Why are Burlington traffic lights not working properly?

QUESTION: Why do the traffic signals in Burlington seem to be out of order increasingly often?

ANSWER: The traffic signals in Burlington aren’t some wag’s idea of a “faith-based” initiative, even if a few area drivers have come to suspect that the whole system operates on little more than a wing and a prayer.

It is true, however, that the city’s signal lights have recently undergone more than their usual share of maintenance work – albeit for reasons that city officials insist have nothing to do with the functionality of the equipment itself.

According to Brian Tennent, the city’s transportation engineering and operations manager, the city is currently in the midst of a wholesale upgrade of its traffic signals that has necessitated some interruptions in their regular operations.

“We are going through a signal system upgrade so we are having problems that arise when you’re going from older equipment to newer equipment,” Tennant explained, “and if a contractor is actually out there installing new equipment, there can be times when [the light] is in flash [mode].”

This upgrade, which originally received the blessing of Burlington’s city council in 2017, is actually far more involved than just changing out a few colored lights. A joint venture between the city and the N.C. Department of Transportation, this project will ultimately see new “control assemblies” go up at over 200 state-maintained intersections. Also in the offing are closed circuit cameras at 10 intersections and the installation of hundreds of yards of new fiber optic cables to improve the operations of the city’s traffic lights.

This entire endeavor was expected to cost something in the vicinity of $12.7 million when it was originally presented to Burlington’s city council four years ago. The city’s share of the tab was nevertheless set at just over $1 million, with federal funds accounting for a substantial part of the balance.

Although this project was originally slated for completion in 2020, Tennent conceded that it may be another six months before the contractors have installed all the equipment that the upgrade demands. At that point, inspectors will go over a punch list before they sign off on the improvements – and give the proverbial green light to the city’s newly modernized traffic signals.

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