Traffic light timing change on Columbia’s Route 3

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Emily Webb
Stacie Thoma

The Columbia Police Department, led by Chief Jerry Paul, has been on a mission to curb and combat traffic crashes on the Route 3 corridor. 

They received what they hope will be a major boost from the Illinois Department of Transportation this week as additional signage and rumble strips, along with changes to the timings of traffic lights, are being implemented.

The initiative to make Route 3 safer began in earnest in early March of this year following the death of Emily Webb in a crash at Route 3 and Veterans Parkway, in which the driver of a dump truck allegedly ran a red light. The collision killed Webb instantly and injured her six children, all of whom were passengers in the vehicle.

Almost immediately, a dialogue began that included Paul, Columbia administrators, civilians and representatives from IDOT, which controls the state highway.

Pictured is a temporary lighted message board alerting motorists entering Columbia from the south that the timings of Route 3 traffic signals have changed. The move is one of several attempts by IDOT to increase safety along the Route 3 corridor. (Andrea Saathoff photo)

“IDOT has been a very good partner,” Paul said. 

An early September crash at the very same intersection killed Stacie Thoma and solidified the resolve to fix Route 3.

Paul, for his part, implemented an “all hands on deck” philosophy for patrolling Route 3 and hired a dedicated Route 3 traffic enforcement officer with a retrofitted, unmarked car, and he’s been busy.

So far in 2018, the number of citations for disobeying a traffic signal written by Columbia officers has increased 679 percent over 2017, while citations for driving while operating an electronic device have increased 317 percent. 

“What we really need to do is we need to educate the public and we need to correct the poor driving behavior. That’s what we’re looking to do,” Paul said.

By all accounts, IDOT has stepped up, meeting with Columbia officials multiple times and hiring an unbiased firm to conduct a longitudinal study of all of Route 3’s lighted intersections and the side streets that feed them. 

“They conducted a comprehensive study of all traffic on the corridor and side streets, not only (vehicle) movement but time of day,” said IDOT engineer Joe Monroe. “Each intersection has its own characteristics and we’re trying to make changes reflecting the need of each intersection.”

Monroe said another traffic factor IDOT is dealing with in Columbia is the growth in population and the resulting lengthened rush hour.

The complex changes to timing of the traffic lights on Route 3, which Monroe described as “involving every direction of every intersection” from North Main Street to South Main Street, will be closely watched, timed and evaluated over the next two weeks to determine their efficacy.

“I would say all the three changes are permanent but not etched in stone,” Monroe said.

He said changes proposed on paper, even when they result from a lengthy study, don’t always manifest as they are intended once in the real world, with traffic, drivers, school buses and more. 

He added that even with the changes to the light cycles, they will still operate in sequence, although it may take a bit of time and tweaking to get that synchronization back.

The real test, Monroe said, will be in two weeks, when the message signs come down and the changes aren’t new to the drivers anymore.

“You really won’t know if it will work for about four weeks,” Monroe said. “It’ll be an ongoing process.” 

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