By Bill Holloway
Kansas City, Missouri, is facing public backlash after embarking on a project to replace 144 of its aging traffic signals with stop signs at intersections where traffic has declined. As reported by the Kansas City Star, the signals that the City is planning to remove are 50–60 years old and have been failing at an increasing rate in recent years. Failures have led to severe traffic jams and, in some cases, fatal accidents. A jury in a wrongful death lawsuit against the city resulting from one such fatal accident found that the signal was outdated and awarded the plaintiff over $380,000. Although that case is under appeal, the potential for more crashes at intersections with the old traffic signals is a major concern.
As failures have grown more common, the cost of repairs has grown as well. Although the signals could be replaced with newer traffic signals, the cost would be roughly $250,000 per intersection — a cost that would be entirely born by the city since traffic levels are far below federal guidelines. Stop signs, by contrast, cost only $250 a piece and can be easily installed by city workers.
In advance of beginning the replacement process, signals at 37 intersections started flashing red. Many residents were surprised and upset over the change, with some concerned that removal of traffic signals will endanger children walking and bicycling to and from school. Some fear that drivers are not familiar enough with the rules governing traffic at four-way-stop intersections.
In the wake of the public backlash, the city council has suspended the removal process for 60 days and called for a community outreach plan and reevaluation of the 37 intersections first in line for scheduled removal.
As older cities across the nation face problems with aging infrastructure and more dispersed populations, decisions like this one on whether to repair, replace, or downscale this infrastructure are likely to grow more frequent.
Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.