Green Line finds cars still take priority in St. Paul

I was driving south on Robert Street at Fourth the other day when the light turned green and the  line of cars started to budge. Two made it through when the light turned red. Then a Green Line train rumbled through before the light turned green again. Total delay for the drivers? About 30 seconds.

See? Is that so hard? Traffic lights that favor transit?

It’s one of the few spots on the entire line where the light rail line doesn’t sit, waiting for traffic, sometimes traffic that really isn’t there.

Somehow, the $1 billion project was built with a 50-cent philosophy at intersections in St. Paul, which is one of the reasons why the line is considered “too slow.”

The Pioneer Press’ Frederick Melo dives into finding out why trains have to sit at intersections, mere yards before a station, while the traffic lights favor the cars.

“It is hard to rationalize a train with 300 people stopping at an intersection with no cross traffic,”  Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb said.

“This is all on the city,” Aaron Isaacs, a former transit planner with the agency says.

In 2011, St. Paul upgraded the central control system that monitors two-thirds of the traffic signals within the city’s borders. Econolite’s Pyramid system was replaced with the company’s next “smartest” software, Econolite Centracs, at a cost of $260,000, with the expectation that new sensors beneath the light-rail track would inform the traffic signals that a train was on the approach or had just passed by.

Based on input from the sensors located anywhere from one to five blocks away, traffic signals are expected to extend, or switch to, a green light for a few seconds, allowing the trains to sail through. The extended window of opportunity at green lights is known as the “green band,” but not every train makes it within the band.

A pedestrian hitting a “walk” button shortly before the light rail crosses a sensor might still get to walk across University Avenue, putting the light rail on hold. A car turning in front of a train, or passengers boarding and exiting more slowly than expected, might also delay it from reaching a green light in time.

Meanwhile, video cameras monitor traffic on cross-streets, information that is also being fed to the traffic signals.

One problem, though, is the project put stations after the intersection, meaning trains have to stop twice: once for the signal, and once for the station.

The city’s engineer says University Ave., is too dense for giving trains priority at the traffic lights, and says pedestrians, in particular, have already made enough sacrifices on the roadway.

“The majority of people on the train are happy about the way it’s going,” a city council member says.

Disclosure: Minnesota Public Radio and the Metropolitan Council are negotiating ways to reduce noise and vibrations from the newly built light rail line outside MPR headquarters under a contract agreed to in 2009.

  • Jack

    Having dealt with the light situation on the blue line, I can understand the desire not to mess with the traffic BUT this is crazy. So the majority of the people on the train are happy – how about the people who would be on the train if it were faster???

    Just saying.

  • Ken Paulman

    While a red light costs a driver 30 seconds, a missed connection can add 30 minutes or more to a transit trip.

  • jon

    There was a time when stop lights were timed instead of being “smart.”

    Back in these dark ages my grandfather discovered a way to always catch all of the green lights, simply go the same speed as an express bus. (at the time, in Chicago-land it was around 10 mph UNDER the speed limit)

    The bus drivers caught every green light, and got where they were going at about the same time as the cars that bolted up to the speed limit and then stop and waited at the lights. In the mean time my father discovered that if you accelerate hard enough, and exceed the speed limit by enough you can catch a few lights before you get another red… of course gasoline was cheap back then, and muscle cars were all the rage.

    Now if all those years ago, when we had dumb stop lights, we could manage to give mass transit an edge simply by telling them how the lights were timed, why can’t we manage this with all these sensors every where?

  • Matty Lang

    It doesn’t really matter which side of the intersections the stations are located if the train can’t control the signal. Given near side stations there would be many cases where a train boards passengers and then is forced to sit through a red light signal cycle. Sure the train has only stopped once, but it sits for the same amount of time waiting for the signal it can’t preempt.

    The point of the far side stations is that the train can depart immediately after boarding–no chance of sitting at a red signal in front of it. The other point is that passengers depart the station behind the departing train rather than in front of it. The signal problem doesn’t really have anything to do with the location of the stations.