Beacon gets smart lights, but T isn't along for the ride

Email|Print| Text size + By Julie Masis
Globe Correspondent / December 2, 2007

Stop lights are about to go high-tech on Beacon Street in Brookline. Local officials just wish they'd go a little further.

Twenty-one computerized traffic lights have been installed along Beacon Street, replacing mechanical traffic signals that were 25 to 40 years old. By early next month, the lights will be linked to an electronic sensor system that allows the duration of the signals to correspond to how long the line of cars is at an intersection.

According to Bill Smith, who manages the Beacon Street reconstruction project for the town, the system will reallocate time among traffic lights depending on pedestrian and vehicular demand.

The MBTA, however, is not investing in a technology to integrate the Green Line trolley into the new system. "The only thing not detected is the trolley," Smith said.

The MBTA could have invested in a device that allows traffic signals to recognize trolleys and give them higher priority, Smith said, such as extending green time to let a train get through when it's approaching, or switching the light to green when a trolley arrives.

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the T will not invest in trolley-recognition technology until Brookline provides the MBTA with a study that demonstrates how the T stands to benefit from it.

"The T asked the town for this information more than two years ago, and the T is still waiting for a response," Pesaturo wrote in an e-mail. "The T will not make a major investment before establishing all of the facts."

According to city officials, however, the MBTA simply was not interested in purchasing trolley-recognition devices for traffic lights.

"We gave them that option early on in the design process, and they opted not to select that," said the town's director of transportation, Peter Ditto. "My guess would be probably budgetary. They said they weren't interested."

The chairman of the town's Transportation Board, Michael Sandman, who describes himself as someone who "takes the T often enough to know how slow it is," called the MBTA's decision not to purchase the devices "surprising."

On a recent 18-minute C-line trip from St. Mary's Street to Cleveland Circle - a distance of 2 1/2 miles - the trolley stopped at seven traffic lights.

"It seems to me the one thing that would reduce traffic substantially [is] for more people to take the Green Line," Sandman said. "If the Green Line ran more quickly, more people would take the Green Line. It would have been a great idea."

The town remains interested in talking with the MBTA about the possibility of having such a system in the future. "I think it's just a matter of both parties sitting at the table and talking about the idea of trolley recognition and prioritization and whether that will be viable," Smith said.

Although the upgrade for signals will not make the T run faster, the $2.3 million spent on traffic lights will at least make Beacon Street safer.

Since the project began in the spring of last year, traffic signals have been added at Englewood Avenue, Williston Road and Tappan Street, Marion Street, Pleasant and Charles streets, as well as on Hawes Street. (These five intersections are part of the 21 computerized signals being installed along the street. The Hawes Street, Charles Street, and Pleasant Street signals have not been turned on.)

These signals, which replaced "stop" or "yield" signs, will make collisions between the trolley and motor vehicles less frequent, Smith said.

From 2003 to 2005, nine such collisions took place on Beacon Street, injuring six people, according to the most recent data available from the state Highway Department.

Five of the nine were at the intersection of Charles Street and Beacon, near Coolidge Corner. That's one of the locations where a new traffic signal will soon be turned on, replacing what used to be a "yield to the trolley" sign, Smith said.

This summer, a truck collided with a trolley near that area, causing three people to be hospitalized. Smith said he believes that collision would not have happened had the traffic light been in place.

A new signal also will begin working soon at Hawes Street, where, in January 2003, a train collided with a car. That signal will allow for the relocation of the outbound U-turn from Carlton Street, where one person was injured in December 2003 when a trolley collided with a car.

A new format of indicating "stop" and "go" signals for trolley drivers is also making Beacon Street safer, officials said. Trolley signals are now specified with horizontal and vertical white lines. In the past, green and red lights were used for trolleys as well as cars, and drivers sometimes mistook them for their own signals, Ditto said.

Despite improved safety features, however, not everyone is happy.

"My opinion," said 29-year-old Brookline resident Kelly Robinson, "is that there are too many lights on Beacon Street. The T has to stop way too many times now. Now there is a stop light every 100 yards, it seems."

Former selectwoman Ronny Sydney said she has mixed feelings about the traffic light that was installed near her home at the corner of Marion Street - replacing a stop sign.

"I think you have to wait too long to cross Beacon Street," she said.

"That line is backed up so long on Marion Street that sometimes you have to wait two light cycles to get through. So it's faster for me to go the other way."

Sydney acknowledged, however, that a man in his 90s was hit by a car while crossing the street at that intersection before the traffic light was in place. The car crushed the legs of the man, who died shortly thereafter, Sydney said.

"It would not have happened if there was a traffic light there."

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