From brighter signs to roundabouts, GF traffic planners follow standards to keep public safe
There’s a reason why stop signs in Grand Forks are the same red-and-white octagon as in every other city.
It’s federal traffic control standards, which are what dictate how streets, stoplights, signs and more are supposed to work in Grand Forks and across the country, said Jane Williams, the city’s traffic engineer.
Despite what residents or elected officials may request, Williams emphasized that she does not allow any traffic control changes in Grand Forks that don’t follow federal standards. When the public requests a change in streets or traffic control, Williams looks at the specific location — perhaps a sign or intersection — to see if a change is needed, she said.
“If anybody brings anything up to me, I go out and look at it,” she said, adding, “I have not put in any unwarranted traffic controls since I’ve been here.”
Reviewing a location may include taking a traffic count or seeing if the view of a driver is obstructed, she said.
Williams has a thick, heavy book handy on her desk in City Hall — a copy of the 2009 Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.
That most-recent set of federal traffic standards is put together by the U.S. Highway Administration, the American Traffic Safety Services Association and other national organizations.
The standards are updated as needed using several different studies that measure safety and incorporate new technology, Williams said.
“Traffic control devices are a living, breathing thing,” she said. “They’re constantly revising and updating it.”
One relatively recent change to those standards, which has since been changed on the streets of Grand Forks, is the reflectivity of signs, Williams said. In about 2008, several Grand Forks signs were replaced.
A reason for that change could be the country’s aging population, many of whom may not have been able to see the old signs as clearly as the new ones, Williams said.
An upcoming change in Grand Forks based on the federal standards is a roundabout at the intersection of South 34th Street and 40th Avenue South, which is scheduled to open today, she said.
Another roundabout is being installed on 24th Avenue South and South 34th Street, she said.
Another recent change is the yellow flashing arrows for left turns on South Washington Street, Williams said. The flashing arrows indicate those making left turns must yield, replacing the green circle in a stoplight.
By the federal standards, both roundabouts and flashing yellow left turn arrows are safer, Williams said.
In addition to following the federal standards, traffic controls and streets are planned by judging a city’s growth, said Earl Haugen, executive director for Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Metropolitan Planning Organization.
“In some regards, we’re reacting to growth,” he said.
For example, South 42nd Street was widened after the Alerus Center was built, in anticipation of the growth and added traffic the event center would bring, he said.
Another example is that South 48th Street was extended for an expansion to the Industrial Park, he said.
The MPO manages a long-range transportation plan for Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, including planning streets and traffic control.
There are some areas of the city that may technically not be updated by federal standards because the standards have changed since that street or intersection was first built, Williams said.
But she said she is not inclined to change something if there aren’t problems there. The federal guidelines also encourage local traffic engineers to use their judgment, she said.
For example, the intersection of Belmont Road and North Fifth Street has two adjacent stop signs, one yield sign and one direction with no traffic control.
When Williams first started at the city about seven years ago, she said it’s the first intersection she looked at.
She found there is not a higher number of accidents at that intersection, she said. “Those signs have been in place for years. It’s unusual, but if it’s working, we don’t change it.”
If anyone does see problems on any intersection or road in Grand Forks, Williams encourages them to contact her at (701) 787-3720.