Marsha Marshall walked across the Uranium Avenue and Main Street intersection in 2013, after the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) installed yellow flashing lights at the crossing. UDOT and city officials are now working to make the crossing more friendly to pedestrians. [Moab Sun News file photo]

If drivers on Main Street can’t make any sense of those flashing yellow lights at two key pedestrian crossings, perhaps they’ll know what to do when someone waves a bright orange or red flag at them.

The Moab City Council voted unanimously this week to approve an agreement with state transportation officials that allows the city to set up “Stop for Pedestrian” signs and hand-held traffic flags at the intersections of 200 South and Uranium Avenue.

The move is intended to be a short-term fix to conflicts between pedestrians and drivers at the two crossings, as the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) and its contractors study the feasibility of additional traffic controls on Main Street.

Moab City Engineer Phillip Bowman estimated that the city could pay up to $1,000 for the flags and installation costs, plus another $500 to replace any stolen or missing flags – although he hopes the actual bills will come in lower. To help the city save some money, Moab City Council member Rani Derasary volunteered to make her own flags – perhaps by recruiting local schoolchildren who recently urged the city to address traffic issues at the 200 South intersection.

City officials have heard similar requests many times before, but ultimately, they have no authority to act on them: Main Street is a state right-of-way that UDOT controls.

UDOT installed flashing yellow beacons two years ago at the 200 South and Uranium Avenue crossings with the hope that pedestrians there would have an easier time getting from one side of the road to the other.

Theoretically, drivers are supposed to yield to pedestrians at the crossings when the lights are flashing. But sometimes, motorists will breeze through the intersection as pedestrians are waiting to cross, or are already midway across the road. In other cases, cars will come to a complete stop when the lights flash, while pedestrians will freeze in place near the curbs, unsure of when they’re supposed to cross.

In the past, UDOT traffic studies have found that a stoplight is not warranted at the intersection of 200 South and Main Street. But UDOT Region 4 Traffic Operations Engineer Robert Dowell said he’s hopeful that an upcoming study during the first week of April could clear the way for a new signal.

“We are optimistic that we can reach those numbers to warrant that change there,” Dowell told the Moab City Council on Tuesday, March 8.

Pedestrians who are hoping for a new light at the Uranium Avenue crossing are in for a considerably longer wait.

While pedestrian counts at the intersection near City Market are growing, UDOT doesn’t expect to see the same volumes of people crossing the road that much farther away from the city’s center.

However, at some point in the next five to 10 years, UDOT may replace the flashing yellow light there with a “HAWK” beacon, a five-phase signal that turns from flashing yellow to solid yellow to solid red.

Moab City Manager Rebecca Davidson called the beacon an interim solution that would make it safer for everyone to cross the street.

“The beauty of this red is no one’s confused about what red means,” Davidson said. “Everybody understands that red means stop.”

Lynn Jacobs, an associate with UDOT contractor Fehr & Peers, acknowledged that visitors from Europe and elsewhere around the world might not be familiar with the beacons, which were only developed in the early 2000s.

“That, I think, is one of the big challenges with making this work well in Moab,” he said.

Most people seem to understand that yellow means caution and red means stop, Jacobs said. But when the lights are flashing, some people don’t know what they’re supposed to do.

“Generally, what happens is people that don’t know what to do just sit there,” he said.

Moab City Council member Heila Ershadi questioned whether the potential for any confusion would cancel out the benefit of drivers who heed the signal.

But Davidson said that until traffic engineers determine a new signal is warranted, the HAWK beacon would be preferable to the existing yellow lights.

“It causes more problems than it solves by doing that (new signal) too early, so what we don’t want to do is leave a yellow flashing light sitting out there for years until the warrants are met,” she said.

In addition to the HAWK beacon, UDOT’s medium-term scenario calls for a new traffic light at the intersection of Main Street and 400 North. Over the longer 20-plus-year term, the department could also install new traffic lights at 200 North and MiVida Drive.

In between now and then, Jacobs told city council members that they can expect to see more and more cars on Main Street, as tourism in the area surges. Visitation to Arches National Park surpassed more than 1.4 million visitors last year, he said, and that number continues to rise dramatically.

“I think you guys have all experienced the growth that’s going with that,” he said.

According to traffic surveyors’ most recent counts, traffic on Main Street averages 12,000 to 16,000 trips per day. Heavy trucks alone account for somewhere between one-fifth and one-quarter of all vehicles on Main Street, while pedestrian traffic levels are as high as Jacobs would expect to see in downtown Salt Lake City on a busy afternoon.

Dowell said that UDOT could get pedestrians from one side of the road to the other by upgrading the Mill Creek underpass, or by considering other options that don’t interrupt the flow of cars on Main Street. However, he said his department will make concessions that weigh growing traffic volumes with pedestrians’ needs, recognizing that the flow of cars on Main Street will be affected.

“We are willing to take something away from that traffic flow to allow for a better (pedestrian) flow, and hopefully, not ruin one or the other, but to allow for a better balance,” he said.

City, UDOT hope agreement offers short-term solution for easier pedestrian crossings

It causes more problems than it solves by doing that (new signal) too early, so what we don’t want to do is leave a yellow flashing light sitting out there for years until the warrants are met.