the lane next to us made an illegal left turn on red. After a few more minutes, the next motorist in that lane did the same thing. After more time elapsed, a third motorist edged out into the Kingshighway lanes and stopped just in time to avoid being clipped by a car driven by a motorist southbound on Kingshighway who had been waiting in that left-turn lane for several minutes and decided to risk the turn while his light was still red.

Finally, the light changed to green.

While this is an extreme example, it is comparable to what is happening at many traffic lights.

I've complained before about the lights at West End Boulevard and Independence Street, the one that gives northbound motorists on West End a left-turn green even if there are no vehicles in that lane. This means southbound traffic has to wait for the light to cycle. And at that same intersection, eastbound traffic on Independence gets no left-turn arrow and must turn, with caution, when the light is green for through traffic both ways.

I could go through my list of boogered lights -- Kingshighway and Bloomfield Road, Broadway and Caruthers Avenue, Broadway and West End, West End and William Street and on and on -- but it doesn't seem to do much good.

Those nice men who adjust traffic signals say they need to be told when the lights are acting up. The numbers to call are 888-275-6636 for MoDOT and 334-9151 for the city. By all means, call.

But, good gravy, don't these fellas ever experience the kooky lights when they are driving? Don't they ever hear from co-workers about the traffic snarls when the lights go haywire? Don't police officers see what's going on? Don't the city manager, the public works director or the police chief ever call 334-9151 and suggest that somebody needs to do something? Have the mayor or city councilors never been caught in one of these electronically controlled traps?

Getting the lights restored to something near normal is up to us, folks. You've got the numbers. Use them.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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