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Three Hastings intersections on list for new traffic light

There's a new traffic signal to learn. Approved for use by the Federal government this year, flashing yellow arrows are already beginning to appear at the front of left-turn lanes in the metro area. Hastings City Council member Joe Balsanek recently asked for the lights at three local intersections: on Highway 55 at Pleasant, General Sieben and Westview drives.

"What I noticed is you end up sitting at the left turn signal an awful long time waiting to make your turn," Balsanek said.

Even if there are no other vehicles at the intersection, drivers still have to wait for the left arrow to turn green before they can make their turn.

"I'm sure there's a lot of frustration with that," Balsanek said, and that frustration can turn into a temptation to move through before the signal changes.

Flashing yellow arrows are a new method of signaling drivers that they can make a left turn through an intersection when there are gaps in oncoming traffic. Intersections getting new turn signal equipment are being equipped with these new signals, said Kevin Schwartz, a signal operations engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

The Federal government had conducted a study on left turns that determined a flashing yellow arrow is the safest and best understood, Schwartz said.

There are three main operations when it comes to left turn signals. A protected left-turn uses a signal with three colored arrows - red, yellow and green - and drivers are only allowed to turn left when the green arrow is lit. A protected permissive turn has a five-section signal with red, yellow and green balls and a yellow and green arrow. In this situation, drivers can turn on either the green ball if there's no oncoming traffic, or the green arrow. Permissive left turns have no arrow signals, and are reserved for low-volume intersections.

Flashing yellow arrows will be housed in a four-section signal with solid red, yellow and green arrows, and the flashing yellow arrow between the yellow and green.

Why change

The key feature of the new signals is their versatility.

"The flashing arrow head will allow us to change phasing by time of day," Schwartz said.

That's what makes it an appealing option for busy intersections along Highway 55. Left turns could be protected during peak hours of traffic flow, such as in the morning and afternoon rush hours, and then switched to permissive during low-traffic periods. That way, drivers wouldn't have to wait so long at a red arrow when there's no traffic.

Being able to change how the signals operate during the day also allows changes and control if traffic studies after installation show a need for further adjustments. The intersections would be monitored for crashes, and if there are too many crashes, they can change the light to make the intersection safer.

"The nice thing is, it's a variable operation, so we can change it," Schwartz said.

When councilmember Joe Balsanek raised the issue, it traveled to Schwartz's desk, and he's since added the three Hastings intersections to a list for potential candidates to be retrofitted with the new signals.

While they're on the list, there's no saying how soon new signals could be installed.

"We're not ready right now to retrofit signals," Schwartz said.

Before this, Mn/DOT hasn't had any control cabinets that can adjust according to time of day, Schwartz said. The signal controller is already fairly complex, and they're not sure yet how to add a new component.

"Those are all details we just don't have ready right now," Schwartz said.

Requests such as Hastings' are coming in from all over the metro area, he said, so he's keeping a list so that when more is known, he can start working with cities more quickly.

"As soon as we do get ready and we get some criteria for what types of things are needed... I have some ideas for good locations that would warrant looking at," he said.

It may take some time, but the changes will come.

"Eventually, all the left-turn signal heads will be flashing yellow arrows," he said.

There are about 670 turn signals in the metro area, he said, and "just about all of them would benefit from the flashing yellow arrows."

Cost is another unknown, from the price tag to who's responsible for paying for it. Mn/DOT won't pay the full cost, so some arrangements will have to be made for sharing that cost with cities or counties in which the intersections are situated, and it could be expensive, Schwartz said.

Balsanek expects that even if the city has to chip in for the upgrades, it's a worth-while cost.

"My feeling is that the public will appreciate it even if we have to pay a little extra for it," he said.

The first permanent flashing yellow arrow was installed earlier this year in Woodbury on Manning Avenue. When the lights come to Hastings, Balsanek said he hopes drivers will pay attention and be careful, since it will be a traffic control change.

"I think everybody is sophisticated enough in the area that they'll be responsible," he said.