What if there were a change we could make that would all at the same time reduce our dependence upon foreign oil, help clean up our air, increase gas mileage for all of our vehicles, reduce traffic congestion as well as the time it would take us to get from here to there, and be relatively easy and cheap to bring into effect? Would you be interested? Because such a program exists: synchronize our traffic signals!

  What does that mean? We could coordinate our traffic signals so that if cars go at a posted fixed speed the traffic lights will turn green for them as they approach each intersection on designated main thoroughfare streets.  

  One of the biggest frustrations in driving is continually being forced to stop at traffic signals while driving on our city streets. Just as your traffic light finally turns green and you again get underway, the light at the next corner about 75 yards ahead of you turns yellow and then red. And so you stop. Again. This of course delays your progress and significantly decreases your gas mileage. Furthermore, it is the starting and stopping of motor vehicles that causes a large part of our air pollution. But the technology to synchronize our traffic signals has existed for years.  

How do I know? In 1957 our family took a vacation to New York City. On several main streets our taxi drivers were able to adjust their speed to the 30 miles per hour speed limit, and all of the signals turned green just as we were about to enter the intersections. When asked why they were so lucky, the taxi drivers told us that if they drove at the posted speed the signals were set so that we would not have to stop.  

  So I spoke to some people in the office of the traffic engineers for both the Cities of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa to ask them why we do not have a similar program. They all responded that we actually do. The traffic lights are already synchronized on many of their city’s main streets.  

But they said we have problems that cause the programs not to work well. One of the problems is pedestrians. When pedestrians push the button for the signals to allow them to “walk,” the synchronization system for through traffic takes about seven minutes to recover. Of course, by that time another pedestrian will likely have pushed another button, so the program mostly is undone. Other problems are caused by city buses stopping to pick up and discharge passengers, which hinders the normal flow of traffic, vehicles entering and exiting from driveways along the streets, and the non-uniformity of distances between intersections. But I think New York had pedestrians, city buses, irregular distance between cross streets and cars entering from driveways back in 1957, and their program seemed to work just fine.

  So what is the remedy? How can we get this system to work? All of these officials said it will take money to upgrade their systems. But the money exists. It comes from Measure M, and is controlled by the Orange County Transit Authority. How the money is used is simply a question of priorities. There is also an additional $435 million of Measure M money that has been earmarked for signal synchronization. But that money will not be available until 2011, and already the program is mired in controversy as to what agency will “oversee” or control that large amount of money.

  But funding aside, the biggest roadblock to the effectiveness of the synchronization plans is CalTrans, because that agency controls all of the streets and traffic signals that approach and lead away from freeways. And CalTrans does not generally coordinate the signals it controls with the ones controlled by the cities. An example of this problem is found on Newport Boulevard by Triangle Square at the end of the 55 Freeway. As a result, the cities’ plans are foiled.  

  In my view this is silly, unnecessary and wasteful. The CalTrans engineer told me that the problem is that the system is over capacity. But in my view there is no reason in today’s world when we purport to be concerned about our dependence upon foreign oil, the undue pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels, and the amount of hours that are literally wasted in traffic for this problem not to be addressed and overcome.  

So in this, like in all of the other issues raised in this column, it is your and my responsibility to make the system work! So please join me in contacting CalTrans, the OCTA and your elected representatives and demanding that they work on and resolve this problem long before 2011. And remember the next time you are jammed in traffic at another red light on a main street that part of the reason this problem is continuing is because you have not taken the time to make that phone call.  

By the way, when you call the people at CalTrans, the OCTA and your elected representatives, why don’t you also ask them why they cannot install a program that cancels the signal to change the traffic light for a car that has already turned right after stopping for a red traffic light? And maybe you can even ask them why they cannot put some form of indication on freeway onramp signs as to whether the entrance to the freeway is on the right hand or the left hand side of the road?

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)