Seattle traffic lights in bad shape, not timed properly, report says

SEATTLE -- Seattle drivers might be spending more time behind the wheel than they should due to an aging traffic light system. A new audit says most of the city’s traffic lights are in bad shape, not timed properly and could fail at any time.

The city is stuck dealing with traffic lights that use technology that’s nearly 30 years old.

And the Seattle Department of Transportation chief says updating the system could cost tens of millions of dollars.

“If this was a tank," frustrated driver Silvia Knopp said of her vehicle, "I’d make my own road.”

Knopp, who drives through downtown Seattle, said, "It’s horrible. During rush hour, maybe five cars get through in the middle of downtown.”

Currently, the city re-times traffic lights every few days – but that system isn’t nearly as fast or as accurate as it could be. And SDOT says it’s time for a major overhaul of the system.

“It’s an investment other cities have made and we should be there given our tremendous economic potential,” said Peter Hahn with SDOT.

The report says 70% of all city traffic lights have at least one part in poor condition, and engineers only have the resources to fix them after they break.

At 35th Avenue at  Fauntleroy Way in West Seattle, a frayed wire led to repeated blackouts of the traffic light, which caused massive backups.

It happens all over the city all the time and it’s a serious safety issue for pedestrians, too.

Jackie Austin doesn’t drive but she worries she could get run over during the next signal failure.

“I could be going across the street and someone not see me, the signals aren’t working and be accidentally hit or something,” said Austin.

Over at the Seattle Integrated Martial Arts studio, the traffic light problem is affecting business.

“We see that and we hear that being located here,” said owner Bob Heinemann. “People have a hard time sometimes getting to where they are.“

Plus, the audit shows if the city doesn’t do something fast, drivers will see heavier congestion and likely more accidents, which could end up costing taxpayers even more money in court.

“Whatever the cost to fix that versus the potential litigation for somebody getting into an accident seems like a pretty obvious choice,” added Heinemann.

Replacing the city’s entire traffic light system won’t happen overnight, but SDOT says they need to get a green light soon.

In the meantime, SDOT may start putting up signs directing drivers to less congested areas.