Traffic light upgrades bring boost to accessibility

Ken Kellar

Anyone travelling down part of Scott Street in the past week is likely to have noticed a change.
Yellow boxes have been unveiled along the downtown intersections featuring a push button for pedestrian crossing.

But the town’s Operations and Facilities manager Travis Rob says the buttons are just the visible addition for a much bigger upgrade.

“The buttons on Scott Street, that was actually a secondary thing,” Rob said.

“What we were doing, primarily, was replacing the traffic signal controllers.”

The controllers are the machinery which, as might be guessed by the name, control the operation of the traffic signals, dictating the order and length of each individual light at an intersection. Rob noted that most of the traffic light controllers in town are in bad shape.

“Controllers throughout town are all the same age and they’re all well beyond their service life,” Rob said.

“I’m sure lots of people within the Town of Fort Frances have noticed that, particularly over the last six months, they’ve been flashing more than they have in years past, so they’re starting to show that they’re susceptible to their age.”

The repairs are costly, but part of upgrading the machinery means there’s other work that needs to be done as well.

“Under the accessibility laws, any time we undertake an upgrade or reconstruction of an intersection, we have to bring it to current standards for accessibility,” Rob said.

“Right along with that is the need to have the pedestrian push buttons. So the new controller cabinets allow for that to be programmed in, the old ones do not, they don’t have the intelligence for that.”

Rob referred back to the tactile surfaces that were installed on some sidewalks as an additional example of the accessibility updates.

The new pedestrian crossing buttons have an audio and touch component that add extra level of accessibility to crossing the street.

“Basically, how they work is they have a chirp that plays all the time,” Rob explained.

“When you push the button, they make a specific noise and they vibrate to let you know they have initiated a call. When the signal changes from the ‘don’t walk’ to ‘walk,’ they make a different noise and they vibrate a different pattern to let someone who is of visual or hearing impairment know that that signal has changed and it is now safe for them to walk.”

This year is the second year that town crews have been upgrading the intersections in Fort Frances, with the intersection at Kings Highway and Keating Avenue serving as a pilot project last year.

The buttons work on wireless technology, which meant the town wanted to be sure they could function properly before rolling them out to other intersections.

However, Rob also pointed out that the King’s Highway-Keating crossing gained an additional, and thus far unique, feature.

“The other thing we did there was we installed vehicle detection equipment,” he explained.

“So you’ll notice if you’re driving through town that that intersection, the through lanes–King’s Highway–that light stays green until the cameras detect a car on Keating Ave., which then would initiate a change in the signals. Or, a pedestrian pushes the push buttons.”

While the intersections along Scott Street and at Portage Ave. didn’t receive the cameras, Rob said that they were instead outfitted with GPS technology, which will help the town synchronize the traffic signals along Scott Street in the future to help make traffic flow more efficiently along the whole corridor.

“It’s a little bit different technology, not nearly as costly,” Rob said.

“But again, just trying to bring things up to newer standards and utilize some of the newer technology to help with traffic flows through town.”

Cost is an ever-present issue for municipalities, and Rob noted that those costs will prevent the town from getting these upgrades done as quickly as they would like.

“Some of the installations are going to be very, very costly due to the upgrade and for the pedestrian buttons and the upgrades relating to the accessibility,” he explained.

“It’s going to require us to do some infrastructure work, to get some cabling and poles placed for those push buttons, so those are going to be very costly intersections to do.”

The upside to that, Rob said, is that the town now has some spare parts to use on the controllers that haven’t yet been updated, something that was becoming a concern as the controllers got older and older.

“That was one of our biggest issues,” he said.

“The controllers that we had were so old that it’s not even a matter of ‘phone up the supplier and get some replacement parts,’ there are no replacement parts. We were in a very vulnerable situation if something were to happen. Now we have some replacement parts.”

“However, the fact of the matter is these controllers are almost ten years beyond their expected service life.” Rob continued.

“It’s a bit of a dicey situation, because you’re spending a lot on callouts to do repairs to the lights when they go out, but they cost a lot to replace as well.”

Rob noted the upgrades are being paid for with money from the town’s reserves, as they haven’t received any infrastructure grants related to the traffic lights.