Some Austin traffic signals are still dark, making intersections more dangerous
The ice is gone, and broken branches are being chainsawed to pieces. But another hazard still menaces people trying to move through Austin: dead traffic lights.
"I just took a chance on it," laughed Daniel Jones, who ran across a busy pedestrian crossing at South First Street and Stassney Lane on Friday afternoon. "It looks like everybody's looking out for everybody, though."
When traffic lights are out, drivers are supposed to treat the intersection like a four-way stop.
They often don't. Austin-Travis County EMS says the "vast majority" of crashes they're responding to are happening at intersections with no traffic lights. It's even worse at night, an EMS spokesperson said.
The Austin Police Department says no officers are available to direct traffic at busy intersections. An APD spokesperson said police are too busy responding to more serious calls.
The Austin Transportation Department doesn't know exactly how many stoplights aren't working. About half of the city's 1,050 traffic signals stopped communicating with Austin's traffic monitoring center.
Some of those traffic lights might still be working. But the city can't tell, because the digital communication path is linked in a series. One traffic signal communicates with the next and so on. So if a stoplight loses power, it cuts off communication with others further down the fiber-optic connection.
City employees are driving around and locating dark stoplights. As of Friday morning, they had counted 85 non-functioning lights. Brian Craig, a managing engineer with ATD, offered an "educated guess" that as many as 200 more could be dark.
The city has no estimate on when all traffic signals will start working again.
"That's all dependent on Austin Energy and when they get the [power] back online," Craig said.
When power comes back, traffic signals sometimes get stuck flashing red. Those signals need to be reset. Sometimes, the reset can be done remotely from the city's traffic monitoring center. At other times, the reset has to be done in person.
The seemingly random distribution of the power outages — based on which tree or branch fell on a power line — means it will take longer to reset traffic signals than it did after Winter Storm Uri in February 2021.
"Back then, it was very easy to make a a drive down corridors and reset 15 traffic signals," Craig said. "Now, we're finding situations where we need to make multiple visits to a corridor as power comes back up there. The outages [are] much smaller in nature, but there are a lot more of them."