Iowa's 2nd largest city says goodbye to downtown traffic lights

Officials looking to create 'low-speed urban environment'

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Iowa’s second largest city is ditching all but a few of the traffic lights in its downtown.

On Tuesday, cranes lowered lights and poles, while crews dismantled eye-level wiring boxes along Second Avenue SE at the intersection with Fifth Street SE. Stop signs will be placed on Second to allow traffic on Fifth to flow freely.

“One of the things we are trying to create is a low-speed urban environment,” said Matt Myers, a Cedar Rapids traffic engineer.

This is one of 12 downtown intersections slated to lose traffic signals over a four-year period.

Eight signal removals are planned for this year — on Second Avenue SE at Second, Third, Fifth, Seventh, Eighth and 13th streets SE and on First Street SW at Second and Third avenues SW — and another two next year on Third Avenue SE. Two- and four-way stop signs will be used instead to control the intersections. Signals on First Street SE at the intersections with Second and Third avenues SE, near the new CRST Center, were removed in 2015, Myers said.

Traffic signal removals are another sign of a changing atmosphere in downtown Cedar Rapids. Once cramped with traffic from industry and motorists getting from one side of the city to the other, now a different mix of users occupy the space. There’s much less traffic, Myers said.

Second Avenue SE, for example, only sees 2,000 to 3,000 vehicles per day, Myers said.

“The traffic volumes don’t justify traffic signals,” Myers said. “The volumes are so low, the signals cause more delays than they prevent.”

Most signals being removed were due for updating, which could cost $200,000 per intersection, and annual maintenance costs around $10,000 a year each, he said. So, removing the signals should save some money, he said. Newer signals along Second Avenue at Seventh and Eighth Street SE were installed in 2012, and the infrastructure will be saved and reused, he said.

Traffic signal removals are part of a larger project to change traffic patterns from one-way streets to two-ways in the downtown. Other aspects of the project include a “road diet” on Second Avenue, in which there’s one lane in each direction, bike lanes on the outside of the lanes and parking. Currently, there’s three lanes of one-way travel and parking.

At intersections, the curbs will be bumped out creating a shorter crossing distance for pedestrians, and curb ramps also will be modified to become accessible for those with disabilities. Pavement also will be resurfaced, Myers said.

Removing the signals will improve traffic flow, support the vibrancy of the downtown by making it more user-friendly for cyclists and pedestrians, and enhance aesthetics, Myers said. Reducing travel lanes will help calm traffic, making the downtown safer and better balanced for the different uses, Myers said.

“It think it looks much better, a cleaner, newer look,” Myers said of removing the signals. “It opens it up.”

Traffic signal removal should be completed this week along Second at intersections with Second, Third and Fifth streets SE. The rest of the work on Second Avenue SE is slated for completion in spring 2018. The full program of converting downtown streets from one-way to two-way, along with railroad crossing arms along the Fourth Street SE rail corridor is slated for completion by the end of 2019.

Work along Second Avenue SE — from May’s Island to Eighth Street SE and from 12th to 19th streets SE — costs about $1.27 million. For just the traffic signals, the cost is $5,000 to $10,000 per signal to remove, Myers said.

Frequenters of the downtown on Tuesday had some skepticism about the traffic changes, but agreed it could be a good thing after some getting used to.

“I am a little freaked out about it,” said Jacob Cowger, owner of Balloons Etc. and the Costume Emporium, which is near the corner of Second Avenue and Fifth Street SE. “I’m afraid there’s going to be a lot of crashes.”

Erin Horst, 34, of Cedar Rapids, works in the downtown and over her lunch break walks to her child’s day care for a visit. She questioned whether pedestrians would have a more precarious time crossing the street without the protection of a traffic light. On the other hand, she could see the benefits from the perspective of a motorist.

“Especially in the morning, you can be sitting there at a red light for a while and no one is coming,” she said.

For more information about traffic pattern changes in Cedar Rapids go to cityofcr.com/conversions

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

Signal removals

Here is a snapshot of signal removals planned in downtown Cedar Rapids:

Second Avenue SE in 2017

• Second Street SE (Second Avenue becomes through-street and will not stop for cross traffic)

• Third Street SE (Third Street becomes through-street and will not stop for cross traffic)

• Fifth Street SE (Fifth Street becomes through-street and will not stop for cross traffic)

• Seventh Street SE (Seventh Street becomes through-street and will not stop for cross traffic)

• Eighth Street SE (Eighth Street becomes through-street and will not stop for cross traffic)

• 13th Street SE (intersection to operate as four-way stop)

First Street SW in 2017

• Second Avenue SW (intersection to operate as four-way stop)

• Third Avenue SW (intersection to operate as four-way stop)

Third Avenue SE in 2018

• Third Street SE (intersection to operate as four-way stop)

• Fifth Street SE (Third Avenue becomes through-street)

Stephen Schmidt / The Gazette / The Gazette

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