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Countdown to safer crosswalks

Crosswalk signals at the intersection of South 314th Street and 23rd Avenue South show a red flashing hand before they begin to countdown, from 13 to 0, how many seconds pedestrians have remaining to cross the street. - Jacinda Howard/The Mirror
Crosswalk signals at the intersection of South 314th Street and 23rd Avenue South show a red flashing hand before they begin to countdown, from 13 to 0, how many seconds pedestrians have remaining to cross the street.
— image credit: Jacinda Howard/The Mirror

"Wait," says a male voice loudly.

Seconds pass before the voice announces "walk sign." Large, red numbers begin to count down, from 13 to 0, the time remaining for pedestrians to cross the street.

Over the next three years, likely beginning in 2008, Federal Way plans to install timed crosswalk signals at major intersections within the city, City Traffic Engineer Rick Perez said. The signals will provide pedestrians with a tool to determine how quickly they will need to cross the street. While the City Council has identified the signals as beneficial to the city's residents, a budget for their installation has not yet been determined.

In late May, Federal Way resident Betty Taylor visited Washington, D.C. She walked the city's streets and marveled at its attractions, but the site that stuck with her most was not the Lincoln Memorial, Capitol building or any of the city's other historic monuments.

Taylor was captivated by the timed crosswalk signals. She took such fancy to the signals that on June 5, she went before the Federal Way City Council to suggest they be placed at Federal Way crosswalks.

Now, Taylor's request will be fulfilled. On Sept. 4, the City Council approved a plan to retrofit 37 — slightly more than half — of the city's current crosswalk signals with timed crosswalk signals.

The timed signals will be placed at all intersections in which a pedestrian is required to cross six or more lanes to reach the other side of the street, said Street Systems Manager Marwan Salloum. Many of these intersections are along main arterial roads, such as Pacific Highway South and South 320th Street.

"This feature works very well where you have a wide roadway," Salloum said.

The city will complete the retrofitting in about three years, Salloum said, with work spread out over that time period. Intersections that experience a high volume of pedestrian traffic — especially from the elderly, numerous transit stops, school bus stops and those in close proximity to a public park — are the city's top priority, Perez said.

If the list is followed, the first signal will be installed at 11th Place South and South 324th Street, Perez said. To keep costs at a minimum, the priority list may be slightly altered if maintenance crews are already working at an intersection on the list, he said.

The total estimated cost for this project is about $111,000, Salloum said. The cost to install timed signals at each intersection is about $3,000, he said. The city plans to replace an average of 12 signals per year, which will cost about $37,000 annually for three years, Salloum said.

At this time a budget does not exist for this project, but it will be considered in the city's mid-biennium budget adjustment, Perez said.

Old idea resurfaces

Timed crosswalk signals are not a new idea in Federal Way.

Two years ago, the city placed these signals at the intersection of 23rd Avenue South and South 314th Street. It also agreed that timed crosswalk signals would be inserted at all new traffic signal-controlled intersections with a crosswalk, Salloum said.

The city also agreed to replace old, broken and deteriorated crosswalk signals with new timed signals, he said. But the council stopped short of committing to replace existing working crosswalk signals with timed signals. City staff and the council showed a renewed interest in the timed crosswalk signals after Taylor made her comments at a city council meeting.

The existing crosswalk signals are slightly ambiguous in their message. A red hand appears on the crosswalk sign and begins flashing a few seconds after pedestrians are signaled to cross the street.

Many pedestrians are unaware of how long they will have to finish crossing, Salloum said.

"It gives you 10 seconds and then it changes and you have to start thinking about running," Taylor said.

The public generally knows that the flashing red hand means the opposing traffic signal will soon change, Public Works director Cary Roe said at the June 5 City Council meeting.

However, Roe was unsure if pedestrians realized that the flashing hand's purpose is not to relay to pedestrians that they have run out of time to complete their crossing, but rather to signal that other pedestrians should no longer begin crossing.

The new devices will relieve some of the confusion experienced by those crossing Federal Way's wide roadways, Salloum said. Pedestrians will be aware of how many seconds remain until traffic begins crossing their path, he said.

Federal Way drivers are in a hurry and pedestrians have to watch out for themselves as they cross the streets, Taylor said. She is thrilled that the Federal Way City Council listened to her and took her comments seriously.

"When I went to the City Council meeting, I just couldn't picture our city not copying what Washington, D.C., did," Taylor said.

Contact Jacinda Howard: jhoward@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

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