Morning, noon and night, motorists line up to watch a repeating cycle of green, yellow and red.
During peak traffic hours, agitated drivers stack up for blocks in every direction from the traffic light on
Hitt Road and 17th Street.
“It’s atrocious,” Brian Wright said.
Wright, 40, of Idaho Falls, said his all-too-frequent interactions with the sluggish intersection leave him frustrated.
“There’s times where I honestly think it has taken eight to 10 minutes to get through the light,” he said.
Wright’s not alone. The light has become a notorious stone wall to drivers.
The Transportation Research Board rates traffic signals with “A” through “F” grades through its Highway Capacity Manual — an “A” rating means an average delay time of fewer than 10 seconds, while an “F” signals a delay of 80 seconds or more.
Idaho Falls City Engineer Kent Fugal said the city is looking at lowering the cycle length, but any changes would need changes to the roads. Those changes likely are not imminent, he said.
Larry White, traffic engineer for Six Mile Engineering in Meridian, did a 2009 traffic study of the intersection. The average delay in the evening peak hours was 134 seconds, he said, nearly a minute past the cutoff for a F rating.
“Some vehicles might wait five or six minutes,” he said. “As far as Idaho Falls, that was the worst we analyzed in the city.”
With growth, White said the situation likely is worse today than it was in 2009.
The signal’s cycle time changes based on the time of day, said Jackie Flowers, general manager for Idaho Falls Power. The utility sets the signal times and performs maintenance.
From 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. the cycle length is 120 seconds and from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. the cycle is 150 seconds long, Flowers said.
“That’s the heaviest used signal in the region,” said Ben Burke, District 6 traffic engineer for the Idaho Transportation Department.
Most traffic lights in the area use cameras that send a signal to change the light when there is a gap in traffic, Burke said. Because there rarely is a gap in traffic at Hitt Road and 17th Street, the light runs a longer cycle that is unable to operate in sync with other signals.
The great wait
Steve Shelton, 34, drives through the area frequently to visit his mother, who lives east of the intersection. Although he’s looked for ways to avoid it, that’s nearly impossible because his mother’s residence is so close to the intersection.
“I usually wait like five minutes every time, it seems like,” Shelton said. “It’s kind of annoying.”
Possible changes are being considered, Fugal said, such as adding two left-turn bays in each direction and trying to put in more right-turn lanes where possible. Once the street is equipped to handle a high volume of traffic, the city could look at lowering the signal light cycle times. The target is 90 seconds, he said.
Andrew Pierson, a traffic engineer for TMS Engineers Inc., in Stow, Ohio, regularly works with municipalities to improve traffic flow.
“A 90-second light is more conventional,” he said. “Especially for an intersection that isn’t hugely urban. The benefit to a lower cycle is your turn is coming up quicker. (80 seconds or more is) a long time for most motorists to sit there waiting for a green light.”
Drivers aren’t the only ones suffering.
Andrea Smith-Mims, front-of-the-house manager for Billman’s Steakhouse and Catering on the east leg of the intersection in Ammon, said it certainly hinders customers from entering and exiting the parking lot.
“We always have customers talking about getting in and out,” she said. “Especially when we’re packed here, it’s really hard. It affects our catering (also) because they can’t park. I come to work sometimes around 5 o’clock and can’t turn in, it’s kind of crazy.”
Many drivers try to avoid the light.
Idaho Falls City Council President Mike Lehto likened waiting at the signal akin to “cattle herded through the cattle chute.”
“That’s a frustrating intersection to me at best,” he said. “The only time I go through it is if I made a mistake.”
Tale of two cities
Despite all the complaints about the long wait, a solution seems far off.
Before any changes can be made, several power poles need to be relocated, which Lehto said could cost $500,000 a piece to move. That work would have to be in collaboration with Rocky Mountain Power, which uses the poles for its transmission lines. In addition, Idaho Falls hasn’t budgeted for the project until 2017.
Since the intersection divides Ammon and Idaho Falls, the two cities also must work together on the project and share costs. The first part of that is drafting a new memorandum of understanding, which is underway, but has no timetable.
Lehto has seen such talks before. They didn’t end well.
“(Idaho Falls) was ready to do that in 2011,” Lehto said. “We had the plans and the money, but we couldn’t resolve the right-of-way on the Ammon side. They said they weren’t too enamored with (our) design. Their folks think they have a better way to do that.”
Ammon Mayor Dana Kirkham, who was City Council president at the time, said the only issue Ammon had with the design was a median strip on Hitt Road going south.
Once the cities decided to separate the strip from the construction project, Kirkham said it was Idaho Falls that said because of its North Loop project, there no longer was money in the budget for the intersection changes.
“As far as design, we have never been at odds with Idaho Falls on that,” Kirkham said. “We are ready to go, and we have the money.”
Green light to stop red
Subcommittees have been formed to tackle shared issues, including Hitt Road and 17th Street. But as far as cooperation between the two sides, Ammon City Engineer Lance Bates was not sure the recent talks will result in action.
“I don’t think there is a way to nail it down and say, ‘We will have this much input,’” Bates said. “I have been in discussions with several different things, but since none of those items are put down in stone …”
Fugal is happy to leave the politics to city leaders.
“This is an issue that really needs to be a cooperative venture,” he said. “The details of how that’s all going to happen, and which city pays for what, those are all issues being worked on at the political level. At my level, we are just trying to make sure we have the most sound design and that we are ready to implement that when we are given the green light.”