Why school zones no longer have flashing signals in Cedar Rapids

Outdated technology, upgrade costs at issue

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Yellow, flashing traffic signals warning motorists to slow down around schools in Cedar Rapids have been removed after the technology that allows them to operate unexpectedly became obsolete.

It’s unclear if the signals will return in the future.

Cedar Rapids invested $250,000 in proceeds from speed and red light cameras in 2012 to install 37 yellow, flashing signals and more than 700 new signs near schools to reduce confusion for drivers and make enforcement easier. Instead of “When Children are Present,” new signs stated “When Flashing” to indicate when the 25 mph school speed limit was in effect.

This spring, system vendor JSF Technologies notified city officials the 2G data communication network supporting the solar-powered flashers would be turned off by Jan. 1, 2017. In July, city officials learned the system had already gone dark, a few weeks before the new school year.

“The whole thing was a surprise,” said Matt Myers, a Cedar Rapids traffic engineer. “We thought we had until January and instead they were off by July. We had a month to scramble and get it done. I think it caught the vendor off guard, too.”

With the new school year approaching and the flashers out of commission, city officials acted quickly to post a wave of new signs establishing school speed zones police can enforce.

To make the signs enforceable, however, Cedar Rapids City Council must update its municipal code to reflect the changes. In the first of three readings, the council voted unanimously in favor of that plan last week. The two additional votes are likely to take place in October.

The change included removing flashing lights at 15 sites on streets near schools. “When Flashing” plaques under the 25 mph speed limit signs were replaced with plaques noting a time period specific for each school — such as 7 to 9 a.m. and 1:15 to 4:30 p.m., Monday to Friday. The cost for the changes was $1,000.

Schools affected include those in the College Community School District, Cedar Rapids School District, Xavier High School, Cedar Valley Christian School, All Saints Elementary, Bowman Woods Elementary, St. Jude’s Elementary and LaSalle Middle School.

Marcia Hughes, a spokeswoman for the Cedar Rapids School District, said word from city officials is that the flashing lights resulted in no improvements in school zones, but she did not respond to whether school district officials feel zones are any more or less safe or if they think the flashing lights are needed.

Nick Ireland, a spokesman for Xavier, said the district has received no feedback from families or students, and officials see only minimal concerns from the loss of flashing lights.

Myers and his colleague John Witt, a fellow traffic engineer, said research finds “no practical difference” in vehicle speeds and adherence to school speed limit zones with or without flashing lights.

“In most instances there really is no difference in compliance,” Witt said.

One downside of the loss of flashing lights is the ability to customize when the speed zones are in effect, such as for an evening event or a weather delay when students may be arriving later or leaving earlier than the posted times on the signs, Myers said.

Before last week’s vote, some city council members raised questions about whether the city should have paid to update the signals.

“If we are talking about 40 flashers and retrofits and data updates per year we are talking about pennies,” council member Susie Weinacht said. “So for me, you also talked about enforcement, which is important, but the No. 1 priority is safety. I didn’t see data that convinced me we are better off without the flashers.”

Installing a new flashing light system from scratch would cost up to $150,000, according to city officials. The 19 primary flashing lights could have been retrofit to handle a 4G signal for $17,000, along with a $2,300 to $6,700 annual user fee, which was not previously charged. Myers said the city also explored a flashing light system based on a time clock rather than one dependent on data communication, which would cost $19,000.

Council member Scott Overland thought it made sense to pay for the retrofit.

“If we made that initial investment in 2012, to me for the additional cost and on an annual basis, it seems to make sense to continue to update it on a long-term basis so that if in the long run we are considering going back to flashers we don’t have to reinvest in the whole system,” Overland said.

City officials met with schools in August about the changes, but the schools did not indicate interest in sharing the cost, Myers said. Given the timing of the system becoming obsolete, the school year approaching and budget constraints, the department decided the best choice was installing the new signs.

“The way the budget cycle is, it’s just bad timing,” Myers said.

The soonest the city would reconsider flashing signals is during planning for the fiscal 2018 budget year, he said. That budget is typically approved in March and the fiscal year begins July 1.

When asked whether the loss of flashing lights has created any public safety issues, Cedar Rapids police spokesman Greg Buelow provided the following statement:

“The police department will continue to work with traffic engineering and their recommendations as both departments have a goal of safe school zones,” he wrote in an email. “Officers often patrol school zones and we continue concerted efforts to educate both motorists and students of the importance of slowing down in school zones, using appropriate crosswalks and being aware of school arrival and dismissal times with the increase in both foot and vehicle traffic.”

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