Responding to complaints from frustrated commuters, Palo Alto is in the midst of replacing and coordinating the traffic lights on Embarcadero Road, next to Palo Alto High School and Town & Country Village.
The project aims to address one of the city's most significant and persistent traffic snarls. But what makes this location different from other heavily congested corridors is the preponderance of traffic signals already at the site.
Currently, commuters heading east from El Camino Real have to navigate past three traffic lights all within 750 feet of each other: the light at El Camino and Embarcadero, the one near the Paly driveway and a third one near Trader Joe's.
People have complained for years about there being too many signals and the signals' poor coordination. The one on El Camino is operated by the state Department of Transportation while the other two, despite their proximity, operate independent of each other, according to a February report from the Palo Alto Department of Planning and Community Environment. During busy commute hours, the chain of lights often leaves cars lingering for five to 10 minutes between the school and the Stanford University campus.
To address the problems, the city analyzed alternatives and signed a $275,000 contract (which includes a $25,000 contingency budget) in February with the firm St. Francis Electric to make the needed fixes.
Now, instead of two separate systems controlling the Town & Country and Palo Alto High School signals, there will be one.
In addition, the traffic signal at the shopping-center exit near Trader Joe's, which currently directs when cars at the exit can turn right onto Embarcadero, will be removed. A stop sign will be installed, and cars exiting there will turn right when safe.
An existing crosswalk across Embarcadero, also at the Trader Joe's exit, will remain. Pedestrians will be able to signal that they're waiting to cross, and the newly synchronized signals at the Town & Country and Paly exits will halt the necessary traffic so that walkers and bicyclists can cross Embarcadero.
Additional problems that have been caused by poor roadway planning will be addressed by restriping. Among them, a portion of Embarcadero will be restriped to create a wider turning radius for cars exiting the Paly driveway and heading east on Embarcadero.
The work to synchronize the traffic signals has already caused some driving disruptions as contractors replaced the traffic poles, with some commuters reporting longer-than-usual delays on Embarcadero. More commuting hiccups are sure to come in the weeks ahead, as the new electronic equipment installed and the re-striping commences. This will mean shifts in lanes and sidewalk detours, according to the city.
Holly Boyd, senior engineer in the Public Works Department, said it will take about a day to install the new traffic-signal controller, the computer that contains the electronic equipment needed to operate the lights. During that day, the traffic signals will be turned off and temporarily replaced with stop signs. Boyd said the city is still working with St. Francis Electric to pin down the time when this work would be done to minimize disruptions.
The city plans to complete the project by mid-August and to have the new synchronized lights up and running before Aug. 17, the first day of the new school year.
"We want to be done with this before school starts," Boyd said.