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Originally published Monday, April 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Bumper to Bumper

Some drivers see red over light rail's impact on traffic lights

Q: What is Link light rail doing to the traffic lights along its route?

Seattle Times staff reporter

Dear Reader

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E-mail bumper@seattletimes.com or call Charles E. Brown at 206-464-2206. Please include both your name and city if you agree to publication.

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Q: What is Link light rail doing to the traffic lights along its route? So many readers have asked the question.

Light rail isn't scheduled to go public until July. But Sound Transit, the agency overseeing light-rail service, has been taking the trains through paces, testing the system.

That may be well and good. But Rick Hogan says light rail is already messing with traffic flow in South Seattle.

"Recently I was at a red light waiting to make a left turn off of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South onto South Graham Street," he said. "When the light was just about to turn green for the left turn, the light-rail train came through the intersection heading south and the light instead stayed red.

"I waited for another light cycle, and again just as it was to turn green for the left turn, another light-rail [train] came through, this time heading north."

That triggered another cancellation of his left turn, he said. "I had to wait through three light cycles before I could make my left turn."

Meanwhile, traffic was backing up behind him. The light stays green only long enough for five cars to make the turn, he said. "Will this be the norm when light rail starts this summer?"

He's not alone in lamenting the future of lights and light rail.

John Shafer, who works at a middle school on South Graham Street just east of MLK Way, also wrote to complain about the east-west traffic backup.

And, noted another reader, Dondi May: "I have seen cars take some unbelievable chances because the lights stay green for such a short time and are few and far between.

"Many cars continue on past the yellow and some have been left right on the middle of the tracks.

"How many accidents will happen because these lights are timed so poorly that people feel the need to risk their lives?"

A: The Seattle Transportation Department's signal-operations manager, Brian Kemper, says the timing of signals along the light-rail route are being adjusted to work in coordination with the trains. The goal, he said, is for trains to travel from station to station without stopping.

The trains get priority at intersections with signals, but Kemper says the city is working to strike a balance between all users of the roadways.

Traffic-signal equipment is supposed to keep track of the waiting vehicles and pedestrians. Train operators will have the ability to interrupt signal cycles to allow trains to stay on schedule.

And on occasion, said Kemper, a train may be stopped at a signal to allow waiting vehicles and pedestrians to proceed.

"It is important to note," he said, "that what you are witnessing during this testing period will not necessarily occur when the trains are running on a regular schedule."

He said the Transportation Department has received numerous comments about the interaction of trains, vehicles and pedestrians. "We ask for patience as we continue to adjust the signal operations."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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